Faculty Teaching the Way They Were Taught

Teacher education programs leading to elementary and secondary certification often require significantly more than the traditional 120 credit hours for the baccalaureate degree. With required foundational teaching history, philosophy and theory courses, there are requisite teaching methods courses, all in addition to courses in the chosen field or discipline. On top of that, there are required student-teaching vacations and classroom observations. To renew teacher certification commonly requires the completion of continuing professional development courses. Elementary and secondary school teachers have far more schooling in the teaching field than most of our Ph.D. programs require.

So, how do new higher ed faculty learn about teaching? In far too many cases, the new faculty members draw mostly upon their experiences in the past half dozen years as a graduate student. It is a rare case in which their graduate faculty have had formal training in instructional design, engagement, emerging educational technologies and authentic assessment. This has been going on for generations of faculty over the previous decades and centuries. Emulating those who taught us is the default approach to new faculty teaching. Whatever felt good to us as students is the selected method.

A significant number of, but not all, students in terminal degree programs served as teaching assistants at some point along the way to their degree. Training, enrichment and supervision for TA positions is spotty at best across the doctoral programs in the US Back in the day, half a century ago, I took a master’s minor in educational psychology, which while useful, was far less development than teacher education programs require and less than I should have had before stepping into the classroom.

There are orientation and mentoring programs for new faculty at most universities, yet, for new faculty members, full use of these services is a lower priority, stacked on top of settling into a new community, a full load of new class subject matter preparations, research responsibilities, governance obligations and departmental tasks. How much can they absorb and apply in the first week, month or even holiday of their new career? I suspect that when the newly minted Ph.D. instructor/assistant professor steps into an online or on-campus classroom, even with the best of intentions to implement new methods and modes, the inclination is to emulate the way in which they were last taught. We do what our own teachers did to—or, if we are lucky, with—us. Depending upon the context of the prior experience, this may be adequate, or it may be unacceptable, inappropriate or insufficient for the learners and level of the class.

We are on the cusp of a huge advancement in educational technologies. Artificial intelligence offers us great new opportunities to personalize the learning experience for our students. Augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies promise to enhance the learning experiences, particularly in the areas of virtual laboratories, simulations and other immersive experiences. These will require continuing development for the faculty members who use them.

How do we best address the long-running challenge of minimal experience, background and support in the most current effective instructional design, teaching methods, diversity, equity, inclusion and emerging learning technologies among our faculty?

In many cases campus units, such as the Center for Online, Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where I am emeritus, offer a wide range of services in course design, pedagogy and research support to faculty. New faculty orientation taps these services for support even before classes begin, throughout the first year and beyond. One-on-one, on-demand support is available to fit the needs and schedule of the faculty members. The unit provides continuing development programs for more experienced faculty in cooperation with the Center for Teaching Excellence and others. Yet it historically remains a challenge to keep all the faculty engaged in continuous improvement throughout their career.

As we move into a major transformation of higher education, our faculty and their learners deserve the best and newest pedagogy and technology to meet the challenge of expanding societal demands for well-informed, critical/creative thinking and skilled workers. We need to take advantage of the full range of emerging technologies and pedagogical approaches where they may enhance the learning outcomes for our own faculty members, enabling them to excel in teaching our most important product, our students. This should be the highest priority at all institutions. It’s job one! Research, service and community engagement are also important, but the top priority and public expectation of colleges and universities is to provide high-quality teaching and learning opportunities.

At many institutions without dedicated, robust faculty development services, the answer may be found in tapping the continuing professional education and development units that serve external programs. Continuing ed units are experts in providing these kinds of services to an array of fields. They are experienced in a wide range of delivery modes as well as effective outcome assessments. Why not tap that expertise to provide foundational as well as continuous improvement opportunities in the teaching, learning and leading enterprise in our institutions?

Does your institution provide excellent, career-long development services to ensure quality teaching and learning even among the least experienced on your faculty? How consistently is the classroom quality (online and on-campus) assessed? Are you confident that all students in all programs are served with the very best teaching quality and learning opportunities that can be provided?

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