Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Teaching professors to become good teachers

Shouldn’t this be a mandatory requirement at university?


I spent a couple of days in Montreal last week at the annual meeting of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. I’m invariably left energized by the enthusiasm of the STLHE folk, whom I’ve often called the evangelists for good teaching. Last week was no exception.

There were many fascinating topics discussed that I hope to touch upon in future blog posts. A good place to start is with a session that addressed the thorny question of what policies and practices universities should put in place to enhance teaching. The background for this particular session was a teaching development project entitled University Teaching: Meeting Challenges and Demands, funded by the Max Bell Foundation of Canada and implemented from 2006 to 2010 at McGill, Dalhousie and Queen’s universities. The key initiative of the project, offered over a span of two years at each institution, was a five-day, 35-hour workshop on course design and teaching. These voluntary workshops were delivered through each institution’s teaching development unit to early-career faculty, and a total of 42 professors took part.

Three professors were on hand to discuss their experiences with the workshop, and for them it clearly had an impact. Ilana Bank, an assistant professor of pediatrics at McGill University, explained that after the five days, she was so enthused by what she had experienced that she enrolled for a full semester in McGill’s “teacher scholars” program. That, in turn, prompted her to develop a simulation curriculum for pediatric emergency medicine fellows that has since been turned into a national curriculum; it will be tested as a pilot project this fall across Canada. All of that came from her initial exposure to educational development through that five-day course.

The provosts at two of the universities involved in the project were on hand to reflect on what was presented. Their reflections were, I thought, quite revealing both for what they said and didn’t say. The two were Carolyn Watters, provost and vice-president, academic, at Dalhousie, and McGill provost Anthony Masi.

Among the questions, they were asked whether it would be feasible to offer course relief for early-career faculty members to develop their teaching. Dr. Watters responded with her own question: “Why is this not part of the PhD program?” Referring to the common assumption that faculty will spend 40 percent of their time teaching, she commented: “Why do we think, as [new faculty] walk in, ‘Oh, we’re going to pay you 40 percent to do something you’ve probably never done before, and we expect you to do it very well.”

Dr. Watters contrasted this with how early-career faculty, at least at research-intensive universities, are helped by the university to create a research development plan. “We say, ‘OK, we’re going to give you course relief in the first year, we’re going to give you start-up money and we’re going to make sure you’ve got a lab and share a couple of students. … There is a pattern there, and we all know what the career path is,” she said. “Expectations around teaching and teaching effectiveness are not as clear.”

But Dr. Watters doesn’t necessarily support course relief for teaching development. “Giving somebody simple course relief over a period of two or three years without having some kind of teaching development plan, to me, well, what’s the point really? If you’re not giving them the tools to actually become a better teacher, you might as well let them practise and maybe they’ll figure it out on their own. The idea of having a teaching development plan in the same way that we have a research development plan, to me, makes sense.”

And she would go even further. “What could possibly justify not having teaching development for all of our faculty? Not just for first year and second year, but the fifth year, the 10th year and the 20th year. Things change all the time. The way students were taught in 1975 is probably not the gold standard anymore. So I think it’s not a one-time shot.”

McGill’s Dr. Masi took a different tack: “The most important thing about being at a university is that research is the fundamental goal of the professoriate,” he said. “It is what defines the character of the university. It defines its reputation. It defines its outreach. But the second thing in the academic duties is of course the teaching, so we do need to keep those two things in mind. … The problem is that we have generally, at research-intensive universities, detached the research from the teaching.”

Dr. Masi observed that only about 30 percent of people who get PhDs go on to academic careers at universities, “so putting the emphasis on teaching at the PhD level might not be the most appropriate place for it … unless we think that learning something about learning is a useful life skill.”

McGill, he said, has taken very seriously the notion of preparing its grad students for teaching, despite the fact most won’t end up as university teachers. The university provides what it calls a “skills set” that is now mandatory for all students who become teaching assistants.

However, he said, “I don’t think it is appropriate or possible to develop a uniform policy for teaching release, but it is possible to develop a context within which it is expected that throughout the course of their career individuals will in fact take the time to improve their pedagogical skills, learn the new technologies and fundamentally think about their students.”

I didn’t hear any commitment from either provost about making it mandatory for early-career faculty to take some sort of teaching development course of the sort highlighted in the session. Of course, in an institution as large and complicated as a university, nothing is ever quite as simple as that. There are many convoluted considerations regarding disciplinary silos, workloads, collective agreements, and so on. Yet, I think there needs to be a clear message that universities must do a better job to develop excellent researchers into good teachers. How can it be possible that university faculty are expected to devote 40 percent of their time on an activity for which they may have had no training whatsoever?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Gavan Watson / June 27, 2012 at 09:53

    To lay my (potential) bias bare, it’s part of my job here at the University of Guelph to help support graduate students in their development as educators.

    I recognize, in my position, that while we’re training the next generation of the professoriate, as Dr. Masi pointed out, not all Masters graduates go on to do PhDs and not all PhD graduates end up in academia. I would argue, however, that there ought not to be just one “place” where those involved in academia, be they graduate students, sessionals or full-time faculty, develop their teaching practice. This ought to be an on-going cycle of action and reflection.

