Elite institutions may not have the highest-quality courses

Researchers acknowledge shortcomings, call it a 'first step'

Course quality is not necessarily higher at elite institutions, according to preliminary findings from a new study.

Researchers from the Columbia University's Teachers College and Yeshiva University worked to develop a way to measure the educational quality of courses across various institutions—and their initial findings are raising questions about the value of prestigious institutions. The study itself aimed to examine the assumption that prestige and quality are linked.

Can you calculate a college's value? New rankings hope to do just that.

To measure this, researchers trained faculty observers for 30 hours on a teaching quality and an academic rigor rubric. The observers then went into 587 classrooms at nine colleges that included a mix of public and private schools, teaching and research institutions, and high-, medium-, and low-prestige schools. 

Teaching quality was measured by:

  • Display of the instructor's  knowledge of the subject;
  • Ability to get the students to tackle new ideas; and
  • Ability to draw out students' prior knowledge.

Academic rigor was judged by:

  • Standards and expectations of course work; and
  • "Cognitive complexity" of coursework.

The researchers found that elite institutions outperformed the non-elite ones in just one category: cognitive complexity.

Meanwhile, there were no significant differences between the prestige levels for instructors' knowledge or coursework standards and expectations.

And lower-prestige institutions outperformed the elite ones in enabling students to tackle new ideas and draw on prior knowledge.

However, the research team and external experts acknowledge there were limitations to the study. Course observers:

  • May not have had subject matter expertise, making it difficult for them to judge the instructors' expertise;
  • Observed only one class per course; and
  • Measured instruction (the input), rather than student learning (the output).

However, many experts also praised the team for breaking into the "black box" of classrooms. The research team called it a "first step toward examining the relationship between prestige and in-class practices" (Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, 11/9).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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