Effective teaching is a crucial component of student learning. Great instructors are capable of elevating course content to engage and inspire students, while poor instructors can significantly detract from the learning experience. Though every university will always have some number of excellent and awful instructors, it is worthwhile to look at the institutional mechanisms that attract, grow, and retain the latter ahead of the former. What practices and policies underlie the establishment of a “culture of teaching” on a university campus, and how does a school without such a culture come to develop one? Despite having spent the better part of the past year in Waterloo’s Federation of Students evaluating this very topic on my own campus, I don’t have any hard answers to offer – but perhaps I can provide some general insights.
First, look at the institution’s broader culture – everything from its governance structure and strategic plan, to its core mandate and physical environment, to its academic standards and student-faculty environment. Where does teaching and learning fit in to all of that? Teaching should feature prominently in the University’s strategic plan, and exceptional instructors should routinely be featured in official communications and recruitment documents. Most universities have some sort of campus centre for professional development in teaching, but what support does it receive? Also pay attention to the number and rank of the instructors that use its services - is it utilized by lecturers, tenure-track, and tenured faculty alike? What role does such a centre play in the integration and training of new faculty appointees?
Campuses with teaching cultures care about learning outcomes, and try to track those outcomes using a suite of evaluative practices, including (but not limited to) student and peer evaluations of teaching. Such assessments must examine course design, course delivery, and student learning outcomes in equal measure. Aggregate evaluations data must be tracked centrally and reported publicly, since it is the clearest indicator of the institution’s teaching strength. Individual evaluations must be handled holistically by management – an instructor who experiments with an unusual course structure one term shouldn’t be discouraged from further experimentation because their attempt fails and produces poor evaluations, but instructors who consistently receive poor evaluation scores should be expected to answer for them. The purpose of accountability in this case is not necessarily to punish or fire, but to work with struggling instructors to help them find a teaching style that will produce meaningful, deep learning amongst their students. Conversely, instructors who consistently receive excellent evaluations should be rewarded and openly celebrated.
Last – but not least – look at the prevalence of short-term instructors with precarious teaching appointments on-campus. An over-reliance on sessional instructors is counterproductive to the academic environment, and denies students the opportunity to build long-term relationships with experienced mentors. However, tenured and tenure-track professors who prioritize their research ahead of all else can be detrimental to the teaching environment as well. Universities should examine their long-term budgetary strategies to prioritize the hiring of teaching-focused faculty into stable appointments on-campus.
If mediocre or uninspiring teachers are the norm on your campus, there is sadly no easy solution. Building a culture of teaching takes time, dedication, and management buy-in. However, the first step must undoubtedly be to look at your institution’s norms at a practical level.
How does your university celebrate and promote high-quality teaching and meaningful student learning?