Exploring Alternative Methodologies for the Best

The U.S. News Best Undergraduate Teaching rankings are out.

Anyone wishing to draw conclusions about the relative quality of teaching across colleges and universities might want to spend a few seconds (that’s all it will take) checking out the methodology behind the rankings.

U.S. News gets plenty of criticism for both its methods and the effects of its rankings. Oddly, the separate list for Best Undergraduate Teaching is seldom singled out for critique. Uniquely among ranked lists, the undergraduate teaching hierarchy remains untroubled by data. Instead, the list is constructed entirely by the reputational rankings of university leaders.

The key sentences in the methodology section read (emphasis added):

The rankings for Best Undergraduate Teaching focus on schools whose faculty and administrators are committed to teaching undergraduate students in a high-quality manner. College presidents, provosts and admissions deans who participated in the annual U.S. News peer assessment survey were asked to nominate up to 15 schools in their Best Colleges ranking category that have strength in undergraduate teaching.

The Best Undergraduate Teaching rankings are based solely on the responses to this separate section of the 2022 peer assessment survey.

So, again, to repeat: U.S. News judges the best undergraduate teaching exclusively, totally and entirely on what presidents, provosts and admissions deans put down in the survey. There is no, nada, zero data to complement or augment the reputational scores.

Now, to be fair, from a teaching-quality perspective, the list contains some fantastic schools. I am friends and colleagues with many of the brilliant people at these colleges and universities who spend all of their time working to improve teaching and learning.

We should celebrate any focus on teaching in higher ed. Highlighting inclusion on a “best undergraduate teaching” list—even if the methodology underlying that list is dubious from the standpoint of validity or reliability—is not the worst thing in the world. Go for it.

Can we take this list and do something with it of value? Sure. Let’s think together of a different methodology that might show institutional commitment to investing in and advancing teaching and learning.

Any halfway-defensible list related to the quality of teaching would likely do one thing first. That would be to acknowledge that the real action is at community colleges. If we care about teaching, we must care about what goes on at community colleges. These essential and underfunded institutions undoubtedly exert the most significant impact on educating American college students.

Recognizing the centrality of community colleges in any conversation about teaching and learning, one potential strategy is to disaggregate by institution type. We could separate residential from nonresidential (primarily commuting) schools. Or divide the sample into research-intensive and principally teaching-oriented institutions.

Suppose we narrow our focus to best teaching at residential institutions. What sort of methodologies might we consider to generate a list of schools unusually committed to teaching and learning?

If U.S. News is going to stick with reputational rankings alone to construct its undergraduate teaching list, are they asking the right people?

How might the list look different if U.S. News surveyed center for teaching and learning leaders? What about speaking with the directors of campus academic technology and instructional design units?

I’d love to hear how deans/directors of student accessibility services would evaluate their peers, as accessibility is a major element of teaching quality.

Who else on campus is most qualified to know what is going on at other colleges and universities concerning prioritizing undergraduate teaching? Are there data points that U.S. News could use to bring more validity and reliability into rankings of undergraduate teaching quality? This is, of course, tricky—as outcomes around learning are notoriously challenging to measure.

One set of inputs that might be considered would measure relative institutional commitment to advancing teaching. U.S. News could get a rough approximation of a school’s focus on teaching by measuring the size, relative to total staff numbers, of the institution’s CTL.

Small schools with relatively large centers for teaching and learning could move up the list. A similar exercise could be performed to gauge the relative investment in student accessibility offices.

Another data point that might signal a commitment to undergraduate teaching is the percentage of all classroom spaces designed for active learning. Take as denominator all classrooms that seat 30 students or more and the numerator those rooms with flat floors and movable furniture.

Once you start thinking about signals for institutional investment in undergraduate teaching, it is hard to stop.

What percentage of introductory and foundational courses have been part of an institutionwide redesign (gateway) program? What other ideas around signifiers of undergraduate teaching quality are you thinking about?

A challenging research question is how to untangle institutional privilege from institutional commitment to teaching.

Perhaps the best thing that can come out of these particular U.S. News rankings is a conversation about what we look for when we judge which colleges and universities prioritize undergraduate teaching. What do you look for when you look for signs that a school has decided to take teaching seriously?

Let’s have that conversation.