University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Harry Brighouse spoke on strengthening education outcomes as a part of the Wisconsin Idea, Past and Present lecture series on Tuesday night.  

The lecture began with an introduction from sociologist and emeritus professor Cora Marrett who said part of the Wisconsin Idea is linking the state and the university and that UW should contribute to the state of Wisconsin.

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Brighouse began by saying that the most important part of professor’s jobs should be teaching — that while research is important, the professors contribute to the state through teaching.

UW students go on to contribute to society, Brighouse said, who said UW educates members of the most valuable professions. 

Brighouse said because UW is a top college, many of the students it educates will go on to be leaders of those valuable professions, making their education even more important. 

“We educate them and they go on to serve the population of the state and beyond, and if they are better educated … then they serve the population better,” Brighouse said.

Despite the importance of educating UW students, their learning is often not valued enough, according to Brighouse. He said professors are not trained to teach and are not promoted for their teaching skills.

Brighouse said classes need to be structured around allowing students to practice what they learn and to discuss it with others. One barrier to student learning is a lack of good learning conditions, according to Brighouse.

Additionally, lecture halls with rows that don’t allow discussion are hard to learn in. These types of lecture halls cause students to get distracted, according to Brighouse, who also said the large nature of many UW lectures hurt student learning.

“I’m sure we can achieve more … than we do in the large lecture, but when I hear defeated students say, ‘well I’m not the kind of person who learns well in 300 person lectures,’ I find myself wondering who is that kind of person and whether there are 300 of them,” Brighouse said.

Brighouse ended his lecture by proposing some changes to the way college students are taught. He began by suggesting UW invest in financial incentives for professors to be better teachers as well as investing in pre-tenure teacher training. 

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Brighouse also said professors should not just wait for administrative changes but asked that they take it upon themselves to improve their teaching for the sake of the students.

He suggested they read the literature available on higher education teaching, film themselves and critique their own teaching, or even hire students to coach them in their teaching.

“I think the Wisconsin Idea requires systemic reform, but the Wisconsin Idea, first of all, doesn’t stop at systemic reform and secondly, continues — and should continue — to inform our practice even in the absence of systemic reform,” Brighouse said.