Nice dorms, big stadiums, impressive recreational facilities, major research opportunities — all can be positives when students and parents are considering application to a college or university.
But higher education towers as one of the largest expenses facing American families, and parents want to make sure that investment is worth it. So they rightly want to know the answer to a key question:
How good are the faculty at teaching?
In the scramble by colleges and universities to market themselves and move up in the rankings, it seems that excellence in instruction too often gets pushed out of the spotlight, even though that's one of the most important aspects of any institution of higher learning.
It's encouraging, then, that a number of colleges and universities across Nebraska have established excellence-in-teaching awards. The recipients of these awards deserve applause for their creative and dedicated attention to effective instruction.
A perusal of the awards indicates some commonalities in a lot of cases: Out-of-classroom trips and projects, rather than lectures alone. Service learning (projects that relate directly to the real world of work or service to community). Smart use of communications technologies to promote interactive discussion and collaboration. Creative, sometimes quite ambitious, research projects to which students contribute. And, often, a dose of humor or just plain, down-to-earth, clear instruction.
Here is a small sampling of examples.
>> Creighton University has various teaching awards and plans to raise that recognition to a new level next year with a new university-wide teaching honor, the Creighton University Distinguished Educator in Teaching as Scholarship Award.
>> At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Donald R. and Mary Lee Swanson Award for Teaching Excellence was just given to E. Charles Healey, professor of speech language pathology in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders. He is one of just 70 board-certified stuttering specialists in the United States.
>> At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in 2011, the Department of Information Systems and Quantitative Analysis received NU's university-wide Departmental Teaching Award. The department's students are trained to become database administrators, computer network managers and business systems analysts.
>> Excellence in teaching is annually saluted at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Honorees in recent years have included David Hof, an assistant professor in the Department for Counseling and School Psychology, and Julie Shaffer, an associate professor of microbiology.
>> At the College of St. Mary in 2011, Dee Acklie, an associate professor of education, received the first Catherine McAuley Excellence in Teaching Award. Acklie was saluted for her emphasis on service learning and using technology as effective teaching tools. Among other projects, her students have created a 1,000-volume children's library that is used daily.
>> In the Nebraska State College System, award recipients have included Mike Leite, professor of physical and life sciences (Chadron State); Greg Galardi, assistant professor of criminal justice and dean of the School of Professional Studies (Peru State); and Todd Young, professor of physics and astronomy (Wayne State).
The need for effective teaching extends across the spectrum of academic disciplines, which is why outstanding teaching awards in Nebraska have gone to scholars such as Kathleen Anderson at UNL (associate professor in animal science and a specialist in horse-related studies), Rita Lester at Nebraska Wesleyan University (associate professor of religion) and Thomas Ediger at Peru State (professor of music and director of choral activities).
Nebraska's medical schools pay attention to saluting instructors with outstanding teaching ability. Just two examples are Shailendra Saxena, an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Creighton University School of Medicine, and William Chaney, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Facilities and amenities on campus have a lot of appeal, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it's the quality of instruction that makes the central difference. Nebraska institutions need to make sure they keep the focus on that all-important component.