Published on 2013/05/16

Barriers to Good Teaching

Barriers to Good Teaching
Though higher education instructors face challenges when it comes to becoming good teachers — from a lack of professional development funding to a lack of teaching culture — the increased attention on pedagogy in higher education from outside bodies is sure to help shake up the status quo.

Previously, I wrote about several strategies instructors can use to help students succeed in college, and one of the comments on that article got me wondering about the challenges instructors face in implementing what I suggested. It’s an important question, for it gets to both institutional culture as well as the current economic conditions affecting those institutions.

The problem starts in the graduate programs where college instructors are minted. Students learn a great deal about their chosen subject  — be it physics or political science — but not how to teach it. They might assist in courses and pay attention to how their professors teach, but none of this is systematic. And there is no place in their curriculum where they consider the difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like a physicist or political scientist, or the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when students encounter a discipline for the first time. The same is true in acquiring a trade. People are trained to be diesel mechanics or cosmetologists or nurses, but not to teach their occupations.

The majority of new college faculty want to teach well — and many do. But they won’t find, on most college campuses, an institutional culture that fosters teaching. To be sure, there are rewards for good teaching — awards, the esteem of students — and most institutions consider exemplary teaching as a factor in promotion. Some campuses have programs that provide resources for instruction, but they tend to be low-status and under-utilized operations. As a community college vice-president I interviewed said, “We don’t cultivate a professional identity around teaching.”

The author of a comment on my previous article suggested more professional development for faculty to “learn how to best engage adult students.” I couldn’t agree more. Some institutions are part of networks aimed at improving teaching. But the sad truth is that, overall, there isn’t a lot of quality professional development for college-level teaching. What is available is frequently inadequate — a brief, packaged presentation by an outside consultant. Furthermore, these days, budget cuts are hacking away at what professional development funds are available.

Yet another challenge to instructors is, purely and simply, time. An increasing number of faculty are not full-time instructors. They’re teaching a course or two at one institution, then another course or two somewhere else. Some teach at a third institution. There’s a reason they’re called “freeway flyers;” they’re zooming from one place to another, getting paid (and not much) by the class, trying to piece together a decent salary. Some of the learning strategies I recommended in my previous column — such as providing an orientation to the textbook — won’t take much extra time, but others, like scheduling students into office visits, do. Oh, and there’s the troublesome fact that some part-timers don’t have offices.

Okay, so I’ve given you the bad news. Now for a little good. College teaching is increasingly the focus of federal and state agencies, think tanks and philanthropic organizations. There are recent promising developments both at individual campuses and within larger systems. In my home state of California, for example, there are several impressive state-wide initiatives and projects aimed at improving instruction in remedial English and mathematics at the community college level. Part-time faculty are included, which is not a typical move.

If you’re a faculty member or administrator, you’re familiar with all the above and, in fact, might be involved in the kind of teaching initiatives I mention. If you’re a student, I think it’s important you know about institutional culture and the challenges your instructors face. The more you know, the better able you are to make your way through this place called college and, possibly, as an individual or as part of a student group, you can petition for change.

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Readers Comments

Will Wright 2013/05/16 at 12:03 pm

I am a student and I agree with the quote that institutions haven’t done enough to “cultivate a professional identity around teaching.” In fact, I find this to be a greater challenge to overcome than lack of funds for professional development or training for instructors. Many of my professors are tenured — a dying breed, no doubt — and have taught the same courses for years and years. They have no real incentive to improve or change their style, even if it’s not the most effective. It’s one thing to acknowledge there is no culture around teaching; the more important question is, what can be done about it?

Bill Davis 2013/05/17 at 8:47 am

There has been some progress in this area. For example, I think of the work that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has accomplished, including the new strategies for teaching remedial math, as Rose alludes to. What Carnegie’s research demonstrates, however, is that it’s not only a matter of teaching instructors how to “teach better,” but that institutions need to also consider how to modify program format and/or content to support better teaching. There is an acknowledgement there that, sometimes, instructors are limited by the rigid requirements of the traditional curriculum.

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