Why University Teaching Rarely Improves

ProfJob2In higher education, the job of a professor is well-defined. It consists of three things: teaching, research, and service to the university and one’s profession.

Teaching involves three tasks: preparation (of the course), execution (delivering the course), and follow-up (guiding students’ work, feedback, grading, etc.). Teaching is usually a solitary activity, where the faculty members perform these three tasks in isolation of their colleagues.

Research involves studying phenomena in one’s field of expertise; developing research questions and answering them by using various research methods. Research can be performed by the faculty member alone or in conjunction with others such as students, faculty, staff, industry, government, non-profits, etc.

Service to the university means to serve on university, school, or department committees as part of “shared governance” of the institution. Typically, there are some 25 to 35 university-wide standing committees that require staffing by faculty members. And there may be another 4 or 5 ad hoc committees in operation at any given time that also require staffing by faculty members.

Service to the profession means to support one’s profession by serving as an officer of a scholarly society, an academic conference organizer or track chair, as the editor or associate editor of an academic journal, and the like.

Depending on the institution, professors’ work performance is evaluated as approximately 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research, and 20 percent service. But in reality, a faculty members’ time could be 30 percent teaching, 10 percent research, and 60 percent service. Irrespective of the official ratio (40-40-20 or similar), service to the university is normally quite time consuming and often produces little results because, as with any process loaded with queue time, it is 95 percent waste and only 5 percent value-added.

Teaching is generally mediocre. Just ask any undergraduate student how many of the 40 or so professors they had were good teachers, and they invariably say two or three (I have documented the reasons for this here, here, here, and here). Why does teaching remain mediocre? And why does the curriculum generally lag so far behind the needs of our ever-evolving society? There are three primary reasons for this.

First, even though teaching is a principal factor in professors’ performance evaluation, an average rating from student evaluations (equivalent to a letter grade of “C,” 2.5 sigma quality) is usually good enough for promotion or to receive tenure. Furthermore, students generally do not complain about teaching (unless it is really bad) because they fear retribution from the faculty member, their colleagues, or the administration. Remarkably, chief academic officers (Provosts) seem to know little about the abilities of teachers, individually or in aggregate, in an institution whose primary mission is teaching.

Second, senior administrators do not like dealing with faculty generally, and teaching in particular, because of “academic freedom,” they can be argumentative (though usually correct on the facts), and other factors. So, administrators instead focus on things that are within their control, such as planning new buildings, establishing ad hoc committees to study this or that problem, budgets, meetings, fundraising, and so on. In other words, they largely ignore teaching. But, they need to care about teaching so that others will as well.

Third, the concept of “shared governance” compels faculty to engage in university service that usually consumes more time than the 20 percent required for performance evaluation. If you were to examine all of a university’s standing committees, you would find that only four or five committees are actually needed to effectively govern the institution. The remaining committees could be disbanded and the decision-making related to those committees could be vested into the hands of administrators. Separately, however, is the problem that higher education administration itself tends to be mediocre (e.g. poor leadership, poor decision-making, absent from the departments and classroom, and so on). But assuming capable and competent leadership existed, then the decision-making for most committees could be left to administrators. Alternatively, guidelines for administrative decision-making could be created, in collaboration with faculty, so that faculty participation in decision-making would be necessary only periodically or under certain unique circumstances.

So, my proposal is to eliminate the “service to the university” requirement and replace it with a “daily improvement in teaching” requirement. Doing this would free-up faculty’s time to improve teaching by converting it from a individual contributor activity to a team-based activity within each academic department (as a unit, or in sub-units). Specifically, use kaizen and other methods to improve course content, relevance, and quality, and to ensure that each department’s courses and curricula is up-to-date. This includes improving course delivery, as many faculty are disorganized or poor at lecturing. Faculty teaching improvement teams and academic departments would share their improvements with one another via seminars, the school’s intranet, and single-page improvement summaries (a simplified type of A3 report), for example.

In my view, the professor’s job should become 50 percent teaching (inclusive of the “daily improvement in teaching” requirement) and 50 percent research (less quantity, better quality, and greater near- or far-term impact) – both of which reflect the university’s mission in its entirety – with university service activity rewarded separately through recognition, extra compensation, or both. Service to the profession would then fall under either teaching or research. Why not try it, see what works and what doesn’t, and improve again and again?

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