Why aren't collega professors taught to teach?

To be a K-12 teacher, you have to get a BEd, get certified, meet lots of criteria. But to teach college freshmen calculus, you have only but to be a Master’s student who speaks passable English[sup]1[/sup].

Why is teaching so rigorously controlled for elementary and secondary school, but for higher education there is a sudden drop-off where the only qualification is knowing the subject matter? Why aren’t professors, who presumably have teaching as a primary part of their jobs even if they are also doing research and publishing, required to take even a single course in education?

  1. From my own experience as a frosh

Because for most professors, teaching isn’t a primary part of their job, at least from their perspective. Promotions, salary, and advancement are based mainly on publications or grants, and the universities don’t really care whether they teach well or not. Many profs view teaching as an onerous chore that keeps them away from their real jobs. (This said, there are also many profs who are good teachers and enjoy it, but I think they are generally outnumbered.)

A fundamental problem is that most universities have two different missions - teaching and research - that are not entirely compatible. Few people are really good at both, or have time to be even adequate at both. Universities should have a separate cadre of profs whose only mission is to teach undergraduates. Researchers, on the other hand would generally only take on advanced graduate students.

Well, there’s two reasons:

  1. The expectation of the customer (e.g. the university student) is that their professors will be subject matter experts nonpareil - in other words, Ph.Ds, or at the worst, Ph.D students under the supervision of Ph.Ds.

Fact is, dude, that you are not going to find a lot of people willing to put in the years of study to get a Ph.D in physics, or history, or psychology, AND throw a couple of years in there for a concurrent education program.

  1. College students are adults; the expectation is that they’ll do most of the learning on their own. University professors aren’t supposed to be applying advanced teaching techniques because they aren’t supposed to be holding the students’ hands. University students are grownups now, and the (quite reasonable, I think) assumption is that they will take the subject matter and learn it largely on their own.

Conversely, elementary and high school teachers are teaching children, who cannot be expected to self-learn everything, or even much at all. A seven-year-old can’t just be given multiplication tables and told to go study them and get ready for an exam.

  1. College professors are not exclusively teachers; it’s not their entire, or in many cases even the majority of, their job description. It IS, on the other hand, the entire job description of an elementary or secondary school teacher.

Apparently none of MY teachers taught me to count to three.

I think it’s mostly that people who go to college were supposed to learn how to learn from all those K-12 teachers who are taught how to teach. My personal reasons for having poor grades in college can only be traced back to the incessant high-school like principles that seep through so that some people can pass, ruining it for the rest of us.

I’ve actually had D semester grades in classes where I got the highest score in the class on the final with the justification being “You didn’t submit any homework and you didn’t take notes.” Well maybe I didn’t have the need, desire nor the time to meddle with the professors pedagogical system on top of my own, barely compatible, learning system.

The main problem, it seems, that people somehow assume that universities are a logical extension of schools, where you show up and you’re taught certain things. This paradigm significantly cripples academia. Universities are a logical extension of libraries, where some books are living, breathing human beings that conduct lectures, seminars and active research.

Asking why university professors are not taught how to teach, is akin to asking why every book does not include a dictionary and a reading guide.

Why exactly am I paying tuition then?

I don’t understand your question? Are you, perhaps, thinking that you pay tuition so that a team of highly educated professionals can force-feed you knowledge? Then you are mistaken.

You pay tuition so that you have access to the libraries, professors, fellow students and university facilities that you wouldn’t otherwise have were you not enrolled in the university. It’s not the university’s job to teach you anything. Its job is to provide you access to their facilities so that you can learn, and later certify that you have learned certain things in a certain field by issuing a diploma.

You are assuming that the state requirements for a K-12 teacher have something to do with the ability to teach, rather than being a way of restricting the supply of labor.

Of the exceptional teachers that I’ve known, not one had a degree in “education”.

Well, as someone who’s in the process of getting a PhD, with a view to becoming a college professor, i must admit that the absence of teacher training is something that i think about from time to time. To tell you the truth, i think that there are plenty of college professors who would benefit from some formal training in education and pedagogy.

I remember the first time i was ever given a class. I had only finished my own undergraduate degree the year before, and i was hired by my college as a TA in a US History survey course and a Media History course. I walked into the classroom on that first day with no experience and no training at all, and had to basically wing it from there. And, despite the fact that i put in lots of work and did my level best to make the class as interesting and informative as possible, i know there were occasions where i wasn’t very effective.

Even in grad school, where you are meant to get teaching experience, this generally just consists of being thrown into a class. Sure, most professors have weekly meetings with their TAs to go over that week’s lessons, but these meetings usually cover issues of content rather than questions of pedagogical strategy and effective teaching.

