Good practice in undergraduate education

One of the strangest things about being a professor is that outsiders think this means you are primarily a teacher and you feel that you aren’t. The particularly strange thing is the outsiders do have a sensible view. It makes sense that professors should be concerned with educating students but that isn’t always the case.

To be a professor one trains to research in an intensive PhD. This takes maybe 5-6 years. In this you learn how to research, you learn how to write academic papers, and you gain proficiency in some pretty obscure techniques. You learn to think that certain professors are “stars” when they have less influence than many teenagers on social media. Strangely it is rare that you are taught to teach, yet when you get a job you are expected to know how to teach. I don’t really know why we take in people who like spending time in seclusion studying obscure topics and then expect them to bestride the classroom like a Colossus without training. Yet we do.

What then should you do to be a good undergraduate educator? Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson have a classic quick ‘common sense’ summary. This could be a useful checklist. For example, why not try more active learning measures and certainly do try to develop “reciprocity and cooperation among students” (Chickering and Gamson, 1987, page 3). This is a very short piece that is an easy read. It is pretty basic but many could help themselves by just reading it when they start teaching.

Of course the main challenge is time. The first good practice principle is “Encourage contacts between students and faculty” (Chickering and Gamson, 1987, page 3). This certainly helps but faculty at research universities, who are rewarded mostly on research publications, have an incentive to minimize said contact to ‘get their work done’. The system we have is challenging and doesn’t always encourage good teaching. That said I don’t want to be negative; nice, clear, simple advice can help give ideas for faculty who don’t know what to do in the classroom. When teaching goes well it is better for everyone, obviously the students but also for the research faculty who will find their job must more pleasant if they don’t hate the classroom.

Read: Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson (1987), Seven Principles For Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, AAHE Bulletin, March, 3, pages 2-6