Why Some College Courses Suck, Here’s How to Fix Them

Higher Ed June 19 / June 21, 2019

 – Thomas Mennella –

Let’s face it: this is not a good time for higher education. Tuition rates are steadily climbing faster than inflation, a college degree no longer ensures post-graduation employment the way it used to, parts of society have become skeptical of the value of a college education, and much of the rigor of college courses has eroded away as a means to boost retention and pass rates. While the problems with higher ed are varied and multi-faceted, it’s quite possible that the cause of these challenges is singular. Perhaps everything listed above is a symptom of nothing more than poor teaching.  

Poor college-level teaching leads to students struggling in their courses, feeling frustrated and leaving the institution as a result. This diminished student retention is a powerful driver of higher tuition rates. Poor college-level teaching results in employers no longer trusting the credential that a bachelor’s degree used to be and, thus, recent college grads are no longer hired, ‘as is,’ simply because they received a college education. Poor college-level teaching has led to a society that no longer blindly accepts the worth of this education at face value (and rightfully so). And colleges and universities would embarrass themselves by giving students grades that accurately reflect mastery; such grades would be so low that institutions would be forced to acknowledge their systemic failings. So instead, grades are inflated, directly resulting in less rigor required to excel in college courses. Again, it is possible that most – if not all – of the current problems in higher education stem from poor teaching. Perhaps Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, authors of Cracks in the Ivory Tower, said it best in their interview with Inside Higher Ed:

If faculty were genuinely interested in educating students, they’d pay great attention to work in educational psychology. They’d want to test to see what works and what doesn’t, and they’d modify their methods accordingly. But most don’t do that. They just do the same old thing everyone’s done since the dawn of time, and they either yawn or get mad when you show them the scary studies saying it fails.

Content Mastery and Great Teaching Are Not Synonymous

But let’s not point fingers, either. This isn’t solely the fault of faculty. Colleges and universities employ scholars and academics as their faculty, but high-quality teaching in itself is a skill, an art and a gift. There is no correlation between being an expert in a field and being a gifted educator. How many of you have had brilliant professors in college who couldn’t even clearly explain how to tie a shoelace? (OK, you can all put your hands down now). And how many mediocre scholars and scientists who barely publish in their discipline actually turn out to be very effective teachers? (Now it’s my turn to put my hand down). In his interview with Salon, Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson insightfully points to the problem being faced:

One critique has always been that scholars are given the wrong set of incentives as teachers. They become “narrow specialists” who lose sight of the fact that the kids they’re teaching are not about to become apprentices to their methodology… there are some disincentives to good teaching: If you’re going to be a real scholar, you’re not going to spend as much time teaching undergraduates… At the teaching level, I think the incentives have gotten more perverse.

An Innovative Solution

The first step toward fixing a problem is identifying its source. Higher ed definitely has a problem, and its source seems quite clear: poor teaching. The next step is then offering solutions. In July of 2018, I wrote a blog post on this subject highlighting the innovation steps that the University of British Columbia (UBC) was taking to create a new kind of tenure track for the teaching professor. UBC has a faculty track called the Educational Leadership stream. From my previous blog post, “all faculty hired under this stream (or track)… are fully expected to contribute to the larger scholarly community… Faculty members in the Educational Leadership program must demonstrate excellence in their teaching.” This new strategy at UBC gave me hope that higher education could find a way out of its current quagmire. More recently, right in my own backyard of New England in the US, I became aware of a new kind of Lecturer position. At a very large, globally recognized research institution, the Lecturer position (previously a low-wage, low-security teaching position, one step up from adjunct status) has been revamped. Lecturers at this institution receive competitive salaries, become eligible for sabbatical-like professional development leaves, and – amazingly – earn a continuous appointment after six years of satisfactory service (with this continuous appointment being synonymous to tenure!). Perhaps, most importantly, lecturers are members of the same union as the faculty and are seen as faculty by the institution.

Everyone Wins

This new kind of Lecturer position holds the potential to solve higher education’s problems. Lecturers are professional educators. They are hired for their skills and experience in the classroom, not in the lab or library. Lecturers teach the most critical, the most challenging and the gateway undergraduate courses and, in this way, undergrads receive a high-quality education. But lecturers also free the research faculty (i.e., scholars) to focus on their disciplines, on their scholarly pursuits, and on teaching graduate-level classes. Everyone in this system plays to their strengths and both students and institutions are benefactors. Everyone wins.

Five years ago, I believed that higher education was in a downward spiral with no relief in sight. But today, I have hope. The tools and strategies to fix higher ed are out there, and they’re being deployed. Whether it’s called “Educational Leadership” or “Lecturer” makes no difference; what is clear is that the most innovative, and compassionate institutions are prioritizing the education of their undergraduates. They are providing pathways for professional educators to join – and then succeed as part of – their faculty. They are defining a solution. They are embodying the very notion of higher education.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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