Higher Education's Dirty Little Secret

I just came back from a much needed break. My family and I spent two weeks in mildly sunny California, enjoying Disney, Universal, and my daughter’s birthday. I even got a chance to play a disc golf tournament where I took 2nd place to a former Baltimore Raven’s linebacker. Fun!

But in addition to finally getting the kind of sleep my body desperately yearns for, I also got a chance to just let some of my social media feeds wash over me. I had no purposeful plan to look at posts or tweets from higher ed leaders I follow. I just checked in now and again as the mood struck me.

And, as serendipity always seems to find me under that kind of context, a comment was posted that would not leave my head. It was a simple tweet from a leader I follow, who was attending one of the big LMS conferences going on last week. It was a picture, likely taken prior to a keynote or plenary session, as images rolled past attendees while they waited. And it was simple enough. It said:

(Caption: Higher Education’s Dirty Little Secret: Most Professors Know Little to Nothing about Teaching)

(Caption: Higher Education’s Dirty Little Secret: Most Professors Know Little to Nothing about Teaching)

I know, I know…this statement is not new. I have seen or heard this for more than two decades, since my Graduate Assistant-ship days at UNC. But despite being super common knowledge within higher ed, I suspect it is true that it feels like a secret to others. Most students (and their parents) have no idea that the average amount of pedagogical / andragogical training given to professors is less than 4 weeks in total. While an extremely small proportion of professors have had 3-6 classes on teaching and learning, the great majority have had none at all.

Yet, to say this is a secret, on the other hand, does not seem fair. Why? Because professors are not “hiding” this fact. True, they may not bring it up at a party, but if asked, I have never heard one deny or exaggerate or be devious in answering. They’ll tell you plainly: higher ed does not train professors in teaching. It is simply not something that appears valued by….well, by just about anyone, so very few put their time nor their energy into it. Let me try to explain.

On one hand, it is not hard to argue that the lack of understanding around effective teaching (or far more important from my perspective, effective learning) represents a tremendous amount of hubris. It does feel highly egotistical to say that without any training in how to teach, a person can just “naturally” be good at it. And just as ridiculous is the notion that knowing a lot about something also means you can teach that very thing. (Although this is exactly what programs which produce professors buy into, meaning those same programs have no courses on teaching or learning.)

We can see all of this clearly, and voluminously on display via the thousands of studies which show that students do not learn much of anything throughout all of their schooling. As discussed on this blog many times, the underpinning for books like Dr. Caplan’s, “The Case Against Education” are mountainous. Students are barely able to hold onto the desired content / outcomes for the (almost always standardized) tests, but remember less than 5% three months later and barely better than 0% a year after. This also makes the adage that professors are not teaching content as much as “how to think” doubly problematic, seeing more research show that students are not increasing their ability to think critically or problem solve. If students aren’t learning what we intend for them to learn, how can we say they’re “picking up” stuff we aren’t really being intentional about?

And so, if you questioned most professors about their understanding of understanding, you would likely hear a lot about some very old theories (such as Bloom’s taxonomy) and/or a lot about their personal experiences and ability to “know” students so well. But in the end, you would not likely hear much about brain science, learning research, nor any other relevant application from the past several decades. But why? Isn’t a professor’s job to teach? The answer is…complicated.

To begin, you need to look at the specific institution where they teach. If it is a research institution (most are), then immediately you should understand that the only teaching requirement for a professor who is seeking tenure is time. They will have a “load” of classes which they must meet, meaning they must be in those classrooms during the specified meeting times. After that, there will likely be no requirements specific to teaching (or learning) outcomes for those classes.

Instead, you will likely find that the predominant requirements are for research. How many publications did the professor have? How many grants did they win? How often has their academic writing been cited?

Again, for anyone not in “the know”, just like all incentives, these are gamed regularly. Another dirty little secret is that almost no research grants cover the true costs. In other words, almost every research grant is a loser to the university which needs to be made up in other ways. Likewise are stories of professors who have knowingly published pure rubbish, because it upped their citation counts, as other academics pummeled the idea or finding. (It’s not about being right, it’s about being cited…)

At a “teaching institution” you will still find requirements in publication, even if it is not considered research. (Although most will call it exactly that.) The assumption is that a subject matter expert should be contributing to the discipline, which in turn means they are “current” and able to teach students the best stuff. So, without any consideration given to the publications whatsoever (meaning an academic can get credit for publishing absolutely anything), this requirement again is likely at the top of the pyramid for professors.

Unfortunately, whether at a research or teaching institution, there is absolutely no evidence that publishing enhances teaching at all - at least not at scale.

What’s next? Service! Professors are then required to sit on committees, sponsor clubs / organizations, join the Senate, or perform community outreach programming, etc. Sometimes schools lump advising in with service, while others may attach it to teaching or make it a stand-alone category. But I probably do not need to tell you of the impact between service and teaching. There isn’t one. But remember, this is likely #2 on the requirements hierarchy for any professor looking to continue working full-time.

Ironically, before we talk about other requirements, it is noteworthy to say here that many, many institutions incentivize both 1 & 2 with the carrot of less teaching! Yep, you can reduce your teaching load if you win a big enough grant, have enough publications, etc.


