Faculty don't think teaching is as important as their other responsibilities; how do we change that?

Long version

I've been working in academia for a long time and whenever I see instructors half-assing their teaching the go to excuses are that they have no time, or that it doesn't get any respect/grants/promotion/tenure/etc. I don't doubt they're busy, and I know departments don't typically reward teaching excellence (or punish teaching mediocrity...) but the students are suffering as a result.

How can we (faculty that care about teaching and staff supporting faculty) change this situation? What can we do short-term to make faculty care about teaching now and what can we do long-term to make departments care about excellence in teaching, and not just in research?

Note: I'm aware research brings in money. Keep in mind most faculty are adjuncts who aren't doing research but still have tenured research faculty that don't care about teaching as their role models.

  • 9
    Who is the we in this question?
    – ff524
    Jan 6, 2015 at 5:15
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    Unless you actively select faculty who have a passion for teaching -- and SUPPORT them in teaching, rather than hitting them continuously with the publish-or-perish whip -- this can't change. You get what you select for and reward -- or you get something else and/or they go elsewhere.
    – keshlam
    Jan 6, 2015 at 5:17
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    Hmm. Maybe we should have a different type of institution of higher learning from the research university which is predicated on an increased emphasis -- or even a primacy -- of teaching over research. We could cut out graduate programs and thus concentrate on undergraduate teaching. We could call it -- let's see -- a liberal arts college. Do you think that would fly? Jan 6, 2015 at 6:10
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    In other news: "research brings in the money" is true only in a very limited range of academic disciplines. For the majority of academic departments (including mine: mathematics), money flows in the opposite direction. Finally, speaking as a tenured faculty member at a university for whom teaching is less than 50% of my budgeted responsibilities: I find the assertion that I am a role model to adjunct faculty highly dubious. They are not looking to me for teaching inspiration! Jan 6, 2015 at 6:14
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    @PeteL.Clark: presumably you could still be a good role model, though, compared with what the questioner is talking about. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that although teaching is less than half your budgeted time, you nevertheless don't "half ass" the classes you do teach. You just teach less than half as many classes as you would if it were full time :-) Jan 6, 2015 at 10:59

6 Answers 6


Putting in place a better system for evaluating teaching than today's student evaluation forms would be a good start. Getting serious about the assessment of student learning outcomes (rather than simply assigning grades) would also be extremely helpful.

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    +1 This is a thoughtful, on-target, and highly practical answer.
    – ff524
    Jan 6, 2015 at 5:29
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    Any idea what a better system for teaching evaluation would be like and how we may be able to implement it in real life? Jan 6, 2015 at 6:51
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    I agree that evaluations are important...but REWARDS are as important (perhaps more so). In the end, you get what you reward.
    – earthling
    Jan 6, 2015 at 7:03
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    Yuichiro; one approach used in many community colleges and some liberal arts colleges is to have other faculty members and department chairs actually observe teaching in the classroom and review the syllabi and other course materials. Jan 6, 2015 at 16:02
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    Cultural change is hard. If I was good at leading that kind of change I'd probably be working as a dean rather than toiling away as a faculty member :-) Jan 6, 2015 at 18:58

Step 0: Talk to/with existing faculty. How do they view their teaching skill, it's relative importance, motivation to do better, what do they think would improve their own teaching and/or the teaching of others? I would hope the actual people on the ground know a thing or two more than some random fool on the internet (such as myself).

Step 0b: Probably prioritize what people actually think at your institution over what I'll say below. Further, educated people are generally incredibly resistant to having random diktats imposed on them (and professors who are renowned for valuing their positions autonomy all the more so), so you'll need people to buy into things and embrace things. That takes some great implementation skill, diplomacy, and care - good advice followed poorly is rarely a boon. But with that said...

Step 1: Clearly, effectively communicate what is valued in the department/institution - to existing faculty, students, prospective faculty, and the world at large.

Step 2: Actually value those things - don't just pay them lip-service. Are meaningful teaching awards given? Are special posts/chairs given for teaching excellence, with funding and reduced other-than-teaching workloads optionally reduced? Can a person be a great teacher and a not-so-good researcher and expect to be respected and have job security comparable to a star researcher who can barely teach at all? Research/grants are often tied to equipment, labs, funding for students/assistants/projects - must teaching be solely it's own reward at your institution?

Step 3: Measure what's important. Is a respected teaching-quality rating system in place to poll students before/during/after courses, program entrance/graduation, etc? How do you know who is doing a great job and who's doing a bad one? Do people even know if they are doing a good job? Does everyone else know who's doing great things? Is student success/learning solely the responsibility of individual faculty to determine and measure - as though assessment were somehow trivial and easy to do - and thus one class/semester/teacher cannot be meaningfully compared or evaluated? Tight feedback loops are necessary for flow experiences and improvement - tighten the loop.

