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Time to help college professors be better teachers

If we want more students to succeed in college, we have to turn full attention to the craft of university-level teaching. What’s at stake is not only increasing graduation rates but providing a quality education for those who, a generation or two ago, might not have seen college as possible.

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Assistant Professor Maria Painchaud teaches Principles of Management to freshmen students at Southern New Hampshire University School of Business in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 16, 2010. Op-ed contributor Mike Rose writes: 'The majority of new college faculty wants to teach well – and many do. But they won’t find on most college campuses an institutional culture that fosters teaching.'

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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Right after I gave my opening lecture on Oedipus the King to the 30 employees of Los Angeles’s criminal justice system, I handed out a few pages of notes I would have taken if I were sitting in their seats listening to the likes of me.

They were taking my course, Introduction to Humanities, as part a special program leading to a college degree, and I knew from a survey I gave them that many hadn’t been in a classroom in a long time – and some didn’t get such great educations when they were. So we spent the last half hour of the class comparing my notes with the ones they had just taken, talking about the way I signaled that something was important, how they could separate out a big idea from specific facts, how to ask a question without looking like a dummy.

I taught that humanities course more than 30 years ago, but I was thinking about it as I read the new report from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority.”  The report is a call to leaders in higher education to increase graduation rates by scheduling courses and services to accommodate working adults, developing more on-line learning, easing the ability of students to transfer, and implementing a host of other sensible solutions to the many barriers that are contributing to America’s stagnating college graduation rates.

But if we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges have to turn full attention to teaching.

To their credit, the authors of the college completion report call for better professional development for college faculty; however, most reports of this type have little to say about teaching, focusing instead on structural and administrative reforms outside the classroom. It is a glaring omission.

Perhaps the authors of these reports believe that teaching is such an individual activity that not much can be done to affect it.

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