While this might all sound pretty bad, i will say that plenty of very good teachers emerge out of such a system. First of all, i’m firmly convinced that one’s effectiveness as a teacher is often directly proportional to one’s enthusiasm and desire to do the job right. Students can sense immediately when a teacher just isn’t interested, and it turns them off learning. And a keen, enthusiastic teacher, one who is committed to giving his or her students a good education, will often turn out to be an excellent teacher even without formal educational training.

Also, particularly for those who are keen and committed, the quality of teaching can also improve dramatically with experience. And, in my experience, this is especially true once you get an opportunity to run your own course, rather than just working as a TA on some professor’s course. Last Spring i taught a course all by myself for the first time, on American intellectual history from the Puritans to the Civil War. The process of designing a course, assigning texts, and preparing lectures and discussion topics every week actually helped to make me a better teacher. Having thought the whole course through as a coherent entity, i was better prepared each week and i had a better sense of where everything fit in and what its significance was.

Another thing that improves with experience is confidence, and it’s amazing how this can, in turn, improve the classroom experience for both teacher and student. I’ve never been especially reticent or shy in public, but now that i have quite a bit of experience in a teaching role, i think that i’m much better at helping to direct classroom discussion and push students to learn than i was before. I’m no longer using half my brain to teach and the other half to worry about my own performance; it just all comes a bit more naturally.

I don’t claim to be some fantastic examplar. I know that there are areas where my teaching could improve, and i’ll continue to work on those. But i also know that i’ve improved a lot since i started. I had confirmation from my professor about this a while ago. About two and a half years back, she asked me to give a guest lecture to one of her undergraduate classes on American conservatism since World War II. At the time, she seemed happy enough, and said that i had done a good job. Last semester, she asked me to reprise the lecture, and afterwards she said that it was amazing how much more confident i was, and how much better my command of the material and of the classroom was. “Night and day” was the term she used when comparing my first effort with my second.

As Colibri says, for many professor teaching actually isn’t considered a primary part of their job. Sure, universities all pay lip service to the issue of teaching, and give out awards for teaching excellence, and advertise their great commitment to teaching in the handbook. But the fact is that when tenure and promotion decisions are being made, in many schools teaching is about the least important aspect of the decision-making process. This obviously varies from college to college; for example, liberal arts colleges sometimes place less emphasis on research and publication than big research universities do, and these liberal arts colleges also often devote more attention to the issue of teaching.

Also, in my experience, there are some professors who would be happy never to see a student. I have met grad students who have told me that their ultimate dream would be to land a job where they could do nothing but spend every day doing research in the archives and writing books, without ever having to teach a class. I think that’s a rather unfortunate attitude. Personally, i think that the opportunity to teach on a regular basis is one of the attractions of academia.

It’s not even that. For example, if to teach math we required a Masters degree in Mathematics, instead of a Masters degree in Mathematics Education, we’d have a big shortage of math teachers, since most people I see in our math department’s education program would not (and are not, as I’ve numerously observed) be able to complete the regular requirements. If you have to study topology instead of some trite educational principle, suddenly nobody wants to.

I am asking if I am supposed to be learning stuff “largely on my own” what exactly am I paying thousands of dollars in tuition for?

I have to say its pretty shocking to find out that its not my school’s job to teach me anything. If this is indeed the case I am going to have to reconsider paying thousands of dollars for access to libraries and having a professor grading me.

Well you may be in luck, since universities (at least in the US) seem to be headed in the direction of high-school style teaching. However, this isn’t an improvement in the least, since instead of getting a college diploma that is actually worth something, you will wind up with a high school diploma under a different name. These practices (teach those who are unable or unwilling to learn tgensekves) devalue college education for everybody, bring down academic standards, and most importantly drastically change the type of professor most commonly seen in a university from an excellent knowledge source to a mediocre educator.

If you do not see the value of not being forced into somebodies strict guidelines of how you need to do to learn. If you think that somebody else can figure out how to teach you something better than you can yourself. Then, just maybe, academia is not for you and you should consider a technical school or an apprenticeship in your field.

This simply isn’t a matter of taste, since it’s impossible to deliver the same quality of education using uniform teaching principles as opposed to self-directed learning. People who are lost without direct guidance do not really belong in a university, because even a one day visit to the library is sufficient to come up with a plan that covers what you need to learn, how, and in what order to excel in a field. But you don’t even have to do that, since universities gladly provide curriculums for each field of study.

groman, you and I have vastly different views of higher education, next time my professors are lecturing I will be sure to inform them that they are not required to teach us anything. I am certain that my university would also enjoy to hear that they can justify charging me tuition by providing me access to libraries and professors. They would certainly be able to save a lot of money by firing the numerous lecturers and TAs they employ.

