Why Professors Can’t Teach

Recently I posted the interim results of two online surveys: “45 Teaching Errors” and “The 10 Percent Problem.” The “45 Teacher Errors Survey” survey contains a result that stands out. It is teaching error #1: “Cannot Teach.”

You might be surprised by this result, but I am not. After earning an undergraduate degree, those going on to a master’s degree typically had to do a master’s thesis. Doing a master’s thesis is advanced training in how to do research. Students move beyond being consumers of existing knowledge (undergraduate students) to creators of new knowledge through research (graduate students).

Then, a few students go on to obtain a doctorate – a research degree such as Ph.D., D. Eng., or SC.D., that is greatly valued in higher education (as distinct from professional doctoral degrees such as DBA., D.D.S., M.D, PharmD., J.D., etc). Though there is some coursework to complete, the emphasis is on doing research and completing one’s doctoral dissertation. The research, of course, takes up the majority of four to six years it normally takes to earn a traditional research doctoral degree.

While working to complete one’s doctorate, the student may work as a graduate assistant and help a professor teach one or more courses. One might also be assigned to teach introductory-level courses to undergraduates towards the end of their dissertation. Despite some teaching experience, the doctorate trains students to do research. All told, a student who completes traditional master’s and doctoral degrees typically spends far more time doing research than teaching. So, it should be no surprise that professors can’t teach – many, maybe most, but certain not all.

A professor who wants to improve their teaching has to be personally motivated to do so, despite the many disincentives that exist. For example, the best teachers (top 15%) receive no substantive reward compared to teachers whose performance is average. The reward, for the most part, is personal satisfaction. Another disincentive is that the reward system favors doing research and publishing research results in top-tier journals. Needless to say, quantity (and perhaps citations as well) is normally judged to be of far more importance than quality or originality.

Another disincentive is that professors can ignore student feedback. Also, most students do not complain about poor teaching, presumably for fear of retribution. It is common to see professors with poor teaching abilities receive all 5’s on student course evaluation surveys. Lastly, the chief academic officer, in my experience, is unaware of who teaches well and who teaches poorly, why, and what to do about it (e.g process improvement options).

But, we cannot blame the teachers. Most simply were not trained to teach, so they have had to learn by doing, and also rely on past examples of professors who likely were not very good teachers. This suggests the need for colleges and universities to take greater responsibility for training future faculty and current faculty (on-the-job) to become better teachers. But will this work?

People who teach in K-12 tell me that all of the teaching problems I identified in The Lean Professor also exist there. Yet, K-12 teachers are professionally trained to be teachers. How can they have the same problems as university professors who have been trained to do research? That too, seems easy to answer: K-12 teachers are trained by university professors who can’t teach. Think about it. Most assignments relate to exhibiting knowledge or learning through writing papers. That is a distinctly different skill than teaching, for which there are practicums (though perhaps insufficient).

Back to earlier question: Should colleges and universities take greater responsibility for training current and future faculty to become better teachers? Yes, it seems they should. And professors should take greater responsibility as well. Both parties have many resources at their disposal. I hope that will include Lean Teaching for faculty and Lean University! for administrators.

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