By David D. Dill
OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES there has been increasing concern about the quality of
teaching and learning for undergraduate students in U.S. colleges and universities.
In the 1980s this concern, coupled with the emerging accountability developments
in K-12 education, led to public legislation fostering the "assessment movement"
in many states, in which colleges and universities were encouraged to undertake efforts
to measure and improve student learning.
In the 1990s the issue of the quality of student learning in postsecondary education
has received increased emphasis. A number of states became disenchanted with the
ambiguous results of the assessment movement, and have sought more rigorous forms
of accountability. These have included public policies designed to directly regulate
college and university teaching loads and, in an increasing number of states, the
adoption of "performance funding systems" tied to various indicators of
Several observers have suggested that while there is cause for concern regarding
the quality of teaching and learning at the undergraduate level, the public policies
currently being pursued are unlikely to effectively address the problem. That is,
there is little evidence that directly regulating the processes of teaching within
colleges and universities or implementing incentive systems tied to simplistic measures
of academic performance will affect the underlying causes of variation in the quality
of teaching and learning. Such policies may in fact have unintended negative effects
on academic innovation, effectiveness and efficiency.
Instead, these observers have suggested that a more effective approach would be
to seek means for restoring and strengthening the internal web of accountability
by which colleges and universities have traditionally assured the quality of their
teaching and learning.
A number of experiments emphasizing professional self-regulation of the quality
of undergraduate teaching and learning are now underway within the regional and professional
accrediting community. Several state systems of higher education also are exploring
new procedures for improving institutional responsibility for the quality of teaching
The interest in developing new mechanisms for improving student learning also
has stimulated curiosity with forms of quality assurance that have developed outside
the United States. Academic agencies in other countries have been experimenting with
some novel forms of academic accountability. The rapid expansion of access to higher
education in Europe and Asia over the last two decades (termed "massification"
outside the U.S.) stimulated public concern about maintaining academic quality.
Lacking a tradition of voluntary institutional and/or professional accreditation,
a number of countries developed new mechanisms of quality assurance, most of which
emphasized the norm of professional self-regulation in their design and implementation.
In the United Kingdom, for example, questions by the Thatcher government in the early
1980s about the quality of teaching in universities motivated the Committee of Vice
Chancellors and Principals of the old university system to develop a system of institutional
reviews termed "academic audits."
Academic audits, like U.S. regional accreditation, are external reviews directed
at the institution level. But unlike accreditation reviews, academic audits are focused
on those processes by which the institution monitors its academic standards and acts
to improve the quality of teaching and student learning, particularly at the undergraduate
level. As a consequence, academic audits help to clarify the collective responsibility
of faculty at both the institutional and unit level for monitoring academic standards
and assuring the quality of teaching and student learning.
Similar quality assurance mechanisms soon were adopted in New Zealand, in a number
of the Nordic countries, in a Europe-wide system of institutional reviews implemented
by the Association of European Rectors, and most recently in Hong Kong.
The contemporaneous development and rapid dissemination among other countries
of audit-like quality assurance processes suggests that this model may offer some
particularly relevant solutions to those in the U.S. who are seeking answers to the
problem of improving the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning through academic
Much of the effort to improve teaching and learning in U.S. colleges and universities
focuses on incentives and structures designed to improve the performance of individual
instructors. These mechanisms include providing teaching awards to faculty members,
developing teaching centers that offer support to concerned faculty members, encouraging
faculty members to adopt classroom-based assessment techniques for improving instruction,
mandating student evaluation of instructors, and disseminating new instructional
technologies to interested faculty members.
In contrast, the clear lesson from the quality movement that swept though industry
and education over the last decades is that significant improvement in the quality
of programs, services or products results not from changes in the individual practices
of workers or professionals, but from changes in the processes by which work is coordinated
and integrated. Improving the quality of student learning must therefore be a responsibility
of the faculty acting collectively rather than individually.
Similarly, research in the United States on teaching and learning consistently
reveals that while students' learning of academic content and their cognitive development
are related to the quality of individual teaching they receive, it is also significantly
associated with the "academic coherence" of the curriculum. That is, student
learning is affected by the pattern and sequence of the courses in which they enroll,
by curricula requirements to integrate learning from separate courses, and by the
frequency of communication and interaction among faculty members in the curriculum.
Therefore more systematic efforts to improve the quality of learning outcomes
will necessarily involve encouraging collective efforts by faculty members to redesign
course sequences and requirements in order to achieve greater academic coherence,
and to develop consistent, valid means for assessing student achievement.
Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence that the capacity of the academic
profession(s) and of colleges and universities to encourage faculty collaboration
in improving teaching and student learning is eroding. The first cause of this change
appears to be a weakening of the professional norms that supported faculty collaboration
in the development of coherent curricula and of the collegial processes and structures
that traditionally held faculty members collectively accountable for the quality
of student learning. A second and related cause, as George Kuh has suggested, is
the measurable shift in faculty time and effort away from teaching and into research
In the case of disciplinary norms and standards, surveys on the views of faculty
members in different disciplines suggest declining normative influence from the various
academic professions over the curricula of academic programs. In many disciplines
faculty members did not easily agree on definitions of curricula content, nor were
they in agreement that specified sequences of learning content were appropriate for
Even in professional fields such as business and engineering, where faculty members
reported the highest perceived consensus on the nature of academic knowledge, they
also reported that defining the content of the professional courses was one of their
most serious curriculum tensions. In several disciplines, faculty members expressed
the belief that the field's diversity precluded achieving a consensus on what students
In the case of institutional-level mechanisms for accountability, recent studies
on university-level policies for influencing the structure and coherence of academic
curricula reveal a similar loss of consensus. For example, a heavily cited early
report on the integrity of the college curriculum argued, "The curriculum has
given way to a marketplace philosophy: It is a supermarket where students are shopping
and professors are merchants of learning. Fads and fashions, the demands of popularity
and success, enter where wisdom and experience should prevail. The marketplace philosophy
refuses to establish common expectations and norms…Electives are being used to fatten
majors, and diminish breadth. It is as if no one cared, so long as the store stays
Empirical studies of the catalogues of selective universities and of the transcripts
of enrolled students also suggest a decline in the structure and coherence of the
undergraduate general educational curriculum. Massy and Zemsky argued in 1994 that
there has been "an incipient destructuring -- or deconstructing -- of the undergraduate
curriculum over the last two decades that has resulted in fewer required courses,
less emphasis on taking courses in ordered sequence, and greater reliance on students
to develop their own sense of how the various bits and pieces of knowledge they acquire
in the classroom fit together into a coherent picture."
