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I am a PhD student in the field of education and I enjoy reading SE questions to stimulate my mind when I need a break. I find academia to be one of my most frequently visited sites.

When reading questions, answers, and comments to questions of teaching practices I often see content I consider problematic given what is “known” (a word I will use loosely here) from research in educational psychology.

How do professors and lecturers learn to teach?

I do not mean this flippantly as I often see high-quality contributions on SE as well.

I suspect teaching courses as doctoral students is a consistent practice across fields, but I am curious to know what accompanies this in fields outside of education. What other resources are provided besides having professors and lecturers learn on the fly and make their own conceptions of what good teaching practices are?

I understand this may be largely field and institution dependent. I also am asking from a U.S. context, but I would be interested to know if the structure is noticeably different between countries.

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    They just jump. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 6 '19 at 15:33
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    My university provides optional seminars for learning how to teach and for improving your teaching in a variety of ways, as well as a peer mentoring program. I strongly suspect this varies from school to school. – Kathy Dec 6 '19 at 15:45
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    I improved a whole lot at teaching by TAing and tutoring during grad school. (Still have a lot of room for improvement, of course.) – littleO Dec 7 '19 at 4:29
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    Either you swim, or the students drown. – SolveIt Dec 7 '19 at 6:17
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    Trial and error. At least in my experience, more of the latter, as most professors aren't really all that good at teaching. – jamesqf Dec 7 '19 at 17:53

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[US/R1-specific] Although faculty usually have recourse to some sort of university teaching resource center that can provide videotaping, training, professional evaluation, etc., it is rarely the case that either research or instructional faculty are required to engage in teaching development activities. My impression is that those who become genuinely good teachers are (1) talented and (2) take the initiative to educate themselves about the research. But this seems to be a rather small minority--most faculty apparently come up with their own pedagogical beliefs and practices based on their personal experience.

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This answer is based on my experience in Germany, and in an engineering field.

  • For interested teachers, universities usually have a central department that offers training, workshops, brochures, and plenty of information about how to teach. For example, here, here, and here.

  • Many lecturers do not take advantage of these possibilities and still learn on the fly. Doctoral students often have recently attended master courses and observed how teaching was done there. In many cases, the professor gives the lectures and the doctoral student teaches the corresponding tutorial, which consists of doing practice exercises on the board. This is easier to do than teaching concepts, and provides an opportunity for the doctoral student to become confident in teaching.

  • Evaluation by the students also plays a role. The students are asked to give anonymous feedback on the lectures and tutorials approximately at the middle of the semester. The teacher can then learn what they can improve in their method of teaching.

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    My experience in Germany and Austria supports this answer. The traditional postgraduate education in both countries does not include learning how to teach. Graduate schools, however, make teaching (small) part of their curriculum. Some universities require that new lecturers complete a mandatory teaching workshop, before teaching their first course. All universities also offer institutional resources (workshops, handbooks, "learning centers"); but their use is voluntary. Most lecturers, however, have acquired most of their teachings skills (or not) on the fly, especially the older generation. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 6 '19 at 17:05
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    @henning--reinstateMonica: “The traditional postgraduate education in both countries does not include learning how to teach.” It doesn’t include classes on how to teach, but (in both what I’ve seen myself and been told by my elders) it has always included learning how to teach, roughly like you learns in an apprenticeship: you watch experienced people do it, and then you try doing it yourself, with feedback and self-reflection. Pedagogical courses/seminars can also be useful, but it bothers me when people seem to give these primacy over learning the practice of teaching. – PLL Dec 7 '19 at 22:50
  • @PLL sure, you can - and should - also learn by observation, but this shouldn't be the only source of training. Pupils don't become teachers by going to school, and although I listen to a lot of music, I don't know how to play an instrument. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 8 '19 at 8:12
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    A German “tutorial” is analogous to a discussion or recitation in the United States, by the way. – eurieka Dec 8 '19 at 17:50
  • That "evaluation", the way it is done in German academia, is a total idiotic nonsense, to say the least. If they would start asking students three semesters later, "how good did that course prepare you for the exams you had to take this year", then it would start making sense. – Karl Dec 9 '19 at 21:46
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Some copy what they saw from their lecturers - hopefully only the best bits of course.

Styles of delivery - spacing of materials, topics etc

Types of assessments and combinations of continuous assessments with exam(s)...

