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In my opinion

Faculty lack training programs in pedagogical skills

Training needs to go beyond course delivery and focus on evolving issues such as student mental health and educational technology.

BY ALI ARYA, ADRIAN D. C. CHAN, KIM HELLEMANS & DAVID J. HORNSBY | JUN 02 2022

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 well-being

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.

Faculty survey

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.

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  1. Anne Savage / June 6, 2022 at 10:02

    I have some comments in response to “Educating the Educators”, having just retired from academia – I taught my first university course in1978, just finishing up 32 years at McMaster.

    All of our graduate students attend workshops and seminars on teaching, and are mentored by faculty. This is not what makes a good teacher, though it greatly assists initial competence: years of experience and constant updating of one’s information and perspectives do that. Because we have had NO faculty renewal for a long time in our humanities department, we’re forced to hire sessional instructors for a lot of our teaching; some of these have many years of experience, others much less. We hire our own students when possible. Those “planning for a career in academic” must at this point spend a long, precarious professional existence first, and there are no guarantees such a career will be possible. There’s no end in sight to this state of affairs.

    We’re constantly reminded to care for our students’ mental health, without support or advice – or time allowed. If we make a mistake with a vulnerable student, we risk be sued or losing our employment. Many of us take that risk, spending many hours per term with students who request help, or trying to keep in touch with students who clearly need help but remain elusive.

    Institutional student accommodations consist principally of giving more time to finish term work, which is often not helpful: students having difficulty with work often have problems which cannot be solved this way, such as procrastination, not attending classes or not doing the work because of anxiety or for other reasons. It doesn’t matter how much advice we give about scheduling work, reading texts carefully, and so on, in person and posted on the course website, if students don’t or can’t take that advice.

    Over decades many kinds of institutional responsibilities have been downloaded to instructors. Over the pandemic, we’ve been put in the position of doing so many other jobs that we’re often endangering our own health if we do them as well as they need to be done. The final straw is being told to ‘take time for self-care’ when many of us are not getting enough time to prepare for our teaching of students and teaching assistants, to put together new courses, learn new required technologies, pursue our required research and publication, serve on departmental, faculty and university committees, while also caring for family members and friends.

    It’s important that we insist that adequate, university-tailored professional mental health care be available on campus for students, rather than expecting people who have been trained as teachers and researchers to perform these services along with many other recently-demanded, constantly growing tasks.

    • Sean Michael Scully / June 9, 2022 at 10:15

      Well said!

    • H Cross / June 9, 2022 at 12:35

      Thank you, Ms. Savage!
      I have taught for 20 years now after being one of those “hire our students” cases. I wanted to teach and am now a Senior Lecturer. I took one pedagogy class that was cursory in chosen theories and did not address teaching skills. I know that many of our faculty never took a pedagogy class at all. As time has gone on we do not address the lack of teaching ability/skills/focus/growth of the TTE at all, and the need for first-year instructors (mostly part-time or non-tenure) to cover all of the tasks you list has become onerous.

      I have watched Teaching Excellence Awards go to those who research and write textbooks, create one cool activity or are the most visible in their college/department, not those who are good teachers and help their students–the exact tasks for which we are increasingly responsible. And the few advocates of real pedagogical work and training focus on the grad students. Most recently, our Composition/Pedagogy prof left academia for a tech writing job after suggestions of creating workshops and assessment for instructors was seen as too controlling at a university that has just issued a required template for all syllabi.

      Although this study was at one institution, its focus is clearly an issue at all levels of education because of a focus on results (test scores in secondary) and profit/customer satisfaction (post-secondary). At a national scale we really must look at education’s role to help support the student, the faculty, and the goals of nourishing the mind and critical thought.

  2. John Doe / June 8, 2022 at 14:42

    Not everyone is equipped to receive a university degree due to insufficient intellect, self-discipline, perseverance, work habit and overall capacity. Also, and equally importantly, not everyone needs to receive a university degree.

    Accepting into university everybody who has a high school diploma (with diluted and questionable value) and sufficient cash (mostly borrowed) to pay tuition is wrong from the perspective of the student who wastes years for a useless degree and pays about 50% of the cost, as well as the society who pays the other 50%.

    With ill-prepared, incompetent and disinterested students filling out large part of over-populated university classrooms, and failing them being taboo so that the income stream of universities is not diminished, faculty members are now expected to be the nannies, tutors, psychologists, doctors, parents and overall care takers of students.

    This