Step 4: Provide mechanisms for improvement. Feedback from students, constructive advice/encouragement/criticism from senior faculty - especially previously identified great teachers, funding for workshops/conferences specifically about education/pedagogy/teaching, bringing in outside faculty/speakers to speak and hold workshops, etc. Teaching is a skill, just like researching - it must be learned. As some people have very little teaching experience (sometimes having won fellowships that exempted them from teaching), it is generally unwise to just cross your fingers and pray people figure it out on their own.

Step 5: At the end of a semester/year, appraise the situation. What is going well, and what isn't? Make a plan to do better next year, implement the plan, and follow up again next semester/year. Do it again. And again. And again. There are no real shortcuts, just consistent hard work performed by many, repeatedly, over a stretch of time.

Step 6: Align decisions at ever greater (and lesser) levels to match what is truly valued. Student selection, graduate program admittance, postdoc positions, faculty hiring, tenure decisions - if teaching isn't important to the department/institution, it is strange to expect it to be treated as though it were actually important none the less. This doesn't necessarily have to mean everyone must be amazing teachers or else - just that it must be a factor that really does matter and holds value.

Warning: Anything that hints of punishment, job insecurity, lack of respect, or unpleasantness will lead to both intentional and unintentional gaming/sabotage/resistance to any process of improvement or assessment. Trust is valuable, hard to build, and incredibly easy to lose.

In the end, some people are naturally motivated and take it upon themselves to be better and better teachers. For those people you likely need only give them what they need and don't step on them or get in their way. But social systems are powerful, and can rob people of their desire and motivation just as they can encourage the better angels of our nature and inspire us. It must then be decided what system you have now, and what are you willing to and able to do about it?

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    I have never seen a teaching-quality rating system that I could genuinely respect. Jan 6, 2015 at 22:05
  • @BrianM.Scott ratemyprofessors.com doesn't make your cut? :P Jan 6, 2015 at 22:21
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    @Chris: From the little that I’ve seen of it, I’d say that it makes Amazon book ratings look very professional. :-) Jan 6, 2015 at 22:23
  • @BrianM.Scott Exactly - me either! Most sizable universities even have faculty trained in assessment, some even with active research in the field. Political ends seem to be the norm for crowding out useful measures in favor of skewed wastes of everyone's time. A small undergraduate research group could do better - gather suggested questions from students, faculty, and administrators, apply them, perform factor analysis, get feedback from everyone and revise. I'd wager a single cycle could produce better outcomes than what most systems use - and if you can't toss the old system, add your own.
    – BrianH
    Jan 7, 2015 at 2:25

You don't hire people who don't take teaching seriously, and if you do happen to hire them accidentally, you deny them tenure and kick them out.

More generally, you reward those who take teaching seriously and/or punish those who don't. This means you give the former time (by reducing the number of classes they have to teach), money (by paying them more, giving them department funds for research, whatever), and/or other perks (nice office, free parking pass, first dibs on teaching the particular classes they'd most like to teach, whatever), and you don't give those things to the latter.

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    Denying faculty tenure (or even gasp firing them!) because they don't care about teaching sounds awesome, but also a huge culture shift. Where would you start to move the culture that way? Jan 6, 2015 at 5:22
  • @lyonsinbeta: Academia doesn't change quickly, so you can't change this quickly if you already have a department full of people who don't care about teaching. Real change can only really begin with your next hire. In the short term, you can start with some of the stuff I mentioned. Find out what the good teachers want and do everything you can to give it to them. Find everything that the teaching-slackers treasure that you can legally take away, and take it away, or threaten to do so if they don't shape up.
    – BrenBarn
    Jan 6, 2015 at 5:36
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    Addendum: obviously you should first try gentler methods such as talking with current faculty, etc., but the tenor of your question suggested to me that those preliminary moves were already tried and didn't work.
    – BrenBarn
    Jan 6, 2015 at 6:55
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    Reducing the number of classes that good teachers need to teach is not really nice for the students.
    – T. Verron
    Jan 6, 2015 at 17:04
  • I'd -1 this if I could, because this is a really,really poor answer. First, having the bad teachers teach will just reduce the quality of the education at the university. Students won't learn as much, they won't be as happy, and people will be less likely to attend (or re-attend) the university. Second, firing bad teachers isn't a good idea since it ignores the fact that there are two sides to University: the research side and the education side...
    – Wipqozn
    Jan 6, 2015 at 18:38

The fundamental problem is that research and teaching are two entirely different skills. Imagine you're hiring a chef who is also expected to spend a third of his or her time waiting tables; the simple fact of reality is that specially talented individuals will rarely excel at both of these tasks.

You can't convince a professor to be a better teacher than they are - most simply do not have the personality type, passion, inclination, or even inherent capacity to be excellent teachers. They haven't trained those skills nor have they required them to get to their current position in life. It isn't what they were hired for, it isn't what they are good at, and it isn't what they have spent their lives wanting and learning to do. Professors are hired to perform and manage research activities and are only incidentally required to also perform custodial teaching duties. They would likely also do a terrible job if you required them to pitch in cooking lunch in the cafeteria twice a week.

