ProTips for Progressive Profs: Strategies for Rewards and Institutional Success

ProTips for Progressive Profs: Strategies for Rewards and Institutional Success

On Twitter, several of us engaged in a discussion recently of possible downsides for professors who use progressive pedagogy/student-centered learnig in their classrooms—especially untenured and adjunct professors.  We know from abundant research that active, engaged learning not only increases student motivation and success but, if done with foresight and skill, even helps students do better on standardized tests (if they are required to take them to measure their “learning”).  All that research on the educational benefits of engaged learning might be reduced to one hashtag:  #Finland.

So active learning is good for students.  What about for profs?

Instructors reluctant to turn their teaching methods upside down often insist it is their institutions that will not allow active learning. Sometimes they tell us that their institutions penalize profs who stray from the traditional methods of lecture and discussion. In the tight character limit and in the echo chamber of Twitter, nuance can get lost so I want to take a few moments to elucidate something I said, rather boldly, on twitter.  My tweet went something like: 

In three decades serving as an internal or external reviewer on dozens if not hundreds of hiring, tenure, and promotion cases, I have never seen someone who meets all other institutional criteria for research, teaching, and service turned down because they cared enough about teaching to experiment with pedagogy in their classrooms.” 

Please note a key phrase there is “meets all other institutional criteria for research, teaching, and service.”

Also, maybe I’ve just been lucky and not seen cases myself where taking the time to experiment with better ways of teaching has been penalized…  Maybe out there someone who did meet the other “criteria” was penalized. 

Whether or not that is the case, it is always wise to be careful and to recognize that pedagogical and institutional change can be threatening to others.  With that in mind, I now provide these “pro tips” for anyone presenting a hiring, promotion, or tenure file.

These “pro tips” fall into the category of “put on your own mask first.”  That is, if you are going to work for the greater intellectual liberation of your students, you also have to make sure you are protected and, ideally, supported in your pedagogical innovations.



I hope these pro tips might help you to frame your case in a way that will contribute to your success, not detract from it.

HOWEVER . . .   please use all your smartest pedagogical and instincts to make sure you don’t sabotage your own success with how you present what you do.  If you are worried changing your pedagogical methods will hurt you, don’t do it.  Always, proceed with caution. 

Here are some “pro tips”:

  • Experiment—wisely,

  • Experiment—with students’ interest paramount and with research to back up your investment in student learning.

  • Experiment—and take credit and pride in the extra attention you are giving to teaching (most colleges and universities are concerned, rightly, about retention and completion and departments are worried about retaining majors).  Claim your contribution.

  • Experiment—but watch your back.


            Even as a long-time professor who has held three distinguished chairs and been president of my professional association and editor for a decade of the most prestigious journal in my field, I am careful about how I explain what I do.  Progressive pedagogy goes against what higher ed profs think they should be doing.  Most people suspect their teaching isn’t really changing lives–and they can get very defensive if you come across too boldly, too much like you have all the answers and they do not.


For example:  be careful about making pronouncements that are too bold in faculty meetings.  “I don’t give grades” or “My students design the syllabus now” are great but, in faculty meetings, it can quickly become “you” against “them” and it is often easier for others to put you in a box than to listen to what you say.


Think about it.  A statement too bold and grand and pronounced (not explained) is not “progressive pedagogy as social interaction.” It’s declaration. 

Declaration is not the best way to communicate with colleagues who do not share your views.  Indeed, one of the great benefits of progressive pedagogy is it teaches us how to communicate well in complex situations with non-equal groups in a wise, interactive, productive non-hierarchical way.  Communicating in a bold yet nonconfrontational way, with the aim of yielding positive results to the community, is one of the most important life skills.  Make sure you practice what you preach and avoid hyperbolic pronouncements. 

Example: Instead of announcing to a group of faculty members that “I do not grade anymore,” I might say something longer, more pedagogical, discursive: 

 “I am thrilled about the new semester. Last term, my students participated in thinking about assessment practices and it was so successful that, this semester, I’m actually building that kind of thoughtful pedagogical discussion into the syllabus. I also am getting better at showing students how learning to think about merit, productivity, outputs, assessments, and other reward systems is useful in their daily lives, in their education, and in their future careers.” 

Needless to say, no one really talks like that (and someone might make a rude joke or gesture if you try to in a faculty meeting), but the point is to give context, be humble, not sound like you are implying that everyone who grades is a robot-teacher who doesn’t care…  Progressive pedagogy needs explanation, not just pronouncement.


Other tactics one might use include:

            –Reference to senior members of the faculty already doing these things responsibly and admirably.

            –Reference to senior members of the profession already doing these things responsibly and admirably.

            –Citing the nearly 17K member HASTAC community, with its illustrious Executive Board, dedicated to “Changing the Way We Teach and Learn” and with blogs and conference announcements and job postings daily that support the kind of work you are doing and sharing.

            –Research.  There is so much research.  Cite some.  And here’s a great resource by an ungrading pioneer, Prof Jesse Stommel of College of Mary Washington:




The advice above also works for job letters, tenure and promotion files, grants, and so forth.  In a concise way, explain what you do with an awareness that your reader might recoil.  Be calm. Be careful. Be modest.  Make it clear that you have researched this and use the best advice and best pedagogy and that you proceed with extreme care and concern for student success.

  • Document what you do.  For example, you could write a few very professional blogs on your own website and, if you want, reblog on HASTAC to show you are doing this as a professional service and in a professional context.  Include URL’s
  • Include sample syllabi that do not lead with professional pedagogy but include various steps in this direction.  Progressive pedagogy is a method, a philosophy, a way of thinking about the classroom–but it is not the whole “story” of effective (not “progressive” but “effective) teaching.
  • Build gradually.  Don’t do it all at once in every class unless you happen to have had three distinguished professorships. (i.e. I can do this because I don’t have a lot to lose.  You might.)
  • Understate, underplay, be modest. No one likes an evangel. No one likes binaries, all good, all bad.  You need to sound especially sensible and flexible—not like some wild-eyed convert to a new cult. 
  • Be smart. Be careful. Be strategic.  You are in this for the long haul.  Don’t burn out or burn yourself.



If you think you are going to convert your entire institution, be prepared for heart ache.  Worldwide, the status quo s tending—in a highly organized, well-funded way—against progressive pedagogy and in favor of the most automated, mechanical, top-down learning and measuring of learning, all of which feeds into the testing-industrial complex and surveillance capitalism.

Yet, at the Nobel Prize Committee Forum on the Future of Learning, held in Santiago, Chile, where I was honored to serve as a speaker and on three panels, over and over Nobel laureautes and educational visionaries from around the world talked about, for the sake of the future, we MUST find better, engaged, active learning methods–labs, studios, writing workshops, seminars, book clubs, internships, community-based projects, extended research projects, and on and on.  We did not coordinate this.  We all said the same thing.  The research is on our side!

Grading has a history over two centuries old . . .yet only 50 years old as a standardized practice. 

We can change this–we will.

In the meantime, be strategic in your revolution.  Join with others, Think about how you present what you do. And best of luck!



Here’s a growing bibliography of resources on progressive pedagogy:…