Recently, researchers have noted the need for going beyond a focus on research as the main training element of graduate programs, and the necessity of including teaching skills for graduate students planning for a career in academia. Various professional development programs for PhD students and faculty focusing on pedagogical training have been offered and studied. Studies show that faculty training programs can be effective tools to improve student satisfaction, student engagement, and faculty performance and competence. Yet, such training is often limited at many institutions, and may not reflect the real needs of faculty members. In particular, while traditional training programs commonly focus on course design and delivery, training in other pedagogical skills, such as those related to well-being and social and emotional support, are rarely available.
Student mental health has been the focus of many discussions and investigations over the past few years. The topic was a serious concern prior to the COVID pandemic and increased in significance in the last two years. Our prior work, based on a student survey, showed that problems affecting students’ mental health are frequently associated with their academic work. The data suggested that there is a divide between counselling services and academic support, and academic planning is too focused on cognitive aspects of learning. This leaves students without proper emotional support.
Students’ well-being requires defining best practices for faculty and training faculty members on those practices, in addition to topics such as emotional intelligence. These should lead to strategies that integrate emotional aspects into academic activities. What is not quite clear though is what the faculty themselves think in terms of the training they need or want.
Based on common skills discussed in the literature, we categorize generic pedagogical skills as course design, course delivery, assessment, educational technology, mental health and well-being, and emotional intelligence. In Fall 2021, we surveyed faculty members at our university on a variety of topics related to these skills, such as formal and informal training they received, their training needs at the start of their career and now, their willingness and ability to attend training, and how much their skills are valued.
One hundred and forty-four faculty members responded, with gender, academic area, and employment level fairly represented. Our findings showed that while course design and course delivery were rated as the most important skills, the respondents were less prepared and in need of more training for other skills, both at the start of their careers and at the time of the survey. For training needs, student mental health and well-being, and educational technology were ranked number one and two, respectively, followed by assessment and emotional intelligence. The skills for which the respondents were willing to take formal training followed the same order.
We also found variations based on demographic factors; for example, assistant professors were higher than average on all training needs except educational technology, and individuals who identified as female were more interested in training than those who identified as male.
Lack of time and scheduling issues were the top reasons for not attending formal training, followed by not having enough training, no access to good training, and not believing that pedagogical training is necessary/valued for tenure and promotion. In terms of incentives to attend training, counting towards service or teaching duties was the top choice, followed by counting towards performance evaluation, and being mandatory.
Educating the educators
Universities are an essential part of our educational system. It is generally assumed that faculty members are highly educated and therefore can be skilled educators. Our survey findings (presented at the 2022 STLHE Conference) follow the existing concern about the validity of this assumption. The findings point to the lack of training programs for faculty members, a shortcoming that has left faculty not adequately prepared for the critical task for which they are responsible.
Our research further questions the priorities of the training programs for university educators. While course design and delivery are the typical subjects of many training programs, we found that some other essential pedagogical skills are missing, even more critically. It is not a surprise that we are experiencing serious problems with students’ well-being and mental health. Those who are educating our students need to be better educated on such subjects, and in other pedagogical skills.
With faculty already burnt out and exhausted, especially due to the pandemic, adding training as another work requirement is not reasonable or favoured. Alternatives should be considered so that space can be made available for such training.
Our respondents came from one institution only, but we believe the results are good indicators of what faculty members in many other universities feel and think about their pedagogical skills. These results can help move the discussion on faculty training forward and establish more realistic training priorities.
Ali Arya is an associate dean of student affairs in the faculty of graduate and postdoctoral affairs and an associate professor of information technology; Adrian D. C. Chan is a professor in the department of systems and computer engineering; Kim Hellemans is an associate dean of science, recruitment and retention, and an assistant professor in the department of neuroscience; David J. Hornsby is an associate vice-president of teaching and learning and a professor of international affairs. All work at Carleton University.