Why our universities fail at teaching undergrads

After 38 years of teaching at Canadian universities, I have recently retired, and I would like to give a convocation address at a major research university — perhaps at my alma mater, the University of Alberta.

After 38 years of teaching at Canadian universities, I have recently retired, and I would like to give a convocation address at a major research university — perhaps at my alma mater, the University of Alberta.

I would do it for free, not even asking for an honourary degree. But I would surely disappoint the administrators and professors.

I would say: “Research universities must improve their undergraduate teaching.”

Most students know that professors and administrators do not place a high value on teaching undergraduate students. Students also know that universities have a monopoly over granting degrees. Consequently, they mute their criticisms until they graduate, and then it is too late.

Students know that many professors teach out of necessity, not because they love teaching or because they want to inspire undergraduates. For example, a professor at the University of Michigan once said: “Every minute I spend in an undergraduate classroom is costing me money and prestige.”

That statement reflects the thinking of many Canadian professors. At research universities, professors receive rewards for scholarly achievements and not for undergraduate teaching. In fact, professors often earn reductions in their “teaching loads” when they receive research grants or when they take on administrative responsibilities.

Consequently, professors who teach badly, arbitrarily cancel classes, are indifferent to learning outcomes, and continue to use outdated lectures and course material short-change their students.

Nevertheless, recently universities have been paying some attention to the quality of undergraduate teaching. Most use standardized teaching surveys, reward a few of their best teachers, and boast that their teaching centres help professors to improve their teaching.

Unfortunately, these initiatives have done little to improve poor instruction.

Poor teachers are rarely punished — let alone fired — whether or not they are evaluated. Moreover, poor teachers are rarely required to take courses from teaching centres to improve performances.

Likewise, granting teaching awards to a few superstars has virtually no effect on the instructional proficiency of the great majority of professors. In fact, some professors say privately that they would be embarrassed to be recognized as outstanding undergraduate teachers.

Ironically, publishing course evaluations help students avoid poor professors, but it also makes those professors better off. Fewer students translate into lighter teaching loads, freeing more time for research and for bringing in research grants, which administrators and tenure and promotion committees see as much more valuable.

Conversely, good teachers are made worse off because they are saddled with a disproportionate number of students, particularly struggling students. As a result, those professors have more essays to mark, more tests to grade, more students to advise, and less time to bring in research grants and conduct research.

The result is that research universities have institutionalized a system in which good professors are punished for teaching well while poor professors are rewarded for teaching badly.

This perverse incentive system leads to an important challenge: how can universities make teaching evaluations an effective tool for rewarding good teaching and punishing poor teaching?

Simply put, the incentive system can be improved — though not made foolproof — by using the basic principles of cooperative learning and team-based management that, surprisingly, were discovered by university professors.

An effective incentive system can be illustrated by a hypothetical example. Suppose that the evaluations of professors range from a low of one to a high of 10 on a reliable and valid evaluation form. Now, assume that 20 per cent of university departments (as opposed to individual professors) have average scores above seven, and 20 per cent of the departments have average scores below four.

Departments with average teaching scores above level seven would be given credits for additional resources — more money for teaching assistants and supplies, more professional development funds, a greater share of the library budget, and so on — while departments below level four would lose credits. In turn, departments with average scores between four and seven would neither gain nor lose credits.

If the assessments of each student carried the same weight, few departments would put their worst or their most inexperienced professors or graduate students in large first-year classes, as often happens now. Members of a department would consider carefully how the average teaching performance of all professors, post-docs, and graduate students would help departments. Moreover, professors would help one another to improve their teaching, something that rarely occurs now.

At present, university professors and administrators at Canadian research universities assume that undergraduate teaching does not need to improve. Consequently, poor teachers continue to reap huge benefits, and students and taxpayers continue to pay huge costs supporting poor teaching.

The University of Alberta’s motto is Quaecumque Vera (Whatsoever is true). Now that administrators at the U of A know what I would say, they will never ask me to give a convocation address. Even if I did it for free.

Rodney A. Clifton is a Senior Scholar at the University of Manitoba and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. His most recent book is What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.