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The Biggest Challenge for Higher Education in the Decade to Come: Change – by Julie Dalley

Posted in: Guest Essay

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The CRC asked Milton Fuentes, Director, and Julie Dalley, Associate Director, of the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL) to respond to the question, What is the biggest challenge for higher education in the decade to come? Ms. Dalley’s response appears below; Dr. Fuentes’ may be read here:

[Julie Dalley joined the Research Academy for University Learning in 2007, and is now Associate Director. She designs, facilitates, and executes the Engaged Teaching Fellows Program PLC, the Contemplative Pedagogy PLC, the STEM Pioneers PLC, and department- and individual-level teaching and learning consultations, programs and workshops for Montclair State faculty. Ms. Dalley received her BA in 2001 from Vermont College at Norwich University, and her MA in Rhetoric/Composition from Montclair State University in 2011. She is a current doctoral candidate at Old Dominion University, studying narratology, reader communities, and rhetorical narrative theory.]

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey wrote of the dualisms, or divisions, between knowing and doing (see especially Chapter Twenty Five, “Theories of Knowledge”). These divisions exist between the work of the mind and the work of the body; between the experiences of the educated elite and the working class; and between the intellect and the emotions, among other dichotomies. The effect is that we elevate one sort of knowing above others, what Dewey called “a division between those who are controlled by direct concern with things and those who are free to cultivate themselves.” In this way, the current challenges that face the future of college teaching are no different than in the past: effecting change in classrooms and institutions that are influenced by the effects of vacillating economics, homogeneity in leadership, and dogmatic traditions.

As a faculty development specialist who has worked in the field for over a decade, and as an adjunct professor in Writing Studies, it is crystal-clear to me that one of the biggest challenges for college teachers is change. Before and since Dewey, our society, culture, and our students have changed — so why haven’t our teaching methods? College teachers often teach their students the same way they themselves were taught, assess student work in the same way, and assign the same readings they read as college students. A recent conversation with a colleague went something like this:

“That new discussion strategy you demonstrated was really cool! Why don’t you use it for the guest lecturer session you have coming up on Monday?” “No, I just thought I’d let each guest begin by giving them each ten minutes to introduce their fields and then take questions.” “That sounds boring.” “Yes, but I’m not comfortable trying that new way, it may not go well and I’m not sure if I understand it enough yet to try it.” “But this is a course on engagement.” “Yes, I know…”

I sympathize. New teaching approaches sound like fun in the demonstration, but few faculty members feel empowered enough to use them in their own classes. We are wary of failure and of looking less than “professorial” to our students.  We want the safety of tried-and-true methods that make us feel more like we are actually “teaching,” such as standard lectures using the “empty vessel” mentality of student learning, or multiple choice exams that are designed only for recall. However, research in teaching and learning shows that even small changes can provide big effects in student engagement and learning. In the end, I encouraged my colleague to try using a snowball discussion technique to lead into the guest lecture. He did, and reported back that it went really well, better than he had hoped.

Change is risky for students too. I often hear that students are too strategic in their learning approaches, that they only want to know how to get A’s and not how to learn; but using the same old teaching strategies neither addresses nor corrects such student expectations, nor do they engage the student to learn or be adaptive. When you make big changes, students may mistrust you, or the process, as unfamiliar. It is essential to discuss the strategies with your students and invite them along for the experiment in news ways of learning. Emerging technology in the classroom may get us a bit closer to where our students are, but does not by itself bridge the generation gap. Context is required.

Another challenge related to resistance to change is the myth of thinking that we know students better than they know themselves. This patronizing attitude is quick to label students as disaffected, lazy, resistant to learning, and unwilling to accept new ideas. On the surface, these misperceptions will seem to be true, especially if your only barometer of judging their supposed attitudes is how students participate in class. Like the first challenge I mentioned, assumptions arise that suit the teacher (“It worked for me!” “I’m in charge”) but do not include the student’s experience and needs. It can feel safe for the teacher to employ traditional approaches because the only measuring stick is him or herself as a learner; but for diverse, rapidly inclusive institutions like Montclair State, using traditional methods designed for a historically homogenous student body does not address who our students are today.

Acknowledging these challenges is the first step toward opening a window to recognizing and rewarding great teaching, and fostering teaching innovation and change more broadly and publicly across the institution. Remnants of a traditional mode of teaching may still be effective for some, but more and more they cheat our students of a satisfying, engaging, and preparatory college learning experience to serve them now — and into the future. We all want our students to succeed, because their success is our success, but in an increasingly volatile and divisive political and cultural climate, it is more important now than ever to inspire and motivate our students to respond to new ways of thinking and doing. We as teachers must “meet them where they are” by first changing our own ways of thinking about what effective teaching means today. Dewey’s pedagogic creed was that we are always learning transformatively, even without formal education. Pedagogical success is achieved through both psychological and sociological understanding of how students grow:

The individual who is to be educated is a social individual; and society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass. Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities, interests, and habits… (Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed”)

When we misrepresent our students by making the assumption that we know them better than they know themselves, or assume that their informing social contexts are incidental to their education — that we know the best way to educate them without their active participation in the shaping of that education – we, too, may end up with “inert and lifeless masses.”  Rather, we need to embrace what James Lang calls “small teaching…to spark positive change,” take risks, and encourage the active participation of students to meet the challenges of their 21st century lives – within and then beyond the university.


Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Project Gutenberg, David Reed, trans. Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

— “My Pedagogic Creed.” School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80.

Lang, James. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016.