January 21, 2017 1:55 pm

Norman Eng


“Really? No wonder my classes were so boring!”

That sums up the reactions I get when people hear this.

While faculty salaries make up one-third of college budgets,  almost none of the money actually go into pedagogical training, professional development, or improving instruction.

How much have you had?

If you’re lucky, program heads or department chairs may get faculty together once in while to, for instance, help students write better—a perennial issue. Oftentimes, however, collaborating is up to individual professors. I’ve had the fortune of working with colleagues who teach an education seminar course helping students pass a newer, more rigorous teacher performance assessment.

Those opportunities are rare.

Part of the problem is the widespread mentality—often within professors themselves—that “we are experts and therefore know what’s best for our students.” That need for autonomy, while understandable, is misplaced. We’re experts in the subject matter, so it makes sense we decide what to teach (i.e., the content of the course: the newest issues, what topics are most important, etc.). Yet we’re not experts at how to teach. At least most of us.

That’s why we need instructional support.

What if colleges and universities provided more training? Imagine if, for instance, if a history department hosted a workshop to teach the best ways to: 1) write a syllabus that students actually read; 2) increase student participation; 3) present engaging lectures; and 4) get students to “do the readings.” It would address common frustrations among instructors.

How about gathering junior faculty to observe a class taught by highly rated professors? In Japan, K-12 teachers use these “lesson studies” to analyze and dissect best practices. Teachers improve when they see how others teach. It has become so popular that many public school districts in the U.S. have embraced this professional development approach. It is time colleges and universities do the same.

Without better teachers, students suffer. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, co-authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, argue that many students still can’t think critically, solve problems, or write effectively even after they graduate. Even worse, employers don’t think graduates are ready to compete in the workplace.

Of course, there are many reasons for this. For one, colleges and universities need to stop prioritizing institutional prestige over students’ education. That’s a larger issue for another time.

In the meantime, why not start small? Help professors become better teachers. Professional development is a great way to start.

  • I often hear that just because someone is an expert in a domain doesn’t mean they can teach it. I heard this mostly when I was in college, but many professors were still not given (or it seemed like they weren’t given) training on how to actually teach. One professor even had 150 slides, all filled with text, for every 2 hour lecture.

    This bleeds into other professions too. Folks are promoted to managers for doing their job well, but never given instruction on management. People become interviewers without training on how to actually conduct an interview.

    It seems like there is a perception that these “soft” skills are really easy and that a domain expert can just pick them up. I agree with your argument that it should be treated with as much discipline as the domain itself.

    • Your example of managers never never learning to manage especially resonated with me, as I know someone who has complained about this. They’re promoted for good work, but knowing how to lead others?

      I’m glad there is this emerging recognition in K-12 about socio-emotional skills–even though employers have been saying such soft skills are critical for a long time.

      BTW it makes me cry when I hear about 150 slides…

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