They Said/We Said: the 2010 Visiting Committee Report and DUE Response - Part 1

Elizabeth Reed, Senior Associate Dean, DUE

In the March 2010 DUE Newsletter, Daniel Hastings reported on the visit of the DUE Visiting Committee. Since then we have received their written report and the Dean responded in a detailed letter.

The Committee’s report included many interesting observations, identified some issues of concern and presented a set of recommendations. In this first installment of a two-part article, I will share a subset of their views and the corresponding DUE responses using the topical headings from their report. The next DUE Newsletter includes part 2 of the summary of the Visiting Committee Report and DUE's response.

Educational Excellence

Visiting Committee perspective: The Committee commended DUE for developing the Who’s Teaching What system; paying more attention to English-language competency of international TAs, TA training and systematic evaluation of teaching effectiveness; using D’Arbeloff Funds to support exciting teaching innovations and modernizing teaching spaces such as 10-250—gains made possible largely through the work of TLL, the Registrar’s Office, OFS and others in DUE. Despite this progress, Committee members reiterated long-standing concerns about TA training, the need for forceful actions to ensure that only those with English-language competency serve as TAs, and the need to address the gap in predictable funding for educational innovation and classroom renovation. They recommended that:

  • The president, provost and deans should convey a clear message to all departments that an outstanding undergraduate education at MIT requires adequate training of all new TAs, appropriate follow-up with TAs (and faculty) who experience difficulty in their teaching, and adequate English competence by the instructional staff.
  • DUE should gather and disseminate “best practices” among MIT departments in preparing TAs and should consider practices at other institutions as well.
  • The provost should provide a regular stream of funding for educational innovation and classroom renovation.
  • All departmental visiting committees should be asked to explore with every department whether their TAs are adequately trained and whether teaching assignments are made only to TAs with adequate English-language competency.

DUE response: While we have made considerable progress on TA training (English-language competency of international teaching assistant, preparatory training of new TAs and evaluation of teaching effectiveness), we shall continue efforts to influence Schools and departments to strengthen their TA training. This Fall, at the request of the Provost, the Deans for Undergraduate and Graduate Education will go before the Dean’s Group to reiterate the importance of adequate TA training and English competence.

Recent findings on the effects of TA training show progress in several areas related to Visiting Committee concerns: In Chemistry (5.111) Boot Camp, first-time TAs made statistically significant gains in confidence and reflection by the end of boot camp, which they retained at the end of semester. They also became more confident in explaining material, motivating students and helping them with difficult topics. Additionally, subject evaluations revealed that teaching ratings were statistically significantly higher in departments where TA training was available than those where it was not. The data show a small slip in the percent of TAs getting training, from 80% in Fall 2009 to 74% in Fall 2010. One explanation is that the percentage is very sensitive to loss or gain of a few people since the numbers are small.

We continue to monitor the English language ability of graduate students whose first language is not English. According to Fall 2010 data, ~50% of the international, non-English speaking graduate students received a score below what policy deems acceptable ( ie, the “Minimum Teaching Standard”) compared to ~30% in Fall 2009. One factor affecting this drop may be the demographics of the groups surveyed, which change each year. We know that since 2007, only 11 students who received below the “Teaching Minimum” had TA appointments in the fall (as either classroom appointments or graders) -- an average of less than three a year.
Students’ increasingly high interest in the Graduate Student Teaching Certificate program has been heartening, especially the positive effects which participants report.

DUE has a stake in several long-standing Institute budget issues including replacing the waning D’Arbeloff Funds for educational innovation and supporting progress on classroom renovation. As in the past, we will flag some of these pressing needs in the FY12 budget cycle. We also hope to piece together other funding for educational innovation.

Educational Opportunities for the Future

Visiting Committee perspective: Members are familiar with online learning initiatives at other schools, including those at several of MIT’s peers. For example, they cited the fact that Stanford offers a master’s degree in engineering with online resources and others have well-developed systems of course enhancement tools for use on campus. They noted that OCW has been very well received and that MIT is wrestling with how to make it financially self-supporting. The Committee expressed a sense of urgency for MIT to develop a strategy for online learning that will focus on campus resources which may cost money, as well as on distance learning that may generate money.

