Siegel: Improving teaching at universities

Murray Siegel

By Murray Siegel

In this column published a few months ago, it was suggested teaching undergraduate students might not really be the primary purpose of a university. Despite most Americans believing universities are there for student learning, and despite statements from universities proclaiming the importance of teaching, research is the primary criterion for evaluating and promoting university faculty. That article promised that possible means to improve college teaching would be offered in a future column, and this is that column.

First, let us define how college faculty are classified. Adjunct faculty are part-time instructors, hired by the semester who get paid a small amount per class and receive no benefits. Contract faculty are full-time faculty with a contract for one, two or three years. They are paid a salary and do receive benefits but are restricted in how they can serve the university. Tenured faculty, who are the professors, are at the top of the pyramid and have salaries considerably higher than contract faculty. They are required to perform research and teach fewer classes in order to have sufficient time for research. New professors are “tenure track” until they are granted tenure or are asked to leave. The tenure track can take as long as six years.

How are college faculty evaluated as teachers? The primary tool is an online evaluation completed by students. Participation in these surveys is voluntary and, thus, this method suffers from voluntary response bias, a well-documented bias caused by respondents who are negative or angry being more likely to complete a survey. There are rare classroom observations by peers, which my experience indicates are not valid.

During my eight years at ASU, I was observed only once, and the evaluator was a biologist, despite the fact I taught mathematics. To the best of my knowledge that evaluator received no formal assessment training. Compare this to my experience as a high school department chair where I received extensive training in classroom observation and teacher assessment prior to being able to evaluate teachers in my department.

What can be done?

A simple solution is to create two classifications of tenured faculty, research professors and teaching professors. Research faculty are primarily evaluated by their research. They teach the most advanced courses and are expected to mentor undergraduates and advise graduate students. Teaching faculty would be primarily evaluated by regular classroom observations by properly trained assessors. Student evaluations of teaching professors would be conducted in structured face-to-face interviews with a random sample of the professor’s students. Teaching professors would be expected to write articles for academic journals and/or make presentations at professional conferences, but would not be asked to perform research.

This approach should improve the quality of teaching at the college level and most likely cause better retention rates among faculty members who will be the teaching professors.

Murray Siegel is a Maricopa resident. He has a PhD in Math Ed and 42 years of teaching experience. He and his wife Sharon are volunteer teachers of advanced math classes at Butterfield Elementary School.

This column appears in the September issue of InMaricopa.