April 19th, 2013

Exploring the Impact of Institutional Policies on Teaching


Here are three questions of interest to those of us concerned with institutional support of teaching:

  1. Is the strength of an institution’s “culture of teaching” or policy support for teaching and learning reflected in faculty members’ pedagogical practices?
  2. Are “cultures of teaching” more prevalent at institutions with “learner centered” policies?
  3. Do the relationships between institutional policies, faculty cultures, and teaching practices differ across institutional types?

Those questions were addressed in a recent study. Definitions of key terms help in understanding the findings. A “teaching culture” involves a “shared commitment to teaching excellence and meaningful assessment of teaching.” (p. 809) The larger goal of this inquiry was to determine whether institutional policies can be used to create cultures for teaching on a campus and then whether those cultures might encourage faculty to use effective pedagogical practices. To that end, they considered 18 different policies supportive of teaching and learning experiences for first-year students. For example, are senior faculty (associate and full professors) required to teach first-year seminars? Do senior faculty teach other first-year courses? Beyond student ratings, does the institution assess the effectiveness of first-year courses? Are learning community opportunities offered to first-year students?

As for effective pedagogical practices, researchers considered two in the study: whether teachers provided first-year students with opportunities to learn about people with different background characteristics or different attitudes and values, and the extent of informal interaction faculty had with students outside of class. Study results are based on data collected from 5,612 faculty members (at all ranks) at 45 different institutions.

The researchers conclude the following about findings related to the first question: “Scant evidence suggests that institutional policies in support of teaching and learning are directly related to faculty members’ teaching practices.” (p. 819) Were “cultures for teaching” more prevalent at institutions with learning-centered polices? “There appears no clear pattern indicating a relationship between institutional policy and faculty perceptions.” (p. 819) Rather familiar institutional characteristics, such as the Carnegie classification of institutional type and institutional size, explained more than 80 percent of the variance in institutional cultures of teaching and learning. As for whether relationships between policies, cultures, and teaching practices differed across institutional types, the answer was yes, particularly between doctoral-granting universities and other types of institutions in the sample.

Here’s the overall conclusion: “Perhaps the most salient and consistent finding from this analysis is that institutional-level policies have no more than a trivial relationship, either directly or indirectly through their influence on faculty culture, with the teaching practices employed by an institution’s faculty. Instead, traditional institutional descriptors, including size, selectivity, and control—but especially Carnegie classification, are consistent predictors of both faculty practices and culture.” (p. 822)

It is important to note that this research looked at a sample of policies supportive of teaching and learning, and it considered two (out of many) characteristics of effective teaching. Even so, the results give some indication of how difficult it is to change institutional cultures. Policy changes supportive of teaching and learning face the strong headwinds of tradition and faculty autonomy.

Reference: Cox, B. E., McIntosh, K. L., Reason, R. D., and Terenzini, P. T. (2011). A culture of teaching: Policy, perception, and practice in higher education. Research in Higher Education, 52 (8), 808-829.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.3(2012): 2.