DUE response: MIT leadership shares the Visiting Committee’s sense of urgency about the need for an institutional strategy for online learning. Provost Reif recently announced two new initiatives to move this effort forward and to develop the institutional strategy:

  • an MIT-Online Study Group, led by Professor Dick Yue will explore the feasibility of extending MIT’s educational leadership, excellence and impact at home and abroad, through possible uses of online tools, and by potentially offering different levels of certification using MIT content;
  • The Council on Educational Technology (MITCET) which provides strategic guidance to MIT’s educational technology initiatives and is co-led by Dean Hastings and Professor Hal Abelson, will consider how to integrate online and other technology-enabled tools into the residential campus and classroom experience, with the objective of enhancing our students’ learning experience

Understanding and responding to the possibilities, implications and challenges of e-learning is also a focus in DUE. We are working on a plan for how DUE can and should contribute to MIT’s e-learning strategy. Additionally, OEIT is working on behalf of MITCET to study the opportunities and issues. We expect the development of a strategy (which we are calling the “Beyond OCW” strategy) during this academic year.

Building Student Self-Confidence

Visiting Committee perspective: Based on what they heard from students about their experiences as MIT undergraduates, Committee members had the same concern this year as when they visited in 2008: that the MIT undergraduate experience often diminishes self-confidence. (They acknowledged that this is also an issue at their schools.) At the same time, they were impressed by the apparent positive impact on students’ self-confidence as a result of participating in D-Lab, MISTI, the Cambridge-MIT Exchange, internships and other broadening activities outside of the classroom. They stated that:

  • It could be beneficial for MIT to develop and launch an all-Institute communications strategy to address student self-confidence by continuously reinforcing the message that all of our students are amazingly talented and we have extremely high aspirations for them. To be effective, the Visiting Committee believes that these messages need to come from all across the Institute from the president’s office to the deans to the housemasters to the alumni/ae.

DUE response: While the confidence problem is not new at MIT and may be endemic to research university culture, we are trying some new and different approaches. For example, we are developing new partnerships to address the issue with faculty, the Division of Student Life (DSL) and others; we have set a specific, defined goal in the form of an aspirational statement of what we mean by “a supportive environment for students”; we are seeking better data with which to target our efforts; we have embarked on some “experiments” around the edges of the dominant culture; and we are drawing from external reference points for what has helped build student self confidence at places like MIT.

As is so often the case in addressing student life and learning issues, faculty involvement is critical. To engage faculty in two areas of concern raised by the Visiting Committee— supporting the development of students’ self-confidence and creating a supportive environment for underrepresented students-- we invited members of OME’s Faculty Advisory Committee to discuss these issues at a recent DUE leadership team retreat. Six faculty joined the group in reviewing data on and brainstorming about student self confidence and factors that may affect academic success, with special attention to the URM experience. When the Visiting Committee returns in 2012, we will report on implementation of some of the ideas that evolved from that discussion.

Faculty members’ participation at the retreat laid the foundation for more of a joint DUE/faculty effort on the issues we discussed. As the Visiting Committee stated, messages that support the development of students’ self confidence need to come from across the Institute. Faculty are one vital source of those messages. The more they understand the issues and opportunities, the better equipped and more likely they will be to emphasize the importance of building self confidence in students. DSL is another key partner in this effort and we are also reaching out to them to identify collaborative opportunities in the residences and other areas of student life. Finally, we are considering how to expand publicly visible opportunities to recognize the range of student talents and attributes near the end of freshman year. That is one of the times when students’ sense of self is most vulnerable and, we believe, most likely to benefit from recognition by their peers, faculty and others in the MIT community.

After agreeing that we needed to set a specific goal for supporting MIT students’ self confidence, we developed the following statement on what constitutes a supportive environment for our students:

We provide guidance and support that empowers all of our students to achieve their full intellectual potential and develop a well-grounded, confident sense of themselves and their ability to make important contributions to life and learning at MIT and beyond. We encourage them to explore the range and depth of intellectual inquiry and the power of practical applications of their knowledge, with a particular emphasis on problem-solving, creativity, and innovation.

We will hold ourselves accountable for identifying and addressing gaps between this aspirational statement and the current environment, trying out ways to move closer to creating such an environment.