Training professors to teach could save higher education
Until very recently, universities left the teaching task mostly to the professors to conduct and develop as they saw fit. Partly because it was thought of as “academic freedom” (which normally applies to research and opinions) and partly because it was seen as too onerous to train professors on how to teach effectively. But this has started to change.
In a recent in-depth article, the Chronicle of Higher Education explained that many universities have been pushed to review the effectiveness of their teaching, based on dropout rates and the results of “exit exams,” and sensing a wide and fast-growing dissatisfaction with university performance among students, parents, employers and state (funding) officials.
The article began by asking whether teaching is more an art than a science, more natural talent than developed skill, more subject to training and development than personal inclination and insight. Good question, indeed, reflecting my own experience with teaching.
Well before I gave my first class, I was fully convinced that I had a knack for teaching. I had my share of bad teachers, particularly in college, and I had sat through countless lectures where professors would worry about how much material they put on the board instead of how much the students understood. I would then often find myself thinking about how I would explain that material better if I were to teach it.
Fast forward many years, through graduate school and a doctorate where I was never trained for teaching, only given advanced knowledge and shown modern research methods. My first realization that I may not be the great teacher I was sure I was came when student evaluations were conducted for the courses I started teaching. I was shocked to note that students rated me just slightly above average.
Student evaluations are to be taken with a (big) grain of salt. Indeed, students often either like the professor or do not based on their personality, how they conduct the class, how easy/hard their exams are, and how strict they are on various matters. Thus, student evaluations are often referred to as “customer satisfaction surveys.” But when the questionnaires are well constructed and the teaching is carefully probed, those evaluations can be very useful — to both the instructor and the administration.
Still, student evaluations should not be the sole method of assessment of one’s teaching, as unfortunately they often are. Peer reviews, class visits, self-assessments, portfolios and other tools should be (and sometimes are) used — to the greatest extent possible.
And while teaching is the primary task of college professors, it is rarely reviewed properly or given the attention and importance it deserves. Promotions (from assistant to associate to “full” professor) are very rarely based on one’s teaching, but rather almost always on one’s research.
Yet, the public — and parents in particular — think that university administrations spend most of the tuition money on the teaching activity. In a way, yes, much money goes to labs and other facilities, including all the online support that is now essential at any university. However, no professor is required to undergo any teacher training, from before they are hired to the time they retire. Many universities, such as mine, now have centers for innovation in teaching and learning, where workshops are regularly conducted and willing and interested professors can receive certificates in up-to-date teaching methods, but those programs are always voluntary and affect only a small fraction of the faculty. On rare occasions, instructors are required to undertake a teaching workshop — if they are found to be seriously lacking in the matter.
College professors’ teaching is rarely reviewed properly or given the attention and importance it deserves.
All this is beginning to change, as universities realize that, by and large, they are not succeeding (or at least are not effective) in how they impart learning and prepare students for the world and the future. Many departments now have “clinics” and help centers, where students come for tutoring and pedagogical support, supplementing what the instructor does in the classroom or during office hours, and students can learn in different ways. Indeed, students — and instructors — should not have to discover only after exams are taken (and graded) that many did not learn well enough.
Universities are also encouraging professors to team up, discuss, and together examine what works in various courses and what doesn’t. Instructors are finding that visits and observations by colleagues can be very constructive and eye-opening, not the stern “class visits” that are often done as an evaluation tool.
Teaching, we now know, is a learned skill more than a natural talent. Moreover, teaching has evolved with the social and economic changes that have occurred in recent times; we now have online platforms that integrate with the classroom teaching, we have “smart” classrooms, we have screens and digital tools, we have communication that takes place continuously, etc.
Pre-college schools and education councils have long known that, without training (pre-service and in-service), a teacher is clueless, and thus useless. Universities are now discovering that training professors to teach effectively not only makes sense, it may be the way to save higher education.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum