September 1, 2011 — The conversation about postsecondary teaching and learning has taken on a new intensity at the University of Virginia this year, and Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas is taking the lead to ensure scientific evidence is available to support those discussions.
Inkelas directs the U.Va. Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, or CASTL-HE. The center, housed in the Curry School of Education, was established in 2009 based on a 2008 recommendation by the Board of Visitors' Commission on the Future of the University.
"Higher education – the very same enterprise that sees fit to study every other aspect of inquiry – lags behind in understanding the college teaching and pedagogical practices that lead to improved student learning," Inkelas said. The mission of CASTL-HE, she said, is to partner with academic programs Universitywide to engage in the evidence-based study of postsecondary teaching and learning.
Inkelas has had a longstanding interest in how college environments affect students. Her prior research focused on the impact of living-learning programs – residence hall-based academic programs that strive to integrate students' academic and social spheres in order to optimize learning – on undergraduate student outcomes.
She began her career at the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, where she first became interested in teaching and learning theories. While working on her Ph.D at the University of Michigan, she became more interested in student outcomes and then explored places outside the classroom where learning takes place.
"Now I'm back where I started," Inkelas said. "I still truly believe that the primary enterprise of postsecondary education is teaching and learning. It's the one thing that ties all institutions together."
Not long after Inkelas settled into her office last January, the center accepted its first Universitywide role at the behest of U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan. Inkelas worked with Curry School of Education Dean Robert Pianta and the Inaugural Academic Planning Committee to coordinate the 50 faculty presentations and round-table discussions that formed the backbone of the academic symposium on "Using Evidence to Improve Teaching and Learning in Higher Education," convened in conjunction with Sullivan's inauguration in April.
"Understanding student learning, and applying our knowledge of learning to improve teaching, is our shared responsibility as educators," Sullivan said in her remarks at the symposium. "We want to understand how learning happens, how curricula and instruction can foster learning, and how different environments support learning."
Inkelas and her staff took advantage of the opportunity to collect survey data from faculty about their own innovative teaching practices and their views regarding what constitutes credible evidence related to teaching practices. The event helped raise awareness of the center around Grounds and it is quickly becoming the "go-to" contact for faculty interested in assessing their teaching innovations on a larger scale, Inkelas said. "We have begun collaborations with faculty in six academic units across Grounds and have already written two grant proposals to fund our research."
Inkelas is especially interested in understanding how innovative instructional ideas are having an impact on student learning.
"A number of professors and instructors have innovative ideas about how to teach their subjects," Inkelas said. "But how do they know if their ideas were actually effective?"
Few college professors have ever had to assess their teaching, she added, and that's where the center can help.
Andrew Kaufman's class is a case in point. Kaufman, a lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, teaches a course in which his students discuss Russian literature once a week with selected residents of Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. Kaufman said the discussions help students see "in a very personal way how classical literature from the 19th century is relevant to their lives and to the lives of other people." At least that is the anecdotal evidence he has from student feedback.
To obtain a more objective assessment, he is turning to Inkelas, who is helping bring together a team of researchers.
"They are helping us to understand which elements of this class are contributing to deep learning and positive development among the U.Va. students and incarcerated youth," Kaufman said. "Through this research, CASTL-HE is providing the insight we need to grow the program responsibly, while at the same time helping us to make an evidence-based case for the benefits of a humanities education."
Mere days after Inkelas arrived on Grounds, U.Va. sociology professor Josipa Roksa rocked the higher education community with the publication of research showing that undergraduate college education left some students "academically adrift." Roksa, who has a courtesy appointment with the Curry School, connected quickly with Inkelas over their shared interests. Now the two are planning a multi-year, mixed-methods research project into the instructional styles of faculty across Grounds who are believed to be good teachers, Inkelas said. Eventually, they hope also to look at how well the students of these professors are learning.
Although Inkelas will be heavily involved in this particular research study, she said her primary role is to champion the scientific study of an oft-neglected issue on college campuses and to work collaboratively with U.Va. faculty and beyond to improve the quality of undergraduate and graduate education.
"Our goal is to distinguish the University of Virginia as a leader in postsecondary teaching and learning research for years to come," Inkelas said.