Some do a teacher training course - some places offer a level for schools, others a level for higher and further education. And I can still lay my hands on my reference number for my teaching qualification.

Met some who make excellent teachers without training and others that should not be allowed near a classroom even after training...

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  • In the UK, there is UKPSF (Professional Standards Framework) and HEA (Higher Education Authority, of which you can become a fellow if you complete the right modules). They encourage a "reflective" style of teaching (I.e. do more of what works). – Pam Dec 8 '19 at 8:45
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    "Met some who make excellent teachers without training and others that should not be allowed near a classroom even after training..." Me too. – Giuseppe Negro Dec 9 '19 at 13:46
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In the UK, there are pedagogical courses which all permanent staff with teaching duties are encouraged to complete (often as a formal requirement of their appointment).

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  • Those are the courses (Cert Ed and PGCE) which I referred to... – Solar Mike Dec 6 '19 at 15:46
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    Teaching in Germany -- as well as in other countries -- is seeing an increasing degree of professionalization since the last 10 to 15 years. Usually grad schools, career services for phd students and post doc offer a wide range of courses for rhetoric, pedagogical and didactical methods and the planning of courses as well as e-learning, etc. Above that, a growing body of literature is available that especially focuses on teaching at universities. – HATEthePLOT Dec 6 '19 at 15:53
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    Sadly, the US doesn't require such things, which horrifies my European colleagues. – Buffy Dec 7 '19 at 1:21
  • But essentially all US school will offer these opportunities even if they don't require them. – Elin Dec 7 '19 at 1:23
  • Even those of us who do a little lecturing on a research-only contract are often encouraged to do short courses (up to a few days). Even a one-day course can make a big difference when you've never been taught to teach. (I'm also in the UK) – Chris H Dec 9 '19 at 14:07
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There are occasional courses about how to teach - they teach things like inclusiveness, whether certain groups need more attention, and so on.

That said, I imagine most people "learn" by watching their teachers teach. For example if I'm struggling to understand some concept, and then eventually understand it, I could very well look back at my learning experience and think "My professor wasn't able to explain the concept very well, but I know how to explain this so that I'd have been able to understand it!" This kind of thought eventually becomes the foundation of what I do when I teach it myself.

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When I was in grad school in a U.S. university, a while ago, the section of the university I was in had a series of workshops taught by professors in various departments. These were optional, and met only for a short time in each case (one class session or a few class sessions). I found all of the workshops that I attended to be useful to one degree or another, but they varied a lot in content. In one instance the university brought in someone from outside to teach a special workshop on her methods. I think the university had a commitment to keep offering these workshops, but the content probably depended on the professors tapped to teach them or on the people coordinating the program that year. My department never offered any training of its own. There are few things that stuck with me, one of which I make use of constantly, remark on to students occasionally (I did today), and that has even played a role in one of my publications.

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Speaking as an adjunct professor in the US: We don't really get any additional training. In graduate school, I recall being required to attend a "TA Orientation", in which we were taught a little about how to teach. After that, the only training came from observing the instructors I worked with, talking with my fellow TAs, and the occasional one-day optional seminar. At institutions I've worked at since then, I've been required to complete pedagogical trainings - but on the scale of a few hours over the course of an entire academic year.

The most helpful has been direct feedback. Every institution I've worked at has had a student evaluation system, in which students provide feedback about the instructor's teaching; unfortunately, this has been demonstrated to be unreliable, as students tend to evaluate based on how easy they found the course. Unrelatedly, but more concerningly, it has been shown that students tend to give lower scores to instructors who are female and/or people of color than to their white male counterparts who perform similarly. On the other hand, I've on some occasions had more experienced instructors sit in on my classes and offer feedback; that's been almost uniformly helpful (though compromised by the fact that they often haven't had any more formal training than I have).

Apart from that, it's entirely experience; over time, if you're paying attention, you learn what works and what doesn't. I like to think I've picked up a bit more than average by teaching in a wide variety of contexts, and by having a close working relationship with several colleagues who actually do have degrees in education, but there's still a long way to go.

