In fall 2013 I had the opportunity to stay at Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, thanks to STINT’s Excellence in Teaching program. In this report I present some of the things I learned there about higher education. OSU is a huge university that was founded in 1870. Here, students pay a tuition fee of $10,000 per year—more if they are not Ohio residents. OSU offers everything a student could wish for, including not only an extraordinary number of courses but also a wide array of interesting clubs, and centers. My experiences at OSU to some extent focused on the Department of Teaching and Learning but were not limited to that context. Below, I present reflections related to three aspects of campus life: the students, the teachers, and the education.
The student group at OSU consists of 90% Ohio residents, but this makeup does not contradict the image of an international campus in Columbus, where many students speak a mother tongue other than English and have educational backgrounds in countries outside the United States. There are many clubs in which students can engage with one another outside their classes, and these clubs focus on specific topics and activities. The university sponsors the clubs, and I conclude that they contribute to OSU’s rich student environment. The relationship between students and teachers is usually relaxed, and I noted that teachers often explicitly expressed their expectations to students.
A professor position at OSU (in the Department of Teaching and Learning) consists of three responsibilities: teaching, research, and service. Faculty members are expected to dedicate 40%, 40%, and 20% of their time, respectively, to these activities. Service includes administration, meetings, and various kinds of work, such as peer-review tasks and course planning. The actual distribution of time among the three responsibilities is likely closer to 40%, 30%, 30%.
A prerequisite for becoming an associate professor and obtaining tenure is a doctoral degree. The track to tenure starts with a nonpermanent six-year appointment. After that, the evaluation for tenure takes place; it considers the candidate’s achievements in research, pedagogic competence, and service. A teacher who is not accepted for tenure may remain at OSU for one additional year after the evaluation, but not more.
Students at OSU take several courses at the same time, up to five discrete courses and these run parallel throughout the semester. This system of parallel courses allows time for reflection on the course literature and course activities. Teachers can address small parts of a text in each class session, and the relatively long time frame makes it possible to connect new discussions to ideas that were discussed earlier in the course. While many students have options regarding the choice of courses, the courses for student teachers are set depending on their initial choice(s) of specialty (e.g. subject(s) and age of students). Different paths within the teacher training consequently do not exist.
A distinguishing feature of most courses that I experienced is the detailed style of planning and instruction. For example, the teacher provides homework for students that may consist of texts to read or a task to reflect on; students present their reflections in the following class session. I interpret this approach as involving a certain amount of study strategy, for the master’s level students as well as the undergraduates. This strategy likely bears positive implications in terms of student learning, especially for students who are less accustomed to taking responsibility for their studies. In line with such support, I noticed that many classes among those I visited in the teacher training involved some kind of practical assignment. Such an assignment or task could, for example, ask students to complete the same activity their future students would be asked to do in an actual classroom setting. In addition to an activity, students were asked to reflect upon its accomplishment. I also encountered examples in which school-like approaches were enacted in the university setting. For instance, student teachers were frequently asked about government mandated standards of learning, the rationale being that they needed to be familiar with those standards because they themselves would be evaluated as teachers in relation to how well they could achieve the goals expressed in the policy documents. As the semester progressed, the reflections on students’ assignments came to involve more and more use of theory.
OSU provides extensive support to both teachers and students. Early in the semester, for example, teachers were offered a workshop that addressed various pedagogic topics and issues. During the semester the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (UCAT) offered consultations. These sessions comprised counseling in combination with course visits. Support is also provided as Course Design Institutes (CDIs), likewise arranged as workshops. A CDI is organized in order to promote course development. The Dennis Learning Center (DLC) aims to support students by offering, for instance, courses to enhance students’ motivation or students’ study stills, but students may also receive private tutoring in their studies. Another function that facilitates students’ learning and experience is the Undergraduate Research Office, which coordinates activities for students who are interested in participating in, experiencing, and learning from research with researchers and research groups that can accommodate an undergraduate. Undergraduate research may culminate in a thesis or a poster, but its most important aspect is the experience and the exposure to research achieved through the collaboration.
The support that UCAT and DLC offer is impressive. Taking into account the number of students who go directly from upper secondary school to university in Sweden, I wonder how many of them would benefit from such support. Adding to this notion the facts that Swedish university courses (as I have seen them) frequently involve less direction regarding how to study and that Swedish courses often involve less homework, I suggest that equivalents of UCAT and DLC would be successful tools for promoting high-quality outcomes also in Sweden. A further method of fostering desirable outcomes can be seen in OSU’s approach to undergraduate research.
Another observation in relation to the Swedish system is the system of parallel courses found at OSU. The time students are allowed to reflect on what has been read and discussed is likely to facilitate deep learning. The environment at OSU is dynamic, characterized by students of many nationalities; I have seldom seen anything like that in Sweden. The international environment likely provides tools for development and is indeed a valuable source of competence. How could we create such an environment in a Swedish university context, and what obstacles to doing so need to be addressed?
This report does not include any accounts of people or experiences in the city of Columbus itself, nor do I provide any suggestions to future STINT scholars. I believe that every trip abroad is unique but I would still be happy to give personalized advice to those of you who have questions.
The opportunity to live abroad for a time has opened my eyes to many things, small and large, regarding phenomena both at home and in the United States. The contrast in what is different makes things otherwise taken for granted a bit more visible. Therefore, I would like to express deep gratitude to the STINT foundation for allowing me to participate in the Excellence in Teaching program. I also extend great thanks to all the friendly, helpful, and benevolent people—friends—that I met at The Ohio State University and in Columbus.
2014. , 16 p.
Finansierad av STINT (The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education)