It’s time for a radical rethink of the role of university professors

Professionalising university teaching and changing incentive structures are the first steps, says Steven Mintz

December 5, 2020
Online lecture
Source: iStock

The rapid shift to remote learning has demonstrated that it’s no longer enough for academics to prioritise research and scholarly publication above their teaching responsibilities. Today’s diverse students need much more interaction with their professors inside and outside class. They also need more extensive feedback on their academic performance.

If our institutions of higher learning are to truly promote equity and serve as engines of social mobility – as they purport to prioritise – then professors need to think about themselves in new ways: as learning architects and as advisors and mentors, not just for graduate students, but undergraduates as well.

Faculty are on the front lines of education and need to understand that their responsibilities go well beyond the transmission of disciplinary expertise. We certainly have a moral and professional duty to identify students who are struggling and take appropriate steps to address their needs, but there’s much more we can do.

A first step is to professionalise university teaching. University professors are the only professionals who receive little or no formal training in their primary responsibility – teaching – and who are not required to meet continuing education requirements. As a result, most college instructors lack a serious understanding of effective teaching practices, classroom management, instructional design or assessment.


Effective digital course design and implementation from four online teaching experts


We need to give lecturers greater access to instructional designers, educational technologists, and assessment specialists, but the quality of undergraduate learning can also improve if teachers educate themselves in the learning sciences. Drawing on insights from cognitive neuroscience and educational and developmental psychology can allow them to bring research-informed practices into their teaching. 

Given the diversity of today’s college students, faculty must better understand how students learn. This requires a basic understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, attention and focus, and short- and long-term memory.

It also demands familiarity with key principles of learning: That it is better to space out learning of key concepts and skills over longer periods of time than to concentrate it all at once; and to quiz students frequently rather than administer a small number of high-stakes tests. The learning sciences also stress the importance of scaffolding instruction – carefully sequencing learning activities to build students’ confidence and knowledge as they develop new skills – and of metacognition, teaching them how to monitor and self-assess their grasp of particular concepts and their command of essential skills and competencies.

A second key step is to encourage lecturers to think of themselves as learning architects who define measurable learning objectives; carefully engineer classroom activities to ensure that students master essential knowledge and skills; and design assessments to verify that students actually achieve an appropriate level of competence.

This requires faculty to design learning activities to help students attain specific learning goals, a method known as “backward design,” and to assess learning not with letter grades that rank students, but by whether they have mastered essential skills and knowledge, an approach known as specifications or mastery learning.


Pausing playback: training students to take notes online


Instructional engineering requires classroom-tested technologies and pedagogies that make courses more engaging and interactive and bring all students, however unequal their educational background, to mastery.  

These approaches emphasise active learning including inquiry, problem-solving, role-playing, debate, simulations, and analysis of case studies, which helps nurture students’ higher-order thinking skills, including the ability to analyse, apply and synthesise knowledge.

In addition, college teachers need to deploy frequent low-stakes formative assessments and data – on student engagement and areas of ignorance or confusion – to monitor student progress, modify their instruction, and intervene when appropriate.

Third, faculty need to take their advising and mentoring roles much more seriously. Most universities will never have sufficient advisers, counsellors, disability specialists, career service professionals, and other support service providers to meet all their students’ needs. Given that reality, professors must step up to the plate and take it upon themselves to provide mentoring to their students.

Faculty, for example, should offer their students windows into career possibilities, help them assess their talents and interests, and assist them in charting a realistic path forward academically and professionally. Likewise, they should design assignments that will help students acquire 21st-century competencies demanded by today’s workplaces, which include advanced oral and cross-cultural communication skills, proficiency in critical and analytical thinking, information and technological literacy, and leadership and collaboration skills.

Fourth, and similarly, lecturers need to embrace a new relationship with our students. Rather than thinking of students as customers or wet-behind-the-ear novices, we need to think of them as partners and producers of knowledge. 

We need to treat our students as co-creators of knowledge who take an active role in research, the creation of educational resources and curricular content, and teaching itself. Teacher-student collaboration and authentic experiences in professional practice are the hallmarks of this form of participatory pedagogy. All professors are publishing scholars and have the ability to integrate disciplinary-based writing instruction into their classes. 

To this end, a growing number of institutions have established “maker spaces” where students, with faculty support and supervision, create marketable projects. They have also instituted undergraduate research experiences, sent students to work in archives, and placed students in mentored internships in museums, community service organisations and for-profit corporations.

Graduate programmes encourage narrow disciplinary specialisation, while our current approach to salary and professional recognition and advancement favours a laser-like focus on research and publication. It’s not surprising then that professors have been trained and socialised in ways that discourage them from prioritising their pedagogical and mentoring responsibilities.

