Teaching the teachers

What profession expects its members to exhibit excellence without formal training? What profession evaluates its members on their primary skills only after they are fully engaged in practice, but does not assess or certify them prior to entering the workforce? While this may sound like a setup for a political riddle, the answer is not so funny – it is university teaching. It’s a grim reality that very few university professors are given the opportunity to take any formal training in teaching, course design, or evaluation prior to beginning their teaching careers.

Even those being certified to teach kindergarten children are required to demonstrate proficiency in curriculum development, classroom management, student evaluation, and dealing with a growing list of special learning needs. Yet for many university professors, their first exposure to any aspect of teaching is after they have accepted their first tenure-track appointment.

Most Ph.D. students have been mentored into the role of researcher by their doctoral supervisors, and offered several courses focused on developing excellent research skills. Far fewer graduate courses focus on the critical teaching component of the university professor’s job, despite the fact that many research studies report that most professors spend between 60 and 75 percent of their time working on teaching activities.

Another area where we are failing both our professors and our students is in the area of evaluation. It is undeniable that the impact of a student’s university grades can have repercussions that will last a lifetime, yet professors are expected to compose grading schedules, develop tests and assignments, and formulate final grades with no training or assistance whatsoever.

This is not to say that all university professors are poor teachers. Indeed there are many who are incredibly gifted educators. It is their mentoring of their peers that has historically been the primary source of teaching competence in universities.

In acknowledgement of this apparent disconnect between the skills required of our professors, universities worldwide are emphasizing the importance of the “scholarship of teaching,” asserting that teaching, as well as research, must be rewarded in order to be improved.

The future of university teaching is definitely looking up! Graduate teaching assistants at are now being offered an ever-widening range of opportunities to develop teaching and evaluation. Increasingly, academic postings require applicants to provide a dossier of collected evidence of teaching competence. Many universities are beginning to offer graduate courses in the field of university teaching – including Carleton.

Teaching support centres, such as Carleton’s Educational Development Centre, are showing up in many universities, with more serious support by senior management. This can only pave the way for what appears to be a positive step in the evolution of the modern university—an emphasis on teaching excellence in all programs.

Carol Miles is the Director of Carleton’s Educational Development Centre.

From – http://www.now.carleton.ca/2004-05/361.htm

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