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    Regarding the people of color having statistically lower evaluations than white males: did they control for nationality? Many professors from international backgrounds can have quite thick accents that might result in lower scores by students due to a difficulty in understanding their speech, and I wouldn't be surprised if they made up a larger proportion of the "people of color" demographic than the "white" demographic. – nick012000 Dec 7 '19 at 13:03
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    @nick012000 The study I linked doesn't seem to be controlling for nationality; accent certainly is a contributing factor, because separate studies have shown a bias based on accent. Though difficulty understanding isn't the end of the story; in fasebj.org/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.2018.32.1_supplement.21.3, students were demonstrated to have complicated biases related to accent (like a Chinese speaker being rated as less organized than an American one, despite identical content and learning success). – Reese Dec 7 '19 at 20:07
  • @nick012000 There is quite a bit of research showing that students have higher opinions of white men. It's a very robust finding. – Elizabeth Henning Dec 8 '19 at 17:12
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Ideally we would like there to be a way to train every future professor to teach well. A number of real-world factors make this more or less impossible.

  1. Disciplines are different, as are different subjects within disciplines, e.g., a first-semester French language course is different from a graduate course in the 18th century French novel. So if there is valid professional expertise about how to teach, it's going to be highly specific.

  2. Another type of problem is exemplified by my own field, physics. There is a great deal of evidence that traditional lecturing is a horrible method of teaching freshman physics. A survey paper on this topic is Von Korff 2016. There are other methods (referred to in the Von Korff paper as interactive engagement methods, or IE) that have been consistently shown to be superior. However, only a pretty small minority of people teaching freshman physics use anything other than traditional lecturing. I think this is due to a variety of social forces, not the least of which is that students tend to resist IE, and new teachers are afraid of getting bad student evaluations of teaching.

  3. If people are learning how to teach when they're TA's in grad school, there is no reason to think that what they're learning is correct and applicable. For reason #1 above, it may be correct but inapplicable to their future teaching. For reason #2, it may just be incorrect -- they learn traditional techniques, which are bad techniques.

  4. Often good teaching is more work for the teacher. For example, students in most subjects should be getting frequent, detailed feedback from a human on their work. At community colleges, there are no TA's, and many teachers don't want to grade stacks of papers, so they find ways of not doing it.

There are certainly some general, basic teaching skills that are widely applicable and can be straightforwardly taught and applied. When a new teacher starts work at my school, we visit their classroom and evaluate them, and we give them written feedback on this sort of thing. Some of the comments I find myself making more frequently are:

  • Don't ask questions and then ignore students' attempt to answer them.

  • Learn to write on the board without blocking the board with your body and turning your back to your students.

  • Minimize distractions by setting up the classroom situation properly and clearly expressing your expectations. For example, if a student is walking in and out of class to take phone calls, and crossing the front of the room in order to do so, I would suggest that they require students to come in and out through a back door, and/or call out the behavior briefly rather than allowing it to continue.

Reference

Von Korff et al., 2016, "Secondary Analysis of Teaching Methods in Introductory Physics: a 50k-Student Study," https://arxiv.org/abs/1603.00516

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    Interactive engagement techniques are also hard to do well. It's a lot easier to just stand in front of a blackboard and "explain." – Elizabeth Henning Dec 9 '19 at 3:49
  • Can't agree more, +1. It took me a long while to figure out the correct amount of time waiting after giving a question to the students to encourage them to actually answer - instead of them just simply waiting for me to answer it myself. – grochmal Dec 9 '19 at 16:53
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I agree with Solar Mike. I taught some courses while being a phd student. Those courses were related to some other courses which were taught by a professor. Whenever I asked him something related to teaching, he said "That's your decision." I then went afterwards to a university teaching job -- I never formally learned teaching, it was all on the fly and copying what worked for me. (I agree that I have the same weakness many non-educated teachers have -- we do not know how to teach non-interested/not-good students.)

(Western Europe)

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I'd like to expand a bit on @wimi's answer about the situation in Germany (chemistry in my case).

In general I agree that university teaching could be improved if the university would educate their lecturers in how to lecture. Just as academic research could be improved if the universities taught their PIs/group leaders/professors how to manage a group.

Nevertheless, the learning-by-doing approach is IMHO not as bad as it is sometimes made to sound.

