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Reaching the Unreachable: Improving the Teaching of Poor Teachers

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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When they receive poor student evaluations, ineffective teachers among senior faculty, like the newer faculty studied by Boice, tend to defend themselves against the need for change by externalizing the reasons for their poor teaching.




The posting below looks at some of the reasons behind the resistance poor faculty have to improving their teaching. It is from Chapter 16, Reaching the Unreachable: Improving the Teaching of Poor Teachers in the book, A Guide to Faculty Development Practical advice, Examples, and Resources by Ann F. Lucas. POD NETWORK - Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, ANKER PUBLISHING COMPANY, INC. Copyright 2002 by Anker Publishing Company Inc. now part of Josey-Bass an Imprint of John Wiley & Sons Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Josey-Bass A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [] All rights reserved.




Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Reaching the Unreachable: Improving the Teaching of Poor Teachers


When faculty development centers introduce workshops on teaching they often attract individuals who are already effective college teachers but who are seeking to augment their professional development by becoming reflective practitioners. This development of instructional awareness, or understanding of how they teach, is the first step in instructional improvement, as Weimer (1990) has suggested.


When we design a workshop, we prepare for participants who make up a heterogeneous group: excellent teachers who will communicate their enthusiasm and their experience; new teachers and mid-career faculty members who have the potential to be very effective in the classroom but need to expand their knowledge about teaching and sometimes change their behaviors, attitudes, values, and skills; and poor teachers who may be novices or faculty who have been teaching for many years. At workshops, discussions about teaching and experiential learning segments can address a variety of issues that will improve student learning. Generally, however, poor teachers do not attend workshops on teaching unless they are untenured and their department chairs advise them that their chances of getting tenure will be increased if they improve their teaching.


Sources of Faculty Resistance


Reaching poor teachers has been a daunting task. In my survey of self-report data (Lucas, 1994), less than one-third of 4,500 chairs who completed questionnaires reported any degree of success in motivating poor teachers. Based on my interviews and workshops with a large number of chairs, it seems they believe that improving teaching effectiveness is not their responsibility; they do not know how to help poor teachers become better; or they feel, sometimes based on painful experience, that any intervention would be resented.


Why is it that faculty who are not effective teachers are so resistant to change? A number of factors from research literature could explain this behavior. In a longitudinal study of 185 new faculty members at several comprehensive universities, Boice (1992) found that when student evaluations were disappointing, faculty explained by externalizing the blame. Poor ratings were seen to be the fault of unmotivated students, heavy teaching loads, and invalid rating systems. When faculty members externalize the blame for poor learning outcomes instead of accepting responsibility, they feel there is no reason to make changes in the ways in which they are teaching.


Based on Boice's findings on the teaching style of faculty in the late 1980s, some inferences can be made about the current teaching methods of the thousands of faculty members who were hired in the 1970s. Colleges and universities seemed to subscribe to the myth that if you knew your subject, you could teach it. This gave new teachers little help in becoming effective teachers. It is probable that, lacking guidance, large numbers of new faculty taught as they had been taught and settled into an approach that depended heavily upon lecture as the only way to teach, with no interaction with students. After becoming accustomed to this content-only approach, most faculty found it comfortable, and the style conformed to student expectations, if not their preferences.


Some of these teachers, although poor lectures, continued to use a teaching approach that did not work for them or their students, and they have built up defenses to help maintain their self-esteem. they do not want to talk about teaching, except in the most cursory fashion, because such discussions might force them to examine their teaching in ways that would create discomfort (Lucas, 1994). When they receive poor student evaluations, ineffective teachers among senior faculty, like the newer faculty studied by Boice, tend to defend themselves against the need for change by externalizing the reasons for their poor teaching.


Despite student evaluations that might contradict this belief, faculty members feel they are very effective in the classroom. studies reviewed by Feldman, (1989) indicate that faculty tend to rate their teaching higher than do their students of colleagues. K. Patricia Cross (1977), drawing on her survey of self-report data from college teachers, found that "an amazing 94 percent rate themselves as above average teachers, and 68 percent rank themselves in the top quarter in teaching performance" (p. 10). In addition, we know their self-assessments than good teachers (Barber, 1990; Centra, 1993). Therefore, one way of increasing the impact that teaching and learning centers have on teaching is to work directly with academic departments-both chairs and faculty-by initiating difficult conversations about teaching. This can  be done not by focusing on poor teachers but by looking at issues such as how all faculty can continue their professional development by becoming even more effective in improving student learning outcomes.


A review of this background information will help you to anticipate the fact that there will be some faculty resistance to any interventions you try to make in the department. This may be expressed by some as, "I've been teaching for 15 years. I know how to teach." Or, worst case, but true scenario, "Students do not have the academic skills to be successful in college, and they are not motivated to learn. My job is to teach not to motivate them, and any discussions about teaching are a sheer waste of my time." However, what you can look forward to is the energy and enthusiasm of some of the best teachers and the synergy that can be created when you initiate discussions in the department about teaching.