Should university professors and teaching assistants (TAs) be compelled to train as teachers? Yes. Obviously.

Not everyone agrees, of course (least of all, professors). The idea of compulsory training for university instructors is controversial, but the idea makes undeniable sense. We require our elementary and secondary school teachers to have teaching credentials. Why aren’t Ontario’s undergrads – who are paying more than ever for their education – given the same assurance that their instructors know the first thing about teaching?

According to a 2012 report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), only two Ontario universities have mandatory orientation for new professors, and universities’ teaching development centres are extremely uneven across the province in terms of size and strength.

Academics are taught to be excellent thinkers and researchers, and are proven experts by the time they become professors. As a result, people tend to assume that they are perfectly suited to give instruction in their fields. The problem is that possessing expert-level knowledge of a subject has nothing to do with being able to communicate it effectively, or present it in a way that is engaging or useful – or in other words, educational.

Of course, many professors are exemplary teachers, even without training. However not every academic has a knack for it, and students deserve better than a toss of the die to hope for instructors who aren’t just guessing at how to teach. Teaching is more than just standing in a lecture hall and reading from slides – which, even when done well, is one of the least effective means of teaching. Teaching means sparking curiosity to promote thought and participation.

Teaching assistants, similarly, suffer a lack of training. At many universities, TAs are expected to give lectures, lead discussion groups, and otherwise take on considerable teaching duties.

As a former TA at an Ontario university, I was responsible for leading seminars that accounted for a third of the course’s weekly class time. I like to think that I did well and that I have a natural talent for communication, but to this day I have no real way of knowing if I was an effective instructor. My attempts at teaching, leading exercises, and facilitating discussions were all just stabs in the dark.

The university where I was a TA offered a voluntary one-day crash course in teaching and grading. I didn’t attend, and neither did any of my peers. In fact, I never met a TA there who had. Looking back it’s easy to see that our indifference wasn’t fair to the students and the school should have made the course compulsory; the only mandatory training was a brief online workshop in diversity and sensitivity. Most of us raced through this as fast as possible.

It’s the same across the province. As of 2013, the University of Toronto is the only university in Ontario to mandate compulsory teaching training for its TAs. The rest have voluntary sessions or no training at all.

Instructors in the college sector have widely adopted training as an expected standard, so why such resistance in universities? One argument is empirical: the claim that we don’t know if it works. To an extent, this is true. It is very difficult to tell what impacts a mandatory professor-training program would have on student learning. However, this is part of the wider issue of learning outcomes and assessments in general. These things are notoriously hard to measure. Still, it doesn’t follow from this that we shouldn’t consider good-sense standards. It is a self-evidently good idea to ensure – as we do in all other education sectors – that our instructors are well qualified for their role, particularly given that many professors consider themselves to be researchers first and teachers in afterthought. The argument that we should not enact mandatory instructor training because we can’t point to concrete results rings of excuse making.

Perhaps the bigger reluctance stems from concerns over academic freedom. A pinnacle of higher education and professorial stature is the right to explore questions and pursue knowledge unfettered by political or bureaucratic imperatives. Some argue that being told how they can and cannot teach would interfere with professors’ academic freedom, which would indeed be a problem. This view, however, fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of mandatory training. The idea is not to dictate topics, subject matter, or curricula. The idea is to equip professors with the tools and understanding they need to design engaging and effective teaching methods; skills in communication, facilitation, and innovations in pedagogies can all enhance teaching without precluding or directing any topics of discussion.

There is no good reason not to insist that university-level instructors have at least minimal teaching credentials. Class sizes are growing, teaching loads are being offloaded to transient contract staff, and full-time professors are pressured to prove worthiness for tenure through research and publishing. None of these factors promote an organic culture of excellence in teaching, so intervention is warranted.

Compulsory training can ensure that TAs and professors, especially new professors, have the teaching ability that has long been assumed. It’s what students deserve.

Zachary Rose
OUSA Research Analyst