Colleges and Cafeterias

Almost everyone in America is familiar with the cafeteria. Hungry people move down the line, sliding their plastic tray and choosing from the various offerings what they want on their plate. Green beans or carrots? Potatoes or rice? Chicken? Lasagna? None of these dishes represents a nutritionally balanced meal. However, by the time one loads up their plate the result is —depending on individual decisions—a reasonably well-balanced meal.

No one argues that one food can sustain a healthy lifestyle. So why, when we discuss pedagogy, do some insist that one teaching method is superior to another? In fact, we potentially do our students a profound disservice when we attempt to homogenize the learning experience of our students through a reliance on a limited number of pedagogies.

It is time to start thinking about college education as a cafeteria with a variety of offerings. Our concern is whether students traversing our educational “cafeterias” leave with a “balanced meal” of subject matter expertise and skills, and some level of comfort with diverse pedagogical styles. Subject matter expertise and basic skills result from a thoughtful general education curriculum and the design of academic majors and minors. When it comes to pedagogy, a diversity of approaches is the best way to serve our students.

Becoming comfortable with different ways of learning prepares students for the multitude of ways they will learn throughout their lives and careers.

Listening to lectures teaches students to focus, learn to listen, and distinguish important information from less important information. Students learn to take notes to prompt their thinking outside of class. In the workplace, it is common to have a supervisor explain complex material. They expect employees to absorb and act on that information. Listening to lectures is about developing a set of core competencies. Students who do not develop the ability to focus, listen, and parse will underperform in the workplace.


Some believe that the lecture should die in favor of “active learning” strategies, of which are many. These are useful methods for stimulating learning. Some of these strategies may be prevalent in some employment circumstances, especially in organizations that rely on collegial organizational structures. In traditional hierarchical organizational structures, however, the skills emphasized in active learning strategies may be less useful. Students should be prepared for both, not one or the other.

Increasingly employees must learn via online training, seminars, and webcasts. Developing the ability to interact in a virtual environment is essential to career success. However, in the workplace, we need to interact with others. Education that relies solely on online modalities fails to prepare students for in-person interactions.

I am particularly fond of promoting learning by incorporating student research active engagement in the process of discovery and creativity—in the college curriculum. However, I do not argue that all college- level learning should occur within a research framework. It is a tool for learning. Some students respond to the experience, and many do not. All of them gain some level of appreciation for what constitutes research and creative activity. They may capitalize on the techniques they develop later in life. Or not. Of course, we have no idea where our students will be in 5, 10, or 30 years.

Suggesting to faculty that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to teaching is harmful to the development of competent faculty, particularly junior faculty concerned about the judgments of the more senior faculty making decisions about reappointment, tenure, and promotion. College teachers—indeed, all teachers—need to develop a set of teaching styles with which they are comfortable, and that fit the material they are teaching. I teach courses via lecture, group projects, case studies, online learning, research activities, writing exercises, and many other means. I adopt the pedagogy(ies) appropriate to the level of the students, the subject matter, and my personal style

Creating an expectation that faculty develop their courses within the constraints of one particular approach, or constellation of approaches—whatever it might be—is harmful to students and to the development of faculty. It stifles faculty creativity, discourages risk-taking in the classroom, and deprives students of potentially valuable learning experiences.Evolutionary biology teaches us that diversity—genetic diversity, species diversity, ecosystem diversity—promotes the healthy development of species and environments. Likewise, offering a diversity of options at the cafeteria helps to promote a healthy meal.

When it comes to college teaching and learning, we serve our students and faculty best by promoting a diversity of pedagogical approaches.

2 thoughts on “Colleges and Cafeterias

  1. Hi Sean — thanks for the food for thought! Certainly, it is appropriate to adapt one’s pedagogy to the students, the subject — here I’d go so far as to say day-to-day, not just course-by-course — and one’s personal style. I’d add that it’s incumbent on faculty as “teaching professionals” or “educators” to continue to grow professionally. We need to educate ourselves using both reflection and the literature on pedagogy, and be willing to take risks to change when research shows that some types of pedagogy are more or less effective for some levels or types of students and some subjects. Students change; faculty need to be open to doing so as well.

  2. Great post! This sums up my own thoughts well. Traditional lecturing can be really valuable, but there are many ways to skin a cat and that is but one card up one’s sleeve. Thanks for putting this together.


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