University policies on senior theses and comprehensive examinations also can influence
the educational effectiveness of academic curricula. Such requirements foster coherence
in students' learning by requiring the integration or analysis of a body of knowledge
broader or deeper than that provided in a single course. A 1996 National Association
of Scholars study of the curricula requirements over time of the fifty most selective
U.S. universities revealed a continuing decline in mandatory requirements for such
comprehensive assessments, from 66 percent of the surveyed universities in 1939,
to 56 percent in l964, to 12 percent in 1993.
....With regard to faculty involvement in improving teaching and learning, field
research at the departmental level in U.S. universities (Massy, Wilger and Colbeck,
1994) also has revealed a form of academic behavior termed "hollowed collegiality."
Departments nominally appear to act collectively, but avoid those specific collaborative
activities that might lead to real improvements in curricula and instruction.
....Massy, Wilger and Colbeck concluded that "despite these trappings of
collegiality, respondents told us they seldom led to the more substantial discussions
necessary to improve undergraduate education, or to the sense of collective responsibility
needed to make departmental efforts more effective."
A major contributor to this hollowed collegiality was an observed pattern of fragmented
communication within departments in which traditions of individual autonomy and academic
specialization have led to curricula atomization and isolation among faculty members.
Faculty members in the U.S. not only do much of their teaching alone, but because
disciplinary sub-fields are defined quite narrowly, many faculty members find it
almost impossible to discuss their teaching with one another.
A second and related negative influence on the improvement of student learning
as noted by Kuh is the increasing faculty commitment to research. In an influential
series of papers published between 1978 and 1990 the economist Estelle James argued
that universities are best understood as multi-product firms, producing both teaching
and research. At the departmental level universities operate as labor managed cooperatives
in which the faculty have significant control over the factors and consequently the
costs of production.
But faculty members have a strong preference for research over teaching, because
of its intrinsic interest, because of its clear contribution to unit reputation (which
in the U.S. is a major proxy for academic quality), and because in increasingly competitive
research and academic labor markets time spent on research can lead to higher grant
revenue and future earnings for the individual faculty member. Consequently, faculties
may arrange their workloads to limit their time investment in teaching and to maximize
their time investment in research.
James' model has been confirmed in a number of recent studies of faculty workload
in the U.S. that reveal a consistent pattern of faculty decisions leading to a reduction
in time devoted to teaching.
It is important to stress that this reduction in time spent on teaching not only
may affect faculty performance in individual classrooms, but also negatively affects
those collective activities of curriculum development, teaching evaluation and student
assessment upon which both effective student learning and the maintenance of academic
standards are critically dependent.
Finally, it must be noted that the existing policies and practices for assuring
academic standards and quality within U.S. colleges and universities often focus
more on the organization and delivery of academic content than on student learning.
Since World War II the academic quality assurance mechanisms in most colleges and
universities have come to reflect the research universities' valuing of substantive
academic content over instruction.
The purpose of this brief article is neither to impugn the motives of faculty
members nor to debase the principal of professional self-regulation. To the contrary,
if we are to maintain professional control of academic work in the face of increasingly
assertive public calls for external regulation, we must clearly understand the possible
causes of current problems in student learning.
The reported decline in learning-related student academic activity may of course
be related to changes in the broader culture and to the motivations and values of
students themselves. But research also suggests erosion of the culture of professional
accountability by which colleges and universities have traditionally assured the
quality and standards of their academic programs and degrees.
Many of the changes in academic behavior outlined in the preceding section are
the product of a pronounced shift over the last forty years in the academic "rules
of the game" -- the policies, norms of behavior, and sanctions that facilitate
faculty interaction and coordination.
As Elliot Krause has noted in his comparative study of professional influence,
"Death of the Guilds," the legal, medical and academic professions have
seen their power over their members' behavior steadily decline in the latter half
of the 20th century. In each of these professions the regulatory inroads of the state
and the growing influence of corporations and the market have altered the incentives
for cooperative behavior.
These larger social forces are increasingly compromising the ability of the traditional
norms and sanctions of the academic professions, the policies of individual colleges
and universities, and the rules of relevant departments to sustain faculty commitment
and cooperation in improving student learning.
In this new context we will need to identify means by which the academic community
itself can act to restore and develop the internal web of academic accountability
within colleges and universities whereby the quality of student learning and maintenance
of academic standards is assured. Responsibility for academic standards and the quality
of teaching and learning must lie where the power exists to control or change academic
practices -- with the faculty of an institution.
But seeking means to better understand and to strengthen the processes within
academic institutions whereby the faculty collectively and within academic units
exercises its responsibility for academic quality assurance and improvement is a
reasonable and necessary public goal. The process of academic audit might contribute
to strengthening collegial accountability for improving the quality of teaching and
David D. Dill is professor of public policy analysis and education at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.