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27 January 2009


Excerpt from Penn State Study:
Teaching Difference Makes a Difference

In fall 2006, Jacksonville State University, along with 34 colleges and universities nationwide, was selected to participate in the Parsing the First Year of College Project study conducted by the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University. This study supported by a grant from The Spencer Foundation is a three-year research and development project that maps the comprehensive influences affecting student learning and persistence among new students during their first year of college. The Study examined first-year student success as it was shaped by students' experiences, the peer environment, faculty members values and activities, and internal institutional structures, practices, and policies. The Study involved students, faculty members, and senior administrators on each campus.

Below is an excerpt from the Year 3 Progress Report submitted to the Spencer Foundation. A full copy of the report is available from the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, ext. 8144.

Summary and Conclusions

A substantial body of literature indicates that instructors' pedagogical practices have a direct and pronounced effect on student learning (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; 2005). This study identified individual and institutional characteristics that influence the extent to which faculty members use one effective pedagogical strategy - promoting student encounters with difference. Findings indicate that the vast majority of the variance in the extent to which faculty members engage in this strategy is accounted for by individual factors. Importantly, however, faculty demographic variables accounted for little of the variance in the outcome variable. Although gender and time at an institution remained statistically significant in the models, they accounted for less than three percent of the variance in the outcome variable with the combined sample. In fact, even when the analysis was run separately for each field/discipline, individual demographics never accounted for more than 4.9% of the individual-level variance in the outcome measure. Rather, across all fields, an individual's teaching practices were three to twenty times more powerful as predictors than were an individual's demographic characteristics. That is, regardless of one's field, gender, race, or experience, who a faculty member is matters less than what that individual does.

As one might expect, faculty members adopting others sound pedagogies are also likely to facilitate student encounters with difference. Findings indicate faculty members who engage in active teaching and assessment practices - relying less on lecturing and multiple choice tests in favor of requiring more frequent student presentations, in-class discussions, and multiple iterations of student papers - are also more likely to encourage encounters with difference. Similarly, faculty members who engage students in community service activities and provide frequent and detailed feedback also encourage encounters with difference.

That effective pedagogical practices are related to one another should come as no surprise; however, the nature of their association can be explained in at least two different ways. First, it might be that good teachers are "all-around" teachers, adopting multiple types of good pedagogical practice. Second, it may also be that these instructional approaches represent effective mechanisms through which instructors can encourage encounters with difference. For example, in-class discussions can offer a forum allowing expression of multiple viewpoints, and community service activities may put students in contact with people different from themselves and their peers. Regardless of which explanation one accepts, promoting encounters with difference need not be an independent, disconnected, or add-on component that constitutes "yet one more thing" that professors are supposed to do. Rather, institution-sponsored professional development programs can help professors leverage the good pedagogical tools they may already possess - like active teaching and assessment - to promote student encounters with difference in the classroom. Our findings offer some support for this suggestion.

Specifically, four institution-level measures had direct effects on whether faculty members promoted encounters with difference in their first-year courses. Faculty members at research-oriented universities were more likely, while faculty members at institutions located in a town were less likely, to promote encounters with difference. As with the individual demographic variables, however, these institutional identity measures accounted for little variance in the outcome. More importantly, two scales representing an institution's culture were significant; an institution's overall means on the Active Teaching and Assessment and the Institutional Emphasis on Teaching scales were positively related to whether instructors encouraged their first-year students to engage with difference.

These findings have practical implications for higher education administrators who wish to encourage their faculty members to adopt curricular and pedagogical practices likely to promote student learning. The research literature indicates that colleges and universities, through their organizational effects on faculty dispositions and behaviors, can purposefully shape (if only indirectly) student experiences and learning (see, for example, Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005). Our findings suggest a synergy may be at work. Faculty members who adopt other effective pedagogical practices also encourage their students to engage with difference. Moreover, by hiring faculty members who engage in active teaching pedagogies, institutions can increase the likelihood that faculty members will promote students' encounters with difference in two ways. First, hiring an effective teacher will make an immediate impact on students' classroom experiences because the newly hired teacher will likely encourage encounters with difference in the classroom. Second, such a hire will contribute to the faculty's general perception that the institution emphasizes teaching, which may have an indirect effect on faculty culture and teaching practices.

Although the emphasis an institution places on teaching is a significant predictor of faculty pedagogical behavior in our study, it is the Active Teaching and Assessment scale that is the most powerful and most consistent predictor of promoting encounters with difference. The scale has an individual-level main effect and an institution-level main effect, both of which are positive and larger than any of the other scales. In fact, in supplemental analysis in which our models were run separately for each field, Active Teaching and Assessment remained statistically significant as an individual-level effect for all field; an institution's mean score on the scale was statistically significant for three of the four fields (but not social sciences). Thus, whether through targeted individual interventions or campus-wide instructional development efforts,, institutions may experience considerable corollary benefits when they promote active teaching and assessment practices - regardless of an instructor's field of practice.

Recalling the conceptual framework that guided our study, we can conclude that the power of a predictor appears to be related to its proximity to the faculty member. The least powerful predictors of faculty behavior related to promoting encounters with difference were institutional characteristics, such as Carnegie Classification or institutional location. More important were variables considered part of the institutional culture -- an institutional emphasis on teaching -- and variables related to faculty culture -- the institution's mean for Active Teaching and Assessment. The most powerful predictors of faculty behavior were individual level measures of teaching practice. So, engaging in positive behaviors, in this case effective teaching practices, and being part of a culture that reinforces these behaviors, is much more important than the type of institution where one works. As noted earlier, it is what a faculty member and an institution do and support, rather than what an individual or institution is, that appears to influence faculty behavior.


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