While the above statement regarding promotions, et cetera (and, although unmentioned, especially the all-important tenure) is absolutely true, I feel compelled to point out that the best instructors I had at university (in physics, mathematics, and mechanical engineering programs) were also highly involved in research, and brought tens of thousands, if not millions, of grant funds coming into the university every year. The three best teachers I had (all of whom were associate professors seeking tenure) did research on the cutting edge of their fields, and were (unlike many profs) personally involved in what went on in their labs, and yet went to great efforts to prepare and present clear lesson plans.

The three worst profs I had, on the other hand, did little or no research, were long-since tenured, and were heavily involved in department and college politics. These guys were terrible instructors–to the point that one, when he (due to inebriation) failed to show up to class, was replaced by a GTA with literal applause by the class–and just didn’t care to explain the material or organize the coursework.

I personally get the impression that profs that are interested in their subject matter are also interested in explaining it to everyone else; call it, for lack of a better term, the Feynman Effect. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are intrinsically good instructors or presentors, but they are willing to put in the effort to demonstrate why they are so enthusiastic about their area of research. Instructors who are just marking time, however, or GTAs who are burned out on their research and who have little or no support or instruction in teaching (and whose language skills are questionable, at best) have no vested interest in making the material interesting and are therefore less likely to overcome whatever deficiencies they have in presentation and pedagogy.

Another point of note: while language skills and accent can be something of a hinderance in the learning process, I recall that my Heat Transfer instructor, a man of Chinese extraction who never lost the accent, was nonetheless an excellent teacher, even if I did have to struggle to understand what he meant by “Pantool Number”. OTOH, my first semester Thermo instructor (first time around) was utterly useless, despite a clear and literate grasp on American English venacular. Fact is, Dr. “Cookbook” Look just didn’t give a termite’s ass about seeing that anybody learned anything from his class and actively enjoyed pointing out how stupid we all were for “failing” his first two exams. (I got the high score on the first exam–a 72/100–which was in his estimation a D+, even when the average score was a 52.)

Actually, community colleges nicely fill this role, providing a surprisingly good level of basic instruction (despite the low wages paid to instructional staff) without requiring any research or grant-seeking efforts by instructors. That’s not to put, say, Pasadena City College in line with CalTech, but the information covered at the freshman and sophomore level is not that different. Of course, students who do a 3/2-type program miss out on the “college experience” and enter into upper division programs berift of connections and commradeship that “single campus” students develop, but from a education value per dollar standpoint it’s hard to beat community colleges unless you are talking about Tier 1 schools.

I’m speaking from the standpoint of a technical/science eduation, of course, and may be wildly off the mark with respect to business, art, and the humanities (and in those fields the marquee is at least as important as the information) but my experience is that the enthusiasm and interest of an instructor is the primary factor in assessing how good of a teacher they actually are. Other considerations, including their pedagogical training, are really secondary.



I did not say anything about TAs, lecturers or lectures. Maybe we do not have vastly different views, but rather use vastly different language.

What I believe is inappropriate in a university settings are graded busywork, planned mandated exercises, pre-structured groupwork, excessive educational guidelines, applied pedagogical principles and very importantly, textbooks. For example, assigning an essay to write that is merely 10-12 pages long, but has a specifications sheet that is 2 pages long is vastly inappropriate and a waste of professors time. A professor should explain his/her grading criteria clearly, yes, but establishing excessive guidelines becomes more and more common. An essay assignment should not generally include much more than a paragraph explaining the subject and essay type.

Frankly I am sick and tired of wasting my time rehashing how to find information, how to cite sources, how to structure papers, how to memorize facts in a more efficient manner, how to effectively delegate work in a group, etc. etc. I am sick and tired of doing trite, insulting assigments that serve only one purpose - making sure the lowest common denominator keeps up. I am sick and tired of textbooks that contain about 20 pages of information and 300 pages of pictures and examples that somehow form basis for entire semester courses.

If you’re interested in rationalizing the spotty level of instruction (it doesn’t sound much like you are) the aim of education is to make you more and more self-sufficient, so that by the time you’re getting a Ph. D. you’re teaching yourself pretty much everything you’re learning. College is a station along this path.

