February 24th, 2009

Award Reveals Wealth of Teaching and Learning Literature, But How to Make Sense of it All?


You may recall that McGraw-Hill and Magna (the folks who bring you this blog and The Teaching Professor newsletter) are sponsoring a scholarly work on teaching and learning award. The first award will be given at The Teaching Professor Conference June 5-9 in Washington, D.C.

Much to our amazement we had 224 articles and book chapters submitted! I have now reviewed that entire collection. An award committee will decide the winner and that process is still underway, but I wanted to write just a bit about that body of work.

Work on teaching and learning is literally published everywhere. Through Penn State I have access to all the libraries belonging to the Big Ten universities. Even so, there were journals I could not find or access. I was also operating under the illusion that I knew, or had at least heard of, most of the pedagogical periodicals. Not so, I discovered several new ones in this collection.

However, not all the news about the pedagogical literature is good. Oh, getting that kind of response to the award is great news, but imagine trying to assemble, organize, and integrate this practitioner knowledge base for teaching and learning. Impossible! The idea of a comprehensive literature review is beyond the realm of possibility. There is no way to track down everything that has been written on any topic, whether it’s minute papers or grading group work.

That we don’t have an integrated, coherent knowledge base for teaching and learning is a problem. Not having one makes it difficult to establish best practices in any sort of definitive way. Without standards, faculty can use questionable teaching methods without impunity. Not having a coherent knowledge base means that every new college teacher more or less starts from square one. We can’t put them on a solid knowledge foundation and say start to build your practice on this basis. Oh, new faculty members get offered lots of advice from seasoned colleagues and in the literature, but nothing governs the quality of advice offered, which means that they get some that isn’t very good. I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to teach in the same way or that any aspect of teaching can be nailed down in a completely definitive way. But the absence of guidelines and standards diminishes the profession.

The diversity of this practitioner pedagogical literature is a great strength, but its dispersion presents challenges we haven’t even begun to address.

—Maryellen Weimer