Who teaches the teachers?

Universities, the temples of higher education, are supposed to deliver excellent, flawless teaching. University professors should always be, at least according to PR leaflets and websites, inspiring, motivated teachers, and devoted mentors that guide their students through the fascinating adventure of learning. However, while there are of course a large number of outstanding university professors who truly drive their students’ learning, there are many others that struggle when put in front of a classroom. How can this be the case? Who teachers the teachers? This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, but it is worth asking ourselves what kind of extensive training and preparation do university professors undergo before they start teaching.

Upon a brief moment of reflection, it should be not too difficult to realise that there exist several reasons for why university professors are not necessarily that good at what should be one of the core duties of their job. First of all, few university staff are recruited solely on the basis of their pedagogical skills. In most cases, there are other factors that carry much more weight in the selection and hiring procedure, such as their research productivity and impact, and even more important lately, their demonstrated ability and potential to attract external funding (assuming that any such a thing is real). So, when looking for a job in academia, early career scholars and scientists have all incentives to boost their research portfolio, and little to devote their limited time to teaching, even less to investigate, pursue, and implement new educational approaches.

Moreover when hired, for instance at the Assistant Professor level, most scientists have had only a rather reduced exposure to teaching. Perhaps they have taken care of small-group tutorials, or have been in charge of supervisions, but few have experienced the burden of coordinating and teaching a large bachelor course with say more than one hundred students. Indeed, unbeknown to many people, teaching involves much (but really, like a lot) more than the mere time spent in the lecture room with the chalk in hand. It also requires setting up a bunch of detailed documents such as the syllabi and the study guides, determine and produce the evaluation and assessment methods, prepare material including lecture notes, handouts and slides, and all this checking that the various university regulations (and there are a lot of these) have been religiously obeyed. Then one has the marking, addressing the students’ questions and doubts, being available for office time and the like. In a nutshell, it is not a walk in the park, and in most cases the only way to prepare for the job by talking to your peers, trial and error, and of course by actually doing it.

It is a fundamental law of nature, on the same footing the General Relativity, that no matter how detailed and exhaustive is the information on the syllabus students will still ask the same questions. Source: PhD Comics.

A second reason why excellence in teaching is not as frequent in our universities as one might naively think has to do with the fact that, for all the many devoted and enthusiastic teachers around, there are also many professors who simply don’t care much about the students in front of them in the classroom. For many scientists, teaching is a disruption from their really important activities such as doing experiments, writing papers, and requesting (and securing) funding, while students represent a nuisance that should be avoided as much as possible. At most, they can be tolerated as an eventual source of personnel for their labs, but that is as far as it gets. The fact that many university departments reward their more successful staff with significant teaching reductions is a further sign highlighting the underlying priorities.

A third possible reason of why even highly successful researchers can become rather lousy teachers arises from the fact that, for an activity that is supposed to represent an integral part of our job, we receive surprisingly little training on how to become a good instructor. Mostly, we are supposed to learn the trade by imitation, and we tend to spend much less time thinking about what works and what not in education as compared to what we do in our research activities. Even between those of us that devote our efforts to the hard sciences there is often little interest to investigate what actually works and what not, at the quantitative level, from the pedagogical and educational perspective.

Such position can be inefficient or even dangerous for several reasons. First of all, it often assumes that all students are more or less like ourselves, and that we should teach them using the same methodology as that of our own favourite teachers. But this is far from being the case: the fact that I would definitely enjoy a heavy lecture with lengthy mathematical derivations does not necessarily mean that my students will also benefit, even less enjoy, from a similar type of lecture (and this is as it should be!). There exist many different types of learners, and focusing on a single type based on our own preferences is definitely a pedagogical bias that we should strive to avoid. Statistically speaking, our students are very different from ourselves, and this should be seen as an opportunity rather than as a drawback. Moreover, there exist a large degree of variation in interest, skills, and receptivity in our student population, and tailoring our teaching methods to a specific subset of this population (perhaps to the one that we consider to be composed by the ideal students) is not only rather pedagogically inefficient, it is also unfair with the rest of our students. As access to higher education widens up and our students become more and more diverse, we should be more careful in considering who do we have in front of us and what are the strategies that could work best to assist them in their learning, as opposed to those that we, subjectively, believe to be the best ones.

Ok, then you might ask, perhaps we should start teaching some teachers how to do their job better?  Well, the good news is that more often than not one does not need to implement burdensome measures or to motivate our staff to undergo extensive training: there are many simple, cost-effective measures that can lead to significant improvements in student learning. The first is perhaps really obvious, but one can never underestimate its vital importance: talking a lot. Talk to the students to check how the course is going, what works and what not, what are the points they find more challenging and where do they struggle. In my experience, student feedback represents a useful resource to improve the courses, and one should not wait until it is too late to gather it. Talk also to fellow teachers and instructors, gather statistics about their experiences, their ideas, what has been successful for them. Everyone enjoys doing their job better, and stubborn as academics can be, when presented with ideas that work they are the first to take them on board. And talk also with the management, with people that have a broad view of the local education ecosystem, with program and education directors. Be of course also critical with the input that you receive from them, but also be open to learn new things that eventually will make you a better teacher.

A second low-cost measure to improve students’ learning is to find the most efficient methods to communicate knowledge. For example, one of my little personal crusades is to reduce the use (and abuse) of slides and powerpoints in the classroom, especially for foundational courses. While using slides might be justified in some contexts, for example in large classrooms, I strongly believe that nothing beats a good old blackboard (whiteboards are also fine though!). Sure, you will cover less material, but this is fine: the main goal of a lecture is that the students learn something, as opposed to everything. Moreover, using blackboards naturally slows you down, so for students is easier to follow, take notes, and in general feel more engaged with the lecture. Well, many people often object, but I do have a horrible handwriting, or I don’t know how to draw graphs, or I am messy with the blackboard. Again, this is fine: just provide handouts or lecture notes, all the relevant information will still be available, and the most important process of all, which is the knowledge transfer between the teacher and the students, will have happened anyway. Someone once told me that in some countries the use of slides is banned for bachelor courses. While being perhaps too extreme (every course, instructor, and students are different so flexibility is important) I believe that such a measure goes into the right direction.

Not all students react to incentives in the expected way. Source: PhD Comics.

Of course, at the end of the day there is no substitute for passion. All pedagogical theories and technological support pale in front of a motivated, engaging teacher who loves to communicate knowledge and to educate students. But supplementing this passion with a few of mostly common-sense tips can go a very long way in significantly improving the teaching and learning experience in our universities, both for the instructors and for the students.

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