Some people don’t like not having hands-on teachers. These people, as the Wizard of Oz might say, we call “dependent learners.” These people will never amount to much, intellectually speaking, because they rely passively on someone actively forcing the material into their minds, and will never develop an original idea without a teacher in the room screaming at them, which isn’t happening.

Another thing that’s going on is that college instructors are subject to less supervision as to their pedagogy, which sometimes results in lousy teachers, as youve noted, but also allows the freedom for teachers to develop their own styles of teaching, which can be quite wonderful when it works. The cookie-cutter method of turning out high school teachers (making them file and follow lesson plans, adhere to a common curriculum) tends to restrict innovative minds from inventing methods suited to their own peculiar talents. So you tend to get extremes in teaching styles. Believe or not, we’re actually encouraged to be individualistic in figuring out how to teach stuff. Sometimes it works.

Finally, most Ph. D. programs do include some pedagogical technitque, though not everyone avails himself of it. I mostly learned from imitating professors who did a slam-bang job. (To this day, when I teach Shakespeare, I do it with a bit of a West Texas accent, because that’s where my great Shakespeare professor came from. In all other academic areas, I have a pretty strong Manhattan accent.)

Strawmen grow in GQ as well? Astounding.

So why doesn’t the library charge thousands of dollars in tuition? And why doesn’t the library staff enforce attendance policies?

I’m not expecting it to be free, I’m expecting people to get value for their money.

And people claim students aren’t paying for a piece of paper.

Then stop wasting everyone’s time and money by posing as a teacher and go out and do some real work.

Well, in part, your paying for certification. At the end of your degree, you get handed a piece of paper that says University X is so confident about your academic ability that they are willing to stake their name and reputation on your future academic ability. In order to do so, University X needs a rigorous, 4 year evaluation as to your ability consisting of exams, assignments etc by which they grade you.

Another thing they provide is access to other bright people. An academic dating service if you will. Paul Graham, a rather famous computing blogger, makes the observation that even if MIT just locked their students in an empty gymnasium for 4 years and slid pizza under the door, it would still be worth the tens of thousands it costs to go there because you’ll be locked in the same room as some of the smartest people in the country and that’s worth something.

Still more money is being paid to do academic research which is only tangentially related to your studies. Although this theoretically means that you have access to professors who are at the top of their field, IMHO, this is largely not a very good use of your money if you just want a generic degree and to get out of there. However, if you are contemplating doing at least a bit of research work, then you have access to a far wider range of research projects and brilliant professors to mentor you.

Only have a minute to write this, but it’s not as if all institutions of higher learning are cut from the same cloth. There’s a whole spectrum of them out there. At major research universities, you are going to see a whole lot of tenured faculty who regard teaching as something they have to do in order to get to do the stuff they like – research. On the other hand, there are plenty of colleges and community colleges that regard teaching as their primary mission and don’t care much about research. The best of both worlds, in my opinion, is found in small liberal arts colleges without any graduate programs but where the faculty are involved in research projects. At my alma mater, there were no graduate programs, and the administration put a strong emphasis on teaching in hiring and promotion decisions. But many of the professors were also well regarded researchers in their fields as well as being excellent teachers. Some of my classmates who were chemistry or biology majors had the opportunity to work, as undergraduates, on important research projects in the biology of cancer, etc. – research assignments that the best grad students would have been fighting for at a large research university. As an English major, I was directly involved in several faculty research projects, including surveys of the existing literature and complex textual editing projects destined for publication. Not every one of the professors I had was a brilliant teacher, but most of them were very good, and there wasn’t an absolute dud in the bunch.

I don’t think you quite grasp the concept here.

The point is not that professors aren’t required to teach anything. If they weren’t, they would not schedule classes.

The point is that professors aren’t required to apply the same approach to teaching you as a Grade 4 teacher is. An elementary school teacher has to very carefully guide her/his students through the curriculum, teaching the kids how to learn, how to socialize, and how to manage themselves in an educational environment, IN ADDITION to the currculum.

You don’t think teachers go to education classes to learn how to multiply 22 and 6, do you? Any moron can understand a Grade 4 curriculum. They have to know how to get “22 times 6” across to a class of 27 rug rats who don’t have the self-discipline to learn anything without being told, and who range in ability from a few kids who know it already to a few kids who have a terrible time understanding it, and you have to somehow manage this mess, all while making sure they don’t beat each other up.

A college professor’s job is to present the curriculum in a clear and logical manner. That’s it. At the college level, that’s plenty, because at that level, the curriculum is heavy duty shit. He’s not supposed to be concerned about making sure the kid who keeps picking his nose and can’t remember anything beyond thirty minutes ago.