Which finally brings us back to teaching. Yes, at almost every school, teaching is #3 on the list, perhaps representing 10-30% of the scorecard. But here is the interesting part: it’s not really about teaching (or learning) at all. To get the best scores for teaching at most institutions, you need to develop a new class or two along the way. You could become the director of a program, take on some grad students, or mentor other faculty to boost your totals. You might teach overloads a few different semesters to help out the Chair to up your score. And at a few schools, you can even provide student evaluation scores (on average) with a few, cherry-picked anecdotes to show that students like you, so as to up your score. (Without going into it again, there is a heck of a debate about whether student surveys / evaluations should ever be considered for any kind of accountability, but know that it is not even close to cut and dry.) Finally, even more rare, is the school that looks at test scores. If enough students pass, it looks good for the professor.

But notice that only the final statement offers any proof of learning, albeit short-term learning at that. The rest have no discernible impact on a professor’s ability to teach whatsoever.

So, back to our ‘secret’. Say you were hired as a Wal-Mart greeter. Your job is two fold, welcome everyone who walks in the store and ensure that the opening entry way / aisle is spotless and clean. But here’s the catch. Your boss is going to measure the cleanliness of the aisles every hour, while they will do a spot check of your greeting once per quarter. Which will you focus on more? The answer is obvious.

If playing out that Wal-Mart metaphor, it would also be important to know that your boss was an ex-greeter, who had to play by the same rules. In other words, professors are evaluated by other professors, most of whom do not know what to look for as “best” instruction or learning. Even with a helpful peer rubric or trained peer evaluators, most teaching in higher education is rubber stamped through, because of a myriad of political or philosophical reasons. At the end of the day, nobody wants to put this under the microscope for fear of what it might show and what it might mean to them, not just to others.

Is it making more sense now?

You might ask why a professor, whose ‘craft’ is to teach, doesn’t take the time to learn more about teaching or keep up with the latest strategies, but consider that for a moment. Look at time. Faculty, just like any employee, will put their time and energy into the things that matter to their employer. Should faculty attend a teaching and learning conferences? Yes! But at some schools it is actually harder to get approval for “generic” conferences, holding to the assumption that a subject matter conference is the only way to stay relevant in the field. Can a faculty member use their ‘spare’ time to investigate better teaching and learning? Possibly…but remember, the assumption is that with their non-teaching time they are writing and publishing or performing acts of service. (I have actually heard of professors being chastised by Chairs for spending too much time on teaching matters…)

So What To Do?

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that will fix itself any time soon. Accreditors were the most likely defenders of teaching and learning, but as most of them were born out of consortia or schools themselves, they just became another rubber-stamp. They focus far more time on finances, time, and other markers which have almost nothing to do with formal learning to be of help here. That said, a few are starting to make noise about holding colleges and university’s accountable. I hope they do.

The institutions themselves have very little incentive to fix this. Most still see a steady stream of applicants every year, ultimately with that piece of paper as the only real outcome needed by students (and parents).

Of course, industry could be an interesting catalyst…


Another interesting tweet I saw while I was on vacation was from Amazon, who is going to be training people for all kinds of work, not just supply chain or manufacturing. The mega-employer, “plans to spend $700 million over about six years to retrain a third of its U.S. workforce as automation, machine learning and other technology upends the way many of its employees do their jobs.” Why? Because people are not coming to them qualified or educated enough. The use of robots and AI not only eliminate some jobs, but create more, and Amazon has to find ways to create workers for careers where there are none today. Google, Microsoft, and Apple have all made similar statements in the past. I hearken back to a conversation I had with a colleague who has started a business to provide modern programmers to Silicon Valley, Banks, and more. What does “modern” mean? It means these programmers who are able to code in languages that are used today, but which universities do not teach, often 5-10 languages behind. So, it is possible that business will start finding ways to make educator’s up their game, when it comes to learning. But again, so far this has amounted to decades of grumbling and not much else.

But there is one more thing to consider. There is a small, but growing FORCE of teaching / learning evangelists out there. Some work inside schools as directors of faculty development. Some work for commercial organizations. Some work for non-profit organizations like WCET, OLC, and more. I’ve blogged before about Faculty Guild and other quality professional development organizations consistently beating the drum of upskilling, teaching, learning, and more. Heck, if you are reading this, there is a chance you came to IICE looking for exactly this kind of help.

And we have that exact help. We provide workshops, speaking, online training, consulting, coaching, and more for any educator and/or administrator, at any place in their journey. And we, like many of the organizations listed here, are not only passionate about teaching and learning, but we’re knowledgeable. We know the science. The know the neuroscience that applies vs the theoretical. We know the applied research from hundreds of books over time. We have read the journals and the papers and a litany of tangential, but applicable topics. We know teaching and we know learning.

So at this point, it’s up to you. While we wait for the accreditors, the businesses, the politicians, and the leaders to catch up, there are some choices. We can take this “dirty secret” and turn it on its ear. I hope you’ll join in as a lot is at stake.

Good luck and good learning.