But the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to fundamentally change the culture and incentive structure surrounding university teaching. We shouldn’t waste it. Our students deserve no less.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Reader's comments (15)

What a jerk
Perhaps this is most appropriate for high schools, but not for research universities. No way academics could do any research under such conditions and students that need such methods as young adults should probably not be in university. You will end up splitting lecturing from research, and western universities will turn into schools, falling behind etc.
"University professors are the only professionals who receive little or no formal training in their primary responsibility – teaching – and who are not required to meet continuing education requirements." This might be true for the US, where the author seems to be based, but here in the UK most new lecturers (i.e. Assistant Professors) these days must take teaching training courses and are also required to get professionally certified (e.g. FHEA), which for a mandatory part of their probation requirements for permanency, and are frequently encouraged to engage in continous development of pedagogical skills/reflect on their practice thereafter. Otherwise, I agree with the above comment: Welcome to higher schools, goodbye to universities.
Like most of the "COVID shows we need to do X" genre, this is bilge. Much of what he says we should do is Pedagogy 101, already taught on compulsory PGCap courses or obvious to most experienced educators. Maybe his suggestions are radical in the US context, but I doubt it. His claim that all university teachers are also publishing researchers also seems badly misplaced.
What even is this article? "Most universities will never have sufficient advisers, counsellors, disability specialists, career service professionals, and other support service providers to meet all their students’ needs. Given that reality, professors must step up to the plate..." The author correctly points out that universities will never makes the required investments to support what they claim are their priorities (student wellbeing, etc.). But to suggest the answer to this is for faculty to take on at least 5 other, full-time jobs (in addition to the 3 they already have), is frankly absurd.
This is a great article, thank you! Bringing in opportunities for active, student-directed learning allows them to bring more of themselves to the classroom, and helps marginalised students find a sense of belonging. What could be more important at this time? I have regular conversations with academics who hold a very different mental image of students in their minds, and talk of students as interchangeable people to whom knowledge just needs to be transferred, then delivering the same knowledge year on year. As is pointed out, current structures do not encourage a deep interaction with evidence-based pedagogy that optimises learning. I want to teach and research in the world painted by this article, but I also know we are very far from the student-staff ratios and career incentives needed to bring it closer. There is only so much progress we can make on this from the ground up, there are structural and workload changes needed that senior management have to buy into to enable teaching and research to both inform and reinforce each other. The focus on the trade-off between the two that is being flagged is a distraction - it is possible (but it's made immeasurably harder with the tyranny of league tables).
"Faculty are on the front lines of education and need to understand that their responsibilities go well beyond the transmission of disciplinary expertise. We certainly have a moral and professional duty to identify students who are struggling and take appropriate steps to address their needs, but there’s much more we can do." Some of us have been doing this for years in pretty mainstream UK universities. We have personal tutors, advisers of studies (I am both) and we have student support meetings, confidential counselling services run by professionals (amateur efforts by academics is NOT a good idea in this aspect), a careers officer etc. Nothing really new here.
This article seems rather naïve to me. It is full of the "best practices" that we are told about during our mandatory pedagogical courses, it ignores the fact we do not have the necessary resources, and it ignores that our teaching needs to be informed by research - preferably our own research. Teaching is not our sole responsibility: research is essential for quality teaching. What this author suggests sounds a lot like community college, or just high school. Yes, we should do our best, but a sole commitment to teaching (which is a corollary of the author's suggestions) would devalue the substance of higher education. And finally, yes, many of us lack (sufficient?) formal education in pedagogics, but we can still be doing damn good work. Some of us are better teachers, some of us are strong scholars. You can't have everything, and when you do, consider yourself lucky!
Because of such views the proper university professors have been continuously humiliated by underqualified managers and pseudo professors. The title professor has been deminished exactly because it has been awarded to teachers who cannot do research and now this type of professors want to make all proper ones out.
People like the author of this article are making my job as a professor increasingly unattractive. If I had anticipated these trends 10 or 15 years ago, I would have gone into an industry career. Recently, I have been thinking whether I should leave academia for greener pastures. What I value in my job is autonomy, the ability to do research and then teach those exciting things I find to keen young minds, and the ability to be my own boss. This all used to be true, but in today's reality there is hardly any time for research, which crushes my motivation; I am constantly being micro-managed by the admins and the University leadership; and in teaching, I can be glad if my students write a coherent sentence and switch on their cameras on Zoom and don't disturb the class by scribbling on my slides while I'm talking. Higher education for the masses has turned me into a slave of an unholy trinity of thick-as-a-brick customers who increasingly have the intellect of high-school dropouts, enforcing deans and VCs who want to please customers to increase revenue and widen their market share, and careerist colleagues who need to impress those deans for their next promotion by creeping so deep into students' bottoms that they can wave hello to the deans through the students' mouths. Meanwhile all three of them keep increasing my workload, limit my autonomy, and prevent me from doing the things I am really good at, all to be scolded by our government for delivering low-quality courses, ignoring that professors can hardly turn feces into gold.
