Why Is University Teaching So Awful?

In college I had two types of classes: (1) 10–50 person lectures without slides and some student discussion, and (2) large lectures where a professor read directly from their computer. I did get a few recitations here and there, but the majority of them were run by graduate students who didn’t know how to teach and didn’t seem to want to be there. The only classes that tried to mix it up were the Chemistry courses that no one wanted to attend, but even those changes were basic and often unhelpful — trying to include on-phone games like Kahoots to increase engagement.

I didn’t realize that this didn’t have to be the case until I took my first education class in my senior year. We were learning how to teach philosophy and we started the year by going through papers on the most effective styles of teaching.I’d gone through 18 years of education and I had never been shown different styles of teaching other than the student passively taking notes from the teacher.I didn’t even know there could be different styles of teaching. In that class she experimented with things like having students prepare lessons for the class, leading us through guided inquiry lessons, building activities to help us explore different philosophical concepts, and carefully facilitating dialogue between students through different prompts.

The frustrating thing is that a lot of these active learning methods that teachers could be using are clearly more effective in facilitating student learning than just the regular old passive slideshow. And on top of that, the education researchers who build and measure these different styles of teaching work in the universities. There are many people in higher education who are aware of the research and may even have enough power to impact the teaching habits of the school, there just doesn’t yet seem to be enough push to make significant change.

For whatever reason, the incentives just don’t seem to be there. This is very unusual since you’d assume that student learning would be the highest priority in a universityIf too few students are passing chemistry or physics weeder courses than it’d seem like the appropriate response would be taking a hard look about how it is taught so that more students can build more skills. However, this may be a sort of naive model of education. Education economists typically call this the human capital model of education, where the value of education comes from building skills that students can use in their life and their career. This competes with the idea of the signalling model of education which argues that the main point of education is to signal what type of person you are, particularly trying to show that you are an intelligent and conscientious conformist.

Without going too deep into the debate on human capital vs signalling, this seems to me like a clear way in which signalling has kind of won.If human capital was the priority, then the maximization of skill/capital would be so prioritized by the university that they would be much more likely to build systems to improve their instructional quality.After all, there is so much that a university could do to both better train teachers and to create new incentives and feedback systems that improve teaching quality. This could be as simple as having more teacher training for professors and grad students while also setting norms about what good teaching looks like and then developing more consistent observations cycles to improve teaching.

Instead, and just as signalling would predict, since your success in school is mostly about demonstrating how intelligent and conscientious you are, if the school were to improve instruction then it would actually degrade the quality of the signalMore people would learn the skills and get higher grades. It would make learning easier and would therefore make good grades in a class less of a signal of intelligence.

On top of that, many programs already have difficulty with providing enough advisers and teachers to support the students they have. If lucrative and difficult majors like Computer Science or Industrial Engineering greatly improved the quality of instruction so that more students gained skills and passed the classes, it seems likely that the departments would be too full to be able to accommodate the new students. They would have to figure out more ways to cut students other than just difficult weeder courses. And on the flip side how would the business school find students without getting all the ones that fail out of engineering and pre-med?

I can think of three ways of approaching this. The optimistic conclusion is that a focus on better instruction could be paired with more online education in order to accommodate the likely increase in passing students. More students could get through with working skills, and more students could get jobs in these lucrative fields. The other optimistic conclusion is that colleges would have to make it more difficult in order to maintain their current numbers of passing students. Students could get through their education covering so much more information that is accommodated by improved instruction. The truly cynical and probably true conclusion is that the entire higher education system is premised on bad, disengaged teachers using ineffective teaching techniques because the alternative would be too costly to the university while simultaneously degrading the signal of their grades. In this view college instruction is unlikely to significantly improve.

originally at https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/why-is-university-teaching-so-awful-90b932c52738

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