  • The typical teaching career as I've seen it doesn't mean "swim or drown" with someone suddenly being thrown into doing a full semester long series of lectures. Before that, there are tons of opportunities to learn step by step various skills that are needed for lecturing:

    • The usual start is with 1 : 1 or 1 : few teaching situations: a PhD student teaching in a labwork practicum (in my case: the same few experiments over and over again) or research students. This provides lots of situations where one can hone ones explanation skills and where one gets immediate feedback on whether the explanation is understandable or not.
      (In parallel, one also learns how to examine/grade.)
    • One will give seminar and conference presentations. The seminar presentations may include the express task for the audience to also comment on how presentation skills may be improved. I've met this explicitly in seminars that were trial-runs of important presentations (thesis defense, first international conference talk, ...), but more experienced group members may also approach a speaker with particular suggestions after the normal state of project report seminar (in private, afterwards).
    • One may teach "excercise class", i.e. a class where solutions to questions that accompany the proper lecture are calculated and students ask questions about the lecture. Again, this often starts by being responsible not for a whole semester-long series but only for a few instances - leaving time to properly prepare these classes.

    • At some point one is asked to provide workshops that teach ones group particular techniques. Here we're very close to lecture settings, but the audience is still small & friendly.

    • At some point, one starts to occasionally act as substitute for a lecturer who cannot deliver one of their lectures. Again, this usually doesn't happen to random persons, but someone is asked whom the lecturer trusts can deliver the lecture in appropriate quality.

    This also means that inexperienced and thus bad teaching is restricted in its impact, and higher impact "formats" are entered step by step as experience improves.

  • One point (bad exception) that I have to mention is: if someone decides they want to become professor and do their habilitation (or take a junior professorship), they have to teach lectures. But there are two "motivations" for becoming a professor: research and teaching. So there's a certain population that never wanted to teach but is forced to do so because they want to have a research career. This of course is not promising for lecture quality.

  • It is no secret who is a good lecturer and who isn't. So looking how others teach is not picking up random techniques from random lecturers, but there's the possibility to look what the good lecturers do (and ask them for advise).

  • It is true that not all good lecturers can explain what they do why - and that teaching knowledge may be transfered faster in other ways.
    Still this way of learning is closely related to how I acquire knowledge as experimental researcher, I'm quite proficient in this way of learning.

  • We're talking about fully qualified professionals.
    If I as a chemist start working in a research project that involves, say, biology I'm expected to get myself to a sufficient level of biological knowledge that allows me to efficiently work on that project - and without anyone telling me what lectures I should attend. I'm expected to be able to find out myself what resources I need.
    IMHO the same applies to teaching: as fully qualified professional it is my responsibility to acquire those skills.

    • There's nothing that hinders someone to prepare for their teaching by reading up theory on teaching.
    • Nor is it forbidden to ask the audience for explicit feedback on the teaching.
      I give university lectures only very occasionally, but more often I teach in industry settings, and I also teach with the carpentries. When I run my courses, I often have a student helper who keeps the logistics going smoothly and has the additional task to make notes on suggested improvements, ambiguities, problems. If I'd become a university teacher now, I'd ask e.g. a PhD student from "my" (or a related) group who'd profit from the lecture to attend and give such feedback.

    • I may say, though, that I found it rather difficult to find good resources on the didactics I need(ed) - much easier to find a biology textbook on genetics. Things seem to have improved in the last years, though (see links in wimi's answer).

      Actually, the greater difficulty in teaching for me was(is) not teaching my actual profession, but to teach programming basics because in contrast to my profession I don't remember how my "mind set" was before I knew about programming (I started programming at age 12 autodidactically)

      This difficulty/deep disconnect with my audience got me involved with the carpentries, and that that's where I attended some lecture about how to teach.

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I am assuming professors and lecturers have PhD.

A part of the experience comes from their teaching assistantship during PhD.

Further, when they join a university as an academician, the department conducts teaching-learning workshops where experienced professors discuss new pedagogical skills and feedbacks.

Teaching is a process that needs to keep improving everytime we take a lecture. And, this is a beautiful thing.

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    "I am assuming professors and lecturers have PhD": They may not: not all countries require a PhD to become a professor (e.g. in my country the PhD was established just some 30-odd years ago and virtually all older professors don't have a PhD). In addition, not all departments conduct teaching-learning workshops. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 7 '19 at 9:59
  • @MassimoOrtolano I completely agree. I just was focused on the majority case. There can be exceptions. – Coder Dec 7 '19 at 20:49
  • "Experienced professors" have no clue about pedagogics. – Karl Dec 9 '19 at 22:06

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