Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Teaching as Intellectual Work

andrea greenhoot lecturingOffering a college course, like any activity, can be done with varying degrees of investment of time and resources. At the high end, there are initial considerations of the material to be covered and the intellectual goals that learners are to achieve. Even in an introductory course that appears to have a standard outline common to most test, the instructors decides how broad a set of topics to cover. This decision determines the depth to which each topic can be presented and considered by learners because covering all the topics in a typical text can be a race against the limited time in an academic term. Those teachers who cover fewer topics but in greater depth also have the opportunity to expect deeper understanding from learners, perhaps by including discussions, interactive activities, or supplementary readings.

It is also not a trivial matter to identify the conceptual goals for a course: It is necessary to know how the teacher would recognize that a student has acquired the skills and understanding that are intended to be included in the course design. These decisions are contextual in that some instructors assume students are taking a program of courses in a field of study, whereas other instructors use demographic information to identify who their learners are and what place the current course will most likely have in the larger picture of their education. Different conceptual goals would be appropriate depending on the nature of such an analysis of learners and the curriculum.

A second type of intellectual decision is found in the instructional design for a course. It is conventionally acceptable to provide well-crafted lectures that integrate the reading material with ideas and information from the professor’s experience. Some teachers seek additional ways of interacting with students, both inside and outside of class, including online activities, group activities, or individual discovery projects. The identification and evaluation of potential instructional components is not easy, and the implementation of the methods selected can be as challenging as the instrumentation of a research project.

A third form of intellectual activity is inherent in designing the activities in which students demonstrate their understanding of the course goals. Sampling from test item pools provided by publishers or written by teaching assistants represents one statement of intellectual goals, whereas designing writing assignments, applications of ideas, or forms of authentic assessment (activities beyond verbal description) would be a different version of goals. This critical step operationalizes what the professor means by a deep understanding of the ideas being taught. In general, professors believe there is more to their field than a set of remembered answers to discrete questions, and the development of opportunities for learners to show a deeper understanding makes a fundamental understanding of the field of study manifest in course design. Teachers need to find creative examples that can exist within the constrains of the time and resources that both students and teachers have available for the course.

A fourth kind of intellectual work is the evaluation of the effectiveness of the course and how well learners achieved the understanding set forth in the goals. The teacher who views a class offering as an inquiry into the best way to generate understanding in students is a high-end version of this perspective. Teachers can examine the evidence of student learning found in the work done in the course, and there are opportunities for reflection on the quality of those achievements. It is even possible that multiple offering of a course can be considered at one time, resulting in a longitudinal account of the impact of successive attempts to promote understanding. Changing instructional planning and design to improve the learning outcomes of a course involves a variety of intellectual skills ranging from analysis to interpretation to evaluation. The insight needed to improve the effectiveness of interactive offerings of a course is a certainly high-end form of intellectual work.

CTE offers a Faculty Seminar each year for experienced faculty members who would like a chance to reflect on and represent their teaching accomplishments.


Cerbin, W. (1994). The course portfolio as a tool for continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 5, 95-105.

Glassick, C.E., Huber, M.T., & Maeroff, G. I. (1997). Scholarship assessed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hutchings, P. (Ed.). (1996). Making teaching community property. Washington: AAHE.

Hutchings, P. (Ed.). (1998). The course portfolio. Washington: AAHE.

Richlin, L. (2001). Scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching. In C. Kreber (Ed.), The scholarship of teaching: New directions for teaching and learning, no. 86 (pp. 57-68). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shulman, L.S. (1993). Teaching as community property: Putting an end to pedagogical solitude. Change, 25(6), 6-7.

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