Is Teaching a Team Sport?

Jason Fertig

I recently argued in favor of using the F grade to maintain standards in the classroom.  But individual professors cannot fight the grade inflation battle on their own.

I have long advocated the idea that the current state of college courses is akin to a buffet where students randomly eat enough credits until they are “full.”  Students really need a planned meal prepared by expert chefs (note the plural); each course should enhance or build upon the one before it.  Intellectual growth does not occur when students have semesters of “peanut butter and tuna on pumpernickel” or class sequences of “eating dessert first.”  Even the brightest students don’t see the big picture of how their courses link together without help from specialists.  I certainly didn’t when I was an undergraduate.

William F. Buckley argued against such laissez-faire education over half of a century ago in God and Man at Yale.  More recently in the Washington Post, Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University put forth this idea of better coordination as one of her suggestions for fixing higher education:

Here's what institutions can do:

Clearly state the specific learning outcomes for general education and major programs, and require the faculty to develop their course syllabi in ways that embed those outcomes in every course, so that student learning is progressive across the curriculum; for example, if an outcome of general education is that every student will be able to write proficiently for professional life, then every course must have writing objectives appropriate to the nature of the material and the level of the course. (This may seem obvious, but it's actually hard to get faculty agreement on embedding general education objectives in courses in specific disciplines.) Develop a methodology for reporting aggregate outcomes against these learning objectives.

If Ms. McGuire’s suggestion is implemented, I know I could be a more effective teacher - and I’ve talked to many other professors who feel the same way.

There are many times when I feel powerless to influence students beyond my own classes because I know that what I ask of them may not be what they hear in other classes.  When that happens, the proficiency needed to pass each successive class ultimately becomes confounded.  Furthermore, the mixed messages across the curriculum confuse students’ perceptions of what is most important in their education. 

For an example of this quandary in action, consider a recent comment on the article that I wrote on team projects. The commenter disagreed with my stance that teamwork cannot be taught effectively in the classroom and recommended software for properly managing team projects.  Unfortunately, regardless of how worthwhile that software may be, the overall effect on students’ teamwork ability is negligible unless the program (or the theory behind it) is utilized in every course that assigns a team project.  Having only one class with proper direction on teamwork is akin to requiring only Spanish 101 and then expecting students to be fluent.  It has taken me years of practicing golf to feel moderately confident over a five-foot putt on flat ground.  In the same way, one course cannot adequately prepare students of all different abilities to effectively manage something as complex as human behavior.

This logic holds for developing writing skills.  Writing skills develop through reading and writing over a period of time.  Even if I hold strict writing standards in my one course, the effect is minimal if those standards are not demanded in subsequent classes as well.

An outsider would look at this scenario and say that the highly siloed approach to education is turning out inferior products.  Yes, I said products.  If students see themselves as customers, then I see them as my products - and I want to produce the best products possible.  But that is not possible if everyone involved has a different goal for the final good.

Making the case for greater coordination is easy. But, implementing change is much more difficult, if not impossible with the current system. I presently have to explain to my classes where a comma goes in a sentence.  Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is covered numerous times throughout business majors’ classes, yet when I get students as seniors, many do not recall studying his work. I like to pick such theories apart with students, but I cannot if I have to reteach it from scratch. 

Thus, I would love to have each major see itself as a team with thematic educational goals.  The professors who teach introductory classes would know exactly how each lesson will build into the final course in the major – this ideally includes the professors who teach general education courses to freshman.  In turn, the professors who teach that final course could expect that students who enroll have been sufficiently evaluated on foundational skills required in their lower courses.  And yes, major courses should be more rigidly sequenced to better help students connect the dots.

I admit that arguing for such coordination is utopian.  When pitching this idea informally, I have been shot down before with critiques like “we cannot ask our adjuncts who teach for pennies to put that much work into their courses” or “that would go against academic freedom.”  The irony of such critiques is that they make business schools guilty of not practicing the effective planning and organizing that they preach.

Pragmatically speaking, revolutionary change is not likely to happen because higher education is not structured to reward or coerce the coordination that I advocate.  But that does not mean that improvements cannot occur.  I once taught a management principles class that was coordinated among several faculty members with different expertise.  This real diversity helped create a class that pulled together management history, modern theories, and cases for students in an organized fashion.  Each semester the faculty also met to monitor the progress of that course and to change anything that needed fixing (including assessments).  In addition, at my current school, my colleagues are developing a three-course sequence in the entrepreneurial mindset that begins with a defined weed-out course and follows that course up with well-planned courses in idea generation and implementation.

In the end, I am less interested in using these last two essays to prescribe specific solutions to grade inflation and poor learning than I am with asking tough pedagogical questions louder than they are currently being asked.  I want more programs out there to take a joint step back and ask: “what do we want to teach our students?” and “how can we ensure that we are effectively doing it?” 

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