At least in my part of the world, secondary school teachers are not even allowed to apply for a job without an appropriate degree in education. This is to say that, in addition to having the required qualifications in the subject that they are teaching they are also required to be qualified teachers. I see higher education eventually following a similar model - as teaching becomes more important, professorship must eventually branch into two or three largely separate streams.

With specialization being so critical in almost every other professional activity it is almost unbelievable that professorship is such a haphazard occupation. While the training and demonstrated excellence for the position is almost entirely based on research and scientific acumen, professors are nevertheless required to also perform at least two entirely different functions - teaching and management. Surely some PhDs would love to only teach while others would love to devote entirely to research. Likewise, how many late-career professors could continue to produce invaluable research if not burdened by the need to both teach and project-manage a large research group; the very skill they excel at is squandered while their time is occupied performing things they are often neither good at nor that they enjoy.

If you want good teachers, hire teachers to teach. If you want good researchers, hire researchers to research. If you want well managed research groups, hire managers to manage them. If you want chaos and headaches, pick some clever boffins and get them to juggle it all at once. Occasionally you will get lucky and find professors who are excellent researchers, excellent teachers, and excellent managers but, in my experience, these are very rare creatures indeed. Higher education would do well to reconsider its organizational hierarchy, I think.

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    Your first paragraph rankles me a bit. Research and teaching are different skills, but they are not entirely different (and maybe even less entirely different!). Your analogy between a chef and a waiter seems inapt to me. The better analogy is between a chef and a cooking teacher. You will be a crappy cooking teacher if you don't know how to cook, and if you do then you're doing at least one important thing right. Jan 6, 2015 at 15:32
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    Also your comments that professors are only incidentally hired to teach does not ring true to me either. This might have been true forty years ago; some professors might feel that it ought to be true; but it really isn't true anymore. Most graduate students now receive substantial teaching training, starting in many with actual, formal courses (plural). Being a professor is an interesting and challenging job precisely because it demands multiple skills. But there are a lot of jobs like that, and claiming that you should hire people who specialize in one thing doesn't seem realistic to me. Jan 6, 2015 at 15:36
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    @PeteL.Clark I've worked for several institutions of various size and focus and I have never seen "substantial teaching training" and have frequently seen zero. The vast majority of faculty (adjunct and tenure) I know are subject matter experts with no formal education training outside maybe a workshop or two. What sort of teaching training do you have at your institution? Is it required? Compensated? Culturally expected? Jan 6, 2015 at 16:24
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    @lyonsinbeta: When I was a graduate student -- about 15 years ago -- I received training, including giving three lectures under someone else's apprenticeship, having one of them videotaped and then watching it with the trainer. That was a memorable (and memorably harrowing) experience. In my department (math, UGA) students there is a course for all graduate students to take before they can teach a class. In fact, they must take it twice. I'm not sure what you mean by "Compensated" here. Jan 6, 2015 at 16:33
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    @J...: Teaching is the raison d’être of many, many professors. There are entire institutions full of professors who feel this way. You are making a lot of broad claims about the nature of faculty and higher education. It would be interesting to hear more about your background and experience. Jan 6, 2015 at 23:54

In a nutshell: Competition between departments for students and funding can be one of the important reasons to cause departments to care about the quality of teaching.

I give the following anecdote to illustrate the above principle.

In my undergrad institution, which is outside the US and is fairly large (~30 K undergrads), the introductory math classes taken by engineering students were taught by professors in the math department.

I had heard from people in the math department that some in the engineering department wanted to teach the classes themselves, so as to gain more funding and be able to hire more headcount (faculty). Because the math department did not want to lose this funding and headcount to the engineering department they sent their best teaching professors to teach the intro math courses. This allowed the math department to defend their position and say, "We're doing a good job teaching this course, as evidenced by good teaching evaluations, so why should you rock the boat?"

  • This assumes a direct connection between student numbers and money back to the department... which is less and less often the case these days. E.g., my own math dept in effect runs at a loss TAing calculus and lower-division math, because we do not recoup much of the tuition. The higher-ups get the tuition money, and they choose how much trickles down to us... Jan 6, 2015 at 21:30

Much mention has been made of Reward for good teaching, but I would like to suggest an old fashioned and out-of-date idea: Punishment. If someone fails to deliver on their contracted responsibilities to the agreed quality and standards, then they need to face the consequences of their actions and decisions, resulting if necessary in formal disciplinary proceedings. It is not like their students are going to get another chance, so why should the teachers?

However, this means taking responsibility for setting those standards and auditing progress to ensure that they are met, which is something most facilities seem reluctant to do.

  • Was this down voted because someone doesn't want to be punished for being a bad teacher, or because someone doesn't want to take responsibility for setting and enforcing expectations?
    – Paul Smith
    Mar 23, 2017 at 15:47

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