From the Inside Higher ED article (thank you marsist for the link): "Among those missteps, according to numerous people who worked closely with the institute, were a tendency to approach campus faculty members with arrogance rather than as partners..." Sums it up nicely. This is now the second time in a few weeks that THE gives a platform to at least questionable characters from the academy without due vetting or background information. This is probably because these authors nicely toe the editorial line of a marketised and commoditised university - incl. promoting the interests of EDTech and other auxilliary service providers external to HE (i.e. business opportunities) - that THE has been promoting and advancing ever since I started reading this rag as an academic.
Instructional engineering! Hahahaha.
What a pity the author, in writing for a UK-based magazine, didn't take the care and have the sensitivity to use UK terminology. Does he not know that 'professor' has a different meaning in the US from what it means in the UK? And why didn't anyone on the THE editorial team pick up on this? Unimpressive an unnecessary Americanisation. Two countries divided by a common language - but if you're writing for a different national context, do your homework.
After all, learning is ALL about the educator doing everything - there is absolutely nothing the learner needs to do... Perhaps it is even too much to ask students nowadays to engage or even turn up for lectures (online or not). If they don't, it is the educator who is not doing it engaging enough. What about a lack of due diligence from the learners? Of course, that is NEVER true - all students are ever so responsible and diligent. It is all the educator's and university's fault. This is the kind of one-sided mindset we have for education nowadays. Hence.... National Student Survey for teaching quality.
When I first read this article, my blood started to boil. As I read it more closely, I calmed down and, while my blood is still at an abnormally high temperature, I no longer feel like my head is going to explode. So here, in my view, is what the author gets right and what he gets wrong. And I should note that, in quantitative terms, the number of correct assumptions outweighs what I take to be the problematic ones. But as is so often the case, qualitative measures trump quantitative ones on importance. Let’s start on a positive note, which I will attempt to revisit at the end. The author suggests the need for more interaction between students and professors and more extensive feedback on students’ academic performance. It is hard to argue with this and, while the current remote/online format is in some ways ideal for the latter, it is not terrific in satisfying the former. But in general, these assumptions I think are spot on. The author’s claim that faculty should think of themselves as “learning architects” and that some background (or refresher) in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, attention and focus, and short- and long-term memory should form part of that reconfiguration also seems reasonable and necessary. When it comes to the actual disciplines within which we teach and students learn, the author’s suggestion that all faculty “have the ability to integrate disciplinary-based writing instruction into their classes” is, I believe, also true enough (though there is another part to this sentence, which I will get to, as it is not true). So far, these reasonable assumptions are related to the role and expertise of the instructors. Let’s turn to the author’s commentary on the students, or at least his comments that include students in the equation. And it is here, in fact, that I think the author makes the most important (and correct) observation/suggestion—the suggestion that we should treat our students as “co-creators of knowledge.” This notion of students becoming co-creators of knowledge, the very idea of shared responsibility, must be at the heart of any fundamental shifts in the roles of instructors, the expectations of students, and the incorporation of technology. But here is also a good place to segue into what I think the author gets wrong. An over-reliance on technology—and developers trained in online platforms—should certainly not be the place to start the rethinking and redesigning processes. Technology and its platforms come last. Fancy course management systems and flashy online delivery are not what is meant by or needed for academic ‘engagement’. People engage; computers don’t (or not in the way that is necessary for development of the afore-mentioned co-creation of knowledge). The author’s reference to faculty needing to go “well beyond the transmission of disciplinary knowledge” is the sentence that started to turn up the temperature. While he does suggest we need to get beyond that, it worries me that some think this is our current role at all. The notion that that is what we do—“transmit” disciplinary knowledge”—is wrong on so many levels; were it true, then technology would, or could, be the saviour, as nothing beats one’s phone for the immediacy and volume of information (however flawed and inaccurate). The problem is that what is transmitted is just that: information. Knowledge creation is something quite different. It would seem prudent to build on (start with) the “co-creation of knowledge” goal—which requires students to be engaged in the information-to-knowledge transformation—and then see how technology might facilitate that. To start with what is possible technologically is to let the tail wag the dog. This issue was far and away the most fundamental flaw in the article in my view, though there were others. The notion that professors do not need to meet educational requirements is certainly untrue (at least in unionized environments), as is the notion that all professors are publishing scholars (though that fact does not undermine their capacity to use current research in their teaching—just not necessarily their own research). I’ll end with one final element that I think the author gets wrong, or at least gestures in the wrong or dangerous direction: while it is fair to expect faculty to “identify” students who are struggling, and reasonable to expect faculty to “take appropriate steps to address their needs,” the latter must be limited to academic needs related to their course(s). If the author is expecting faculty to suddenly become counsellors and mental health practitioners (and to be fair, he isn’t that specific), then I would simply repeat Stanley Fish’s mantra: “Do your job; don’t do anyone else’s job; and don’t let anyone else do your job.” “. . . the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to fundamentally change the culture and incentive structure surrounding university teaching. We shouldn’t waste it. Our students deserve no less.” Agreed.

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