Analysis & Comment

College Professors: Before You Teach, Learn How!

College Professors: Before You Teach, Learn How!

A dirty little secret of higher education is that faculty members at most American colleges and universities have never taken a course on how to teach. This is true of faculty at elite institutions like Yale University as well as those at broad-access campuses like those in the California State University System.

This troubling reality is compounded by four additional problems that make the matter worse for students who are seeking to learn.

First, a majority of courses at many campuses across the country are taught by part-time—or “adjunct”—faculty, who are paid per course and may teach at three or four different institutions over the course of a week. Because they are not tied to a particular school, adjunct faculty are unlikely to have participated in even a workshop on improving their teaching.

Second, although faculty may have served as teaching assistants in a course or two while they were studying for their doctorate degrees, their supervisors were there to guide their research, not their teaching. Few help their teaching assistants learn the skills of effective teaching, even if they have those skills themselves. As a result, new faculty teaching a subject for the first time may use the same approach to the subject that was used when they took it as a student. They may even use their old class notes. This means that poor teaching is passed down from generation to generation.


Third, faculty are chosen for doctoral programs—the gateway to faculty status—because they were outstanding students in the fields where they do their graduate work. As a result, they often do not recognize why students in their classes have difficulties understanding the issues and problems that they raise in those classes. The faculty have what is called “unconscious mastery,” and this makes it hard for them to explain a concept to struggling students.

Finally, students these days are so engaged in the fast-paced Internet era that many find it difficult to switch gears when they have to study an issue that requires in-depth analysis and patience. These students want instant answers, although the problems with which they are grappling may need careful consideration of multiple facets and weighing of multiple options. They may have to select the “least bad” approach among an array of poor choices.

What can those who are not in higher education do to promote the obvious importance of preparing faculty to be good teachers? One step would be for high-school students and their parents who are considering a college or university to ask whether faculty members there have taken a course on effective teaching. If enough prospective undergraduates and their parents press campuses on this issue, change can happen.

Thomas Ehrlich & Ernestine Fu - Forbes