Are Canadian Universities Excelling at Teaching?

By Wayne Schnarr

In his previous post, Wayne tackled the question of whether universities were doing enough to balance their teaching priorities with their research commitments. In this post he talks about excellence in teaching, and proposes a new teaching model that ensures university students are taught not only by professors with cutting-edge research, but by professors with satisfactory teaching skills.

The first question must be, ‘How do you measure excellence in teaching?’ Think back, in some of our cases, way back to your undergraduate courses. Was the excellent course one in which you had top marks without really trying? Was it one in which you developed an interest and decided to take another course in that field? Can you name the professors in your various courses – if you can remember the names of 5 or so professors, why do you think you remembered those names? Was it their teaching excellence?

Every university probably has an award for the outstanding teacher of the year but are these much more than a popularity contest? Most universities also have some form of individual course evaluation but the questions may be superficial. Look at the references in my previous post and you will see some sources of information for Ontario universities. One of the sources in the CUDO reports is the National Survey of Student Engagement (http://nsse.indiana.edu/). This site provides interesting comparative information with a focus on student engagement in academic institutions, but it doesn’t really provide an assessment of teaching excellence. The CGPSS (Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey) has similar comparative information for graduate students, without providing much information on teaching excellence. (http://www.cags.ca/cgpss_home.php).

While the comparative information offered on the sites mentioned above is important to consider, a personalized analysis may be more beneficial for students contemplating a course change. Below are a few questions that I think would be useful to consider if you’re thinking about making a switch:

  • What knowledge and skills did you expect to acquire from the course?
  • Did the course:
    • Fail to meet your expectations;
    • Meet your expectations; or
    • Exceed your expectations?
  • Rate the quality and importance of the following components of the course.
    • Lecture materials
    • Lecture delivery
    • Textbook
    • Other course materials
    • Tutorials
    • Laboratories
    • Tests and exams
  • What changes, if any, would you recommend for this course?
  • Do you plan to take more advanced courses in this field?
    • If no, why not?
    • If yes, did this course adequately prepare you for more advanced courses?

The above questions are based on the assumption that the first two years of an undergraduate degree are generally intended to provide core knowledge and skills prior to some specialization in the final two years. I don’t think the content of these introductory courses has changed much in the last 50 years – basic laws of physics and chemistry have not changed although our understanding of them may have evolved. However, course delivery has probably changed substantially. Some of these changes can be attributed to the following:

  • Enrolment and lecture size are probably larger
  • Mix of written and electronic recording of lecture notes
  • Sleepers at the back of the lecture room will probably not change (quantum mechanics at 8 am was my nemesis)
  • Static slides replaced by short videos or animation – probably more useful for explaining reaction mechanisms and stereochemistry
  • Students have access to any related material which is on the internet, the accuracy of which might be questionable
  • I absorb more information when I read a paper copy, whereas the current student generation may learn best using an electronic medium

I believe these questions provide a great starting point for any student contemplating a course change, but even more important is the question of whether all professors should have teaching responsibilities in addition to their research commitments.  Do you need a professor doing cutting-edge research to teach first and second year courses?

Professors are hired mainly for their research focus and ability to get research grants, not for their teaching skills. Some cutting-edge researchers are great teachers – should that skill be reserved for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses? Many colleges and universities are using sessional lecturers for the introductory courses. These lecturers often have contracts only for the current academic term and no benefits. This may be financially better for the university, but it doesn’t serve as a career for the lecturers and is of questionable value to the students. During my 4 years at Queen’s, the best second-year organic chemistry lab demonstrator was David Ward who I believe pursued many activities outside chemistry after his Ph.D. He would have been the perfect person to become an organic chemistry lecturer for a course with no research program.

A follow-up question to this is whether one needs scheduled lectures. Are high school graduates ready for independent learning or has there been too much focus on ‘group think’? Some students may need scheduled lectures because they learn best in that environment but would a recorded lecture available online work better?

In addition to teaching core knowledge and skills, departments want introductory courses to generate enthusiasm about their subject, leading to enrolment in 3rd and 4th year courses and careers in that field. Would it not be better to have the researchers make that pitch in a different forum or format?

In conclusion, I believe that 1st and 2nd year courses could be taught by full-time lecturers who not only have advanced degrees in their discipline but have possibly undergone some form of teacher training. This would not prevent the skilled researchers who excel at teaching from being involved in courses at this level. If this model was adopted, there would likely be structural and budget barriers. Some professors would have the ‘I hated teaching 1st year, now I can concentrate on my research’ perspective while others might think, ‘if I am not going to be paid for teaching, how am I going to get additional research grants when the competition just gets fiercer?’. There would probably be additional costs as sessional lecturers are hired and researchers try to increase their research funding. However, if an objective is excellence in teaching, some short-term pain might be necessary to reach that goal.

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