Why aren’t Faculty better teachers? Prompted by a book review of: Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education « Tony Bates

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Book review: Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education « Tony Bates.

Sadly, I don’t actually have time to read this book just now as I am writing one of my own. However, from the sounds of this review this is one that every active faculty member SHOULD read.

A few comments that resonated with me:

the impact of educational research on faculty-teaching practice and student-learning experience has been negligible.

‘much of our current approach to teaching in higher education might best be described as practices of convenience, to the extent that traditional pedagogical approaches continue to predominate. Such practices are convenient insofar as large numbers of students can be efficiently processed through the system. As far as learning effectiveness is concerned, however, such practices are decidedly inconvenient, as they fall far short of what is needed in terms of fostering self-directed learning, transformative learning, or learning that lasts.’

‘…research suggests that there is an association between how faculty teach and how students learn, and how students learn and the learning outcomes achieved. Further, research suggests that many faculty members teach in ways that are not particularly helpful to deep learning. Much of this research has been known for decades, yet we continue to teach in ways that are contrary to these findings.’

I posted this on FB this morning, and one reply suggested that giving faculty smaller classes and more time would improve the situation. In other words, he thought that faculty would improve their teaching if only they had more time.

After 33 years in academia, I don’t.

The way people teach has far more to do with what faculty value and far less to do with class size or available time. I don’t believe that most of the faculty actually would improve their teaching. What is it that faculty are rewarded for? Teaching? Hardly. If they had more time, most of them would simply publish more and write more grant applications. This is often true even in education faculties.

Many, perhaps even MOST faculty don’t value teaching – especially in “research institutions”. They see it as a chore. I know faculty who routinely have small classes and VERY low teaching loads and their teaching still sucks. All they care about is getting grants and putting their names on papers. Notice I didn’t say publishing. I dare you to find a professor who has NEVER put his or her name on a paper that he or she didn’t actually write (at least in part). I know a few, but my point is, I know VERY few. And I know LOTS of professors.

The longer I stay on the periphery of the Academy, the better my perspective. 20 years ago I could NOT understand why ANYONE would ever want to leave the Academy. Now I absolutely get it.

Faculty are forever bellyaching about how the ‘system’ is this or that, but the truth is, the faculty ARE the system. Faculty make the rules. That’s what institutional governance is all about. THE FACULTY THEMSELVES decide what is important and, more to the point, THEY decide how their colleagues (and they) are assessed and how they get tenure and promotions.

So, take your pick:

1. change the system,

or, to put it bluntly,

2. STFU.

There is a third option: leave.
I ended up being forced to choose Door Number 3 because there was only ONE other person in my department (out of 45) who was actually willing to stand up and try to change things. I had plenty of people telling me how much they were behind me, and how much they agreed with me,…. but none of them were willing to risk anything.

Remember that story about The Little Red Hen? Well, that’s pretty much what happens. Except in this story, the little red hen ends up having to move away just so she can grow her grain and make her bread without the other critters trying to ruin her work.

After all’s said and done, people don’t actually like someone who will raise the bar.

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Why aren’t Faculty better teachers? Prompted by a book review of: Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education « Tony Bates — 5 Comments

  1. Katrin,
    Your comments seem to indirectly support the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, as Mount Royal has defined it (studying your own students’ learning). One problem with educational research is that it often seen as not applying to an individual faculty member’s classroom – it is easy to think you’re different or special or that another researcher could not possibly understand how to teach in your own field, and therefore the research doesn’t apply to you… until you actually sit down and systematically analyze what is going on in your own classroom. SoTL may have the power to better inform teachers, as well as to elevate the status of scholarly teaching since it results in publication. But of course, that’s only if it’s done well…
    What do you think?

    • I think you may be on to something. It is certainly true that undergraduate universities place a higher value on teaching than do research ones. I think Mount Royal is doing better than most. Just the same, I came across more than a few instructors at MRU who are quite self-satisfied – they’ve been doing the same thing for (pick a number: 5, 10, 15) years and see no reason to change. I also came across the ones who feel they are already working hard enough and don’t think they should have to do more than teach the classes they’ve been assigned. There’s always room for improvement, I guess.

      Part of the challenge is that many disciplines (especially in STEM) do not really value research on how to teach their discipline. I believe it is true most of the time that people who don’t really know the discipline shouldn’t be telling someone who does how to teach it. What Stroustrup said about teaching programming applies here too: “you can’t teach what you don’t practice (and in many cases, never have practiced) and therefore don’t understand”.

      On the other hand many who actually do care about teaching don’t spend much time reflecting on what they do, and even less time on sharing what they’ve learned. In MRU’s case, I think administration sometimes tries just a little too hard to reassure faculty that they don’t need to change now that it is a university. The fact is, a university IS different from a college.

  2. While some of this critique is correct (there are plenty of faculty who value research much more highly than teaching), I have met several faculty who have valued teaching highly also, and who have tried different approaches for getting students to learn material deeply.

    Many have found that the published research on educational methods does not seem to work out in real life in their classes, and so they pursue their own idiosyncratic approaches. Much of the research is done with remedial and freshman-level classes, or transferred from research with much younger students, and so does not apply very directly to graduate and upper-division courses, which often have very discipline-specific constraints.

    • You are absolutely correct. Part of the problem here is that the research, done largely by faculty in Education is conducted like most research: using grant money (i.e. there is no permanence and no long-term follow-up) – and done by people who are primarily researchers, or whose main experience teaching is at the university level, teaching people who want to be teachers. Their experience is not representative.

      I have 2 degrees in CS and a PhD in Ed Tech. I had >20 years’ experience teaching CS at university before I finished my PhD. Without trying to sound too pompous, I would say that there is almost no-one trained primarily in education who is qualified to talk about how to teach recursion for example, or how to teach about graduate level CS research. On the other hand, there are also precious few CS faculty qualified to talk about how to teach their subject. So we’re stuck.

      When I started my PhD I still had tenure in CS. The Dean of Science actually told me to my face that my PhD was of NO value to them, since it had nothing to do with science. That’s the typical state of affairs.

      Education is very much an applied discipline – one has to teach something. “Educators” trained only as educators aren’t actually qualified to teach anything. It would be like being trained as a “designer” without ever specifying WHAT they have learned to design (I would SO hire this guy to design my car ;-> ). (Kind of like management….)

      The only real solution is to teach discipline experts about teaching and let them put that together with their own subject knowledge. So long as we value research (and, let’s face it the money that comes with it), we won’t be doing that any time soon. 8-(

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