Improve University Teaching

A Princeton review survey in 2005 revealed that some of our most prestigious universities have among the lowest student ratings of professor’s ability to “bring material to life.” At the very bottom of a list of more than 350 colleges ranked were some schools that you may have heard of: UCLA, Texas, Michigan, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, Columbia, and NYU. What’s going on here?

My colleague Robert Kegan likes to say that you generally get the result the system was engineered to produce, and this couldn’t be truer than when it comes to teaching in higher education, particularly at research universities. Professions are defined by the training they require, the mechanisms they use to keep out unqualified practitioners, and how they certify that practicing members are working within the standards of their field. In higher education, all of this is tied to research: graduate students are taught to research, the Ph.D. certifies their ability to create original scholarship, and peer-reviewed publishing provides an ongoing mechanism to ensure that new scholarship meets the standards of the field.

But no similar mechanisms exist on the teaching side: you can get a Ph.D. and be hired as a professor without having taught a single class, and, once you are teaching, no one will observe your teaching or ask that it meets any kind of standard. Worse, research counts for tenure, and teaching frequently counts little if at all; grants allow you to “buy out” teaching, thus the more “successful” you are as a research-producing faculty member, the less you teach. (Full disclosure: I’m on leave this year under this very logic.)

The result is what we see: a few people who really work at it and have become skilled teachers; a vast middle of people who are substantively competent by virtue of subject matter knowledge but have little developed teaching skill, and some who are embarrassingly unable to convey what they know to students.

There are essentially two ways to attack this problem. First, we could create a culture that supports teaching. In this world, prospective faculty members would learn from skilled teachers in graduate school, work in teams to develop courses and learn from each other’s practice, visit one another’s classes, and get feedback from master teachers. Teaching would need to count more evenly with research for tenure.

The other possibility would be to “unbundle” the roles that exist within the university. Currently, tenure and tenure track faculty members rule the roost, and a huge number of poorly paid adjuncts do an increasing share of the teaching, particularly the big introductory courses. But imagine a world where some professors, brilliant in their fields but unable to communicate effectively with undergraduates, teach little – if at all – while others, more skilled or inclined to teach, take on a larger share. Rather than trying to get all faculty members to be good at both teaching and research, we would create more specialized, but comparably respected and paid, roles that would be matched to particular people’s talents.

I would favor about 80 percent of solution one, and 20 percent of solution two. There is real value to having the same people producing the scholarship and doing the teaching. At the same time, there are some tasks that require more detailed attention than most professors are willing to give — such as freshman writing.

Making these changes would run up against significant cultural barriers within higher education. But I would submit that universities have two important functions — to develop new knowledge and to teach students — both of which need to be realized if universities are to thrive and achieve their public missions.

Jal Mehta is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He recently completed a manuscript, The Allure of Order: The Troubled Quest to Rationalize a Century of American Schooling, which investigates the causes and consequences of educational rationalization for academic values, for the teaching profession, and for social justice.