In Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007), Derek Bok, former president of Harvard and namesake of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, argues that the current learning crisis is at least in part an identity crisis. We need to think long and hard about the purposes of college, he argues.
While many people focus primarily on one or two aims for a college education, such as “critical thinking” or job preparation, Bok asks us to envision the aims of higher learning broadly and deeply. Specifically, he recommends that colleges purpose to help students develop in eight areas: thinking, communicating, character, citizenship, living with diversity, living in a global society, broadening their interests, and preparing for a career. In the bulk of the book, Bok give a chapter-by-chapter “candid look” at what each of these areas mean and at how well colleges and universities are doing in them.
His conclusion? We fail where we should succeed. We merely do okay where we should thrive. But we can move forward through broad but sensible reforms—particularly including adopting better teaching methods.
While he draws on his own experience where appropriate, he primarily substantiates his claims through reference to published research. In particular, he makes recourse to several landmark studies that overview the available evidence on what and how students learn or do not, including Alexander Astin’s What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) and Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini’s How College Effects Students: A Third Decade of Research (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005). Bok argues that the evidence, contrary to what some pundits seem to think, does not point to an apocalypse. Rather, what these and other studies show is that while most students are learning “something,” the depth and amount of that something are not what they could or should be.
Bok puts a series of proposals on the table, which, together, show that students’ unimpressive learning must and can be dealt with in concrete and workable ways. The cumulative effect of his proposals is more important than any of the specific initiatives he recommends. For instance, in speaking of teaching students to write well, Bok echoes what compositionists have long been urging: that writing has to be adequately supported and funded throughout the university, not left to one or two first-year courses taught by adjuncts and graduate students. While this is not a new idea by any means, Bok productively adds to the discussion by reiterating this specific proposed reform (along with a number others) in the context of a larger, holistic vision for higher education.
Throughout the book, Bok remains nonpartisan to a fault, which, in certain points leads him, uncritically, to dismiss important politicized efforts to improve higher education, such as critical pedagogy (p. 64). However, the upside to this approach is that he sticks to “solutions” that are sensible and practical, aimed at broad, workable, doable reform. Though the specifics vary according to which of the eight of his proposed aims he is discussing, his strongest message for reform, throughout the book, is this: we need to decide what we want to accomplish, and we need work together in concrete and substantial ways to accomplish it.
Bok returns to questions of teaching multiple times. On one hand, he carefully points out that studies refute the common notion that professors don’t care about teaching. As it turns out, the stereotype is not true. Not only do most professors report that they care about teaching, they also, in fact, put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, by spending most of their time “on matters related to teaching” (p. 31-32).
On the other hand, however, Bok also carefully points out that just because teachers care about teaching, do a conscientious job at it, and receive good evaluations does not mean that students are learning. In fact, while most professors do precisely these things, most students do not learn as much and as deeply they should and could (p. 32).
How can this be? While most professors do not neglect teaching, most do neglect pedagogy. Most give far too little attention to “methods of teaching” (p. 48). On a practical level, most do not sufficiently experiment with how they teach (p. 32). More scandalously, most do not even read the research that exists on teaching (p. 50).
Why not? For a variety of reasons, including that training for students in graduate school and reward structures for faculty in universities both traditionally prioritize developing one’s research over (and to the exclusion of) developing one’s pedagogy.
As a result, the drive to continually improve student learning has not been the prevailing ethos in higher education. Sadly, Bok argues, most colleges do not “feel especially pressed to search continuously for new and better ways of educating their students” or “to offer the best education possible” (p. 34).
In one particularly pointed passage, Bok writes:
While pockets of innovation exist throughout American higher education, most professors teach as they traditionally have . . . Though trained in research themselves, they continue to ignore the accumulating body of experimental work suggesting that forms of teaching that engage students actively in the learning process do significantly better than conventional methods in achieving goals, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, that faculties everywhere hold dear. (p. 312)
It is this disconnect between the values we hold and the actuality we live that drives the problem of how little students learn. It is also, in Bok’s view, what will drive the solution. As more professors become aware of the gap between what they hope to accomplish and what they actually accomplish by teaching in traditional ways, more professors will change their methods in order to better help their students learn (p. 342).
While the discussion of pedagogy—the inattention thereto and the possibility thereof—stands out as particularly striking and important, Bok does not make it into a soapbox. In fact, one of the most important aspects of this book is that Bok continually considers the bigger picture: considers more than one goal, more than one obstacle, and more than one necessary reform.