    But to think that graduate school isn’t an appropriate place to intentionally introduce graduate students to evidence-based approaches to improve their students’ learning seems to echo the 2010 HEQCO study (University Faculty Engagement in Teaching Development Activities Phase II, Britnell, J. et al.) that development as a researcher is more valued in higher ed. But it’s a false dichotomy. Research and teaching are linked to the benefit of both, as a 2011 paper in Science (Graduate Students’ Teaching Experiences Improve Their Methodological Research Skills, Feldon, D. F. et al.) suggests.

    Teaching—broadly—is a bricolage of skills that don’t just live in the classroom. If we’re serious about supporting graduate students irregardless of where they end up after completing their degrees and improving the quality of Undergraduate education on campuses, then support for developing graduate students’ teaching practice is key.

  2. Andrew Gow / June 27, 2012 at 11:08

    Hang on a minute, folks — to say that new faculty have no experience teaching is to ignore a claim made elsewhere in this article, namely that much teaching is done by people other than research faculty. Many of those teachers are M.A. and Ph.D. students working as tutors and as primary instructors. I have just chaired a hiring committee, and most of the candidates had had substantial teaching experience. Were they explicitly TRAINED how to teach? No. They learned how to teach (and how not to teach) in the literally dozens of university classes they took, and in the classes they taught. Is there room for improvement? Yes, of course. Substantial support for new instructors in particular, such as communicating best practices based on evidence-based research about high education, is critical. But why do we assume that only those who have had explicit training as teachers can teach? Demonstrably, a large proportion of university faculty teach very very well, and never took a single formal course to learn how to do so. Let’s be realistic and pragmatic about this issue, please.

  3. Ron Britton / June 27, 2012 at 11:53

    Yes, STLHE is a great group and yes, they do have an infectious energy. As a Life Memebr, I am biased. But I am also bised by my own discipline, Engineering. The same weeek that you were at STLHE, the Canadian Engineering Education Associaiton was holding its 3rd annual meeting in Winnipeg. We are a new, small, growing organization that is focused on the unique problems associated with engineering education. Our conference attracted about 130 persons, mostly academics, from 33 differernt institutions (there are 43 institutions that have accredirted Engineering programs in Canada). We will meet again at Ecole Polytechnic in Montreal, June 17 – 20, 2013. Why not drop in for a visit and check out how we are attempting to help engineers learn how to teach engineering? And yes, I know, our two conferences will clash again.


  4. Reuben Kaufman / June 27, 2012 at 12:28

    Right on, Andrew!

    By far the majority of “teaching enhancement” sessions that I see offered at my university focus exclusively on how to adopt new computer/internet technologies in one’s teaching arsenal. As valuable as many of these tools may be, they are not indispensable to “good teaching”. Some of them actually undermine “good learning” by the student, by removing one level of responsibility or another from their activities. None of what I write here, of course, speaks against the goal of improving teaching. The enhanced support I’ve experienced over 35 years at the U. of Alberta is very heartening. Frankly though, even more important than programs promoting good teaching, would be programs to enhance good learning among our students. The percentage of students who remain intimidated by the professor, to the point that they will never approach us either during or after class is astoundingly low. A former student, who I know well, told me recently how she would never dare to approach a professor for help, even though she readily admitted that most of the professors she knew encouraged students to do so. She admitted that she may be at one end of a spectrum, but she suggested also that most students were closer to her end than the other. My experience in teaching large classes (150 – 300 souls) confirms this. Notwithstanding regular invitations to students (“my obligation to you only begins in the lecture hall; take advantage of my readiness to interact with you any time one-on one or in small groups.”) I don’t recall more than 5 or 6 students in any course ever dropping by after class more than once or twice. Why don’t we initiate “learning enhancement” sessions for all students, focusing on why it’s important to let your professor know about the difficulties you may have, or just to explore a topic in greater depth? How unfortunate it is that most of the problems we hear about arrive after the course has ended, via anonymous student opinion surveys. Those surveys are useful in some ways, but they are pretty useless for enhancing learning.

    Reuben Kaufman

  5. Shane Caldwell / June 27, 2012 at 12:41

    I’m a graduate student at McGill, and have attended several of the Skillsets workshops, which have been useful. Unfortunately, this article quotes Dr. Masi saying that they are mandatory for teaching assistants, which is not the case. In fact, there is frequently a strong disincentive to students taking part in such activities, as it can mean time away from the bench, which research-focused mentors do not appreciate.

    I’ll echo the previous commenter that skills involved with teaching are transferable across many fields, including research – presentation skills being an obvious example. However, Dr. Masi’s comments, like those made by many Ph.D. supervisors, indicate that they don’t understand the value of well-rounded trainees in academia and elsewhere.

    As postscript to anyone at McGill, I’ll point out that the skillsets program is aimed at general professional development for graduate students, which includes teaching among other things. In addition, the Tomlinson Project in University Level Science Education (T-PULSE) is an excellent resource for science graduate students looking to improve their teaching skills.

Click to fill out a quick survey