Whenever we hire someone to perform a particular service for us, we prudently check their credentials. We certainly wouldn’t hire a carpenter with too many bad Yelp reviews, a home contractor with no license or insurance, or a babysitter with a criminal record. In short, we go to great lengths to ensure that a potential hire is fully qualified to render the service for which we are paying.
However, when it comes to the education of our children, we tend to turn a blind eye to mediocrity. We find ourselves willing to pay thousands of dollars in tuition to send our children to universities where the professors can’t teach. We never check to see whether the professor is qualified to teach. We leave that judgment to the universities, who are interested only in hiring research professors who can bring money into the institutions. True, research is an integral part of academic work, and universities must hire top-notch researchers who can contribute to the advances in their fields. And professors can dedicate all of their time to research if they work only with graduate students.
Professors facing undergraduate students, however have certain responsibilities toward them, just like any K-12 teacher. To become a teacher in the public school system, you must earn a bachelor's degree, gain classroom experience under the supervision of a qualified teacher, complete teacher training (certification or credential), and receive a license. More than 3 million K-12 teachers have gone through trainings, and they are teaching more than 50 million students in the US. Why are professors exempted from this teacher training?
In reality, nothing in professors’ backgrounds qualifies them to teach. A person who just obtained a Ph.D. is most prepared for a research career but least prepared for teaching. And yet, brand-new Ph.D. graduates are asked to teach, with no teacher training—which is akin to letting a teenager drive a car without a valid license. This often happens because, in many universities, teaching is low-priority. The underlying assumption behind this is that professors who spend time perfecting teaching are wasting their time and not contributing to the institution’s bottom line.
But how can you expect someone to do a job without any training? No professional occupation I can think of—be it a medical doctor, a kindergarten teacher, or a school bus driver—begins with no prior training under the guidance of a certified trainer. Why, then, do we put Ph.D. graduates with no training before hundreds of undergraduate students and kill their enthusiasm and interest in the subject?
Most professors do want to help students learn better but don’t know how to do so. Without adequate preparation, they resort to familiar techniques they had observed when they themselves were students. They may show PowerPoint slides and read them out with the sincere belief that they are delivering content. Some set unreasonable expectations, assign difficult problems, fail far too many students, and thus project the image of a ‘tough’ professor in the name of academic rigor. Others take the opposite route: they become ‘easy’ professors and give out good grades, hoping their students won’t review them harshly. Needless to say, none of these approaches work. They cause students to lose interest in the subject, to try to “get through it” somehow, or to drop out of the major, which often happens in engineering disciplines.
Which is a shame, because students want to learn, and they know when they learn. So the role of a teacher is to help students learn. Effective teachers know how to engage students, but becoming an effective teacher requires a strong understanding of pedagogy and practice. It specifically requires an understanding of:
- how students learn;
- how to help students see the big picture;
- how to correlate learning objectives to reality;
- how to make the content engaging;
- how to inspire students to learn;
- how to communicate with students;
- how to prepare for a class;
- how to develop student and self assessments;
- classroom management skills; and
- the use of technology as educational tools.
These are some of the basic skills a new teacher must be familiar with before beginning to teach. Yet most new professors waste valuable time learning simple things “on the job” that they should have learned before they set foot in the classroom.
So, what can we do? First and foremost, professors must learn how to teach. Any Ph.D. scholar who plans to teach undergraduate students must go through basic teaching training. Universities can offer such training programs. Any such training must include role-playing, the only way to test whether someone is ready to be in the classroom.
Universities do conduct workshops to improve teaching. I attend a fair number of them each year, and I must say they are largely useless because those who go to these workshops are the ones who need them least, and there is no evidence if they make any impact. Instead, universities should offer mandatory training for incoming new faculty.
Another important reason for this is the number of foreign-born faculty in the US, especially in engineering. Approximately 63.6% of the doctoral degrees in engineering went to foreign-born students in the US in 2006, according to the National Science Foundation. Many of them would become faculty in the US, just like myself. Many would teach the way they were taught, and I can personally attest that it is not good.
Professors who can’t teach are not merely frustrating for students. They are obstacles on the pathways to student success.