Q&A with ‘Great College Teaching’ author Corbin M. Campbell

When Corbin M. Campbell began researching teaching quality in higher education 15 years ago, she didn’t have much hope for change: “It seemed like I was pushing on a massive boulder that could not be moved.”

Not so today, she says. “We are in a time during COVID where faculty needed to shift things, where the rankings are being questioned like they’ve never been questioned before, where we have so many organizations funneling funds into teaching improvement – there’s just so much energy around this topic. It makes me wonder, if everybody who’s interested in having great college teaching be seen, rewarded, and uplifted came forward, what could we do? This is a really exciting time to join that movement and see some major shifts in higher ed.”

Photo of Corbin M. Campbell

Campbell, who is acting co-dean and professor at the American University School of Education, is the principal investigator of the College Educational Quality study – the first broad scale, cross-disciplinary, multi-institution observational research on college teaching. She and her team examined more than 700 courses at a variety of campuses during week-long site visits. Her 2023 book, “Great College Teaching: Where It Happens and How to Foster It Everywhere,” describes how the study’s findings can be leveraged to improve student learning experiences. She will give the keynote address at this year’s UW–Madison Teaching and Learning Symposium on May 16 at Union South.

Campbell spoke recently about her work with the Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring. This interview has been edited.

Q – Let’s start with a basic question – why does the quality of college teaching matter?

There’s this whole field that looks at all of the different aspects of higher education experience and how that affects students. What I think is fascinating is that college teaching emerges as one of the most important factors in such a variety of student outcomes. Yes, the most named outcomes like persistence, retention, graduation, but also the individual benefits of higher education like job acquisition and how high the salary will be. And also the societal benefits in terms of students being stronger leaders, having more civic engagement, holding diversity competence. And a few really important ones that sometimes we forget about: moral reasoning, written and quantitative skills. These great college teaching practices that I discuss in the book have been associated with a whole host of positive student outcomes.

Q – How did you define the essential qualities or ingredients of great college teaching across such a range of institutions?

The teaching practices that I included in the study were the ones that through my own literature review were extremely prominent in terms of being associated with improved student learning.

We looked at the level of cognitive complexity in the course. So for example, whether the course was focused on students remembering facts, which is important, but it’s also about what you do with those facts. Can you analyze them? Can you map them – how does this concept relate to this concept? Are you able to think about the pros and cons of these facts and the different perspectives that might come on these facts? Are you able to even hypothesize what might be new information that you want to know based on the learned material? Those kinds of skills are what we would call higher order thinking skills and more cognitively complex. And we know that cognitive complexity does allow for more application of the learned material and for more retention of the learned material.

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We also looked at what is termed pedagogical content knowledge. We find that a great college teacher knows the subject matter and also knows how to teach that subject matter. So they’ll know the core ideas of the discipline and they’ll be able to help the students learn those core ideas in ways that connect to the field, in ways that are sequenced appropriately for the learning process.

We also looked at the professor’s ability to have students’ prior knowledge surfaced in the classroom and to connect that prior knowledge to the new learned ideas. When I say prior knowledge, I don’t mean just what did they learn in the last class session but do we know the student’s lived experiences? Do we know their culture? Do we know their community? And what is it like for that student to be learning that particular subject matter?

In addition to that, we looked at whether the faculty member was able to support students’ learning both cognitively and emotionally. So often I feel that faculty forget that emotional element. I’ll give an example based on my own practice as a college teacher. I teach statistics for folks in the field of education. Unfortunately, so many of the students that I teach come into my class with a fear of research and a fear of math. If I do not deal with the fear that comes into my space first and help my students to feel like they can see themselves as a researcher, as a statistician, then they will never be able to really learn the subject matter. That emotional connection to the subject matter is really important.

We looked at whether the faculty member did a good job in supporting a positive classroom climate, because we know that if students feel that they are discriminated against or they don’t feel a sense of belonging in the class, even some of the best practices, like active learning, for example, could go awry. We could put students into groups but they might be excluded and that would actually reinforce problematic stereotypes and cause problems in learning.

The last thing we looked at is the one that most folks know, which is active learning. And active learning does matter. But we think about it not just as whether we’re getting students active, but also the depth of that active learning. Are students both being active with the material and also interactive with other students? Are they reflecting on that activity in a way that connects them to the subject matter and connects them to their peers and their learning process more deeply?

Q – Let me ask about class size. These deeper learning practices – the feeling often is that those are hard, if not impossible, to do in a large class. What did you find?

So it is true that when I look across all the courses in all the institutions in the study, larger classes were less likely to enact some of these student-centered practices. However, there is at least 10 percent of the largest classes in the sample that were able to enact these practices. And there are some really good examples that I can share of how faculty were able to do that.

There are so many great examples of practices – everything from ones that I think are more widely known, like Pair and Share, to creating a culture of engagement where students expect that every class session, there’s going to be interactive elements. What I found was that the courses that were really using these practices often had a lecture or a mini-lecture, or maybe even multiple mini-lectures, interspersed with other kinds of active learning approaches.

Q – You point out in your book that there are many institutional factors that work against great teaching, including greater financial and career rewards tied to research. Institutionally, what needs to change?

It requires a full ecosystem of change – there are departmental norms that are a part of this, there are disciplinary norms that are a part of this, there are leadership processes, and there are governance processes. There are so many pieces of this ecosystem that need to shift to support faculty in doing this work.

There are some aspects of being at a flagship university that make it such that multiple faculty goals can be worked on together. And STEM is a great example of this, because what I found in my study is that in general, the STEM courses did not fare as well compared to the non-STEM courses in terms of these great teaching practices. However, not so at the flagship university in my sample – the active learning was actually better in the STEM areas than the non-STEM areas.

I have not tested this yet, but I wonder whether the fact that flagship universities have a stronger grant infrastructure and we now have more granting agencies and philanthropic efforts supporting STEM teaching improvement – faculty may not only be getting grants for their research, they may be getting grants for their teaching improvement as well. And so we might see that those faculty are able to fulfill something that we know is heavily counted in the tenure pipeline, which is the granting process, and it’s also helping them to improve their teaching.

Q – What are you hoping that folks will take away from your talk?

I’m really hoping that our teaching community will take away how much their teaching matters. Also, that they are a part of a broader ecosystem that needs to support teaching improvement. It will really take department chairs and the Provost‘s Office and the Faculty Senate and tenure review committees and hiring committees, and the faculty all working together to create the improvement that’s needed.

One other thing that I will say is that before I embarked on this endeavor, I knew only a tiny piece of the world of possibilities that is college teaching. I’m hoping that folks will be able to see a broader view of what’s possible and leave with some curiosity – wanting to sit in on other people’s classrooms for their own learning, out of admiration for what the teacher is doing in that space. I want them to talk about teaching in the hallways. These are the kinds of things that I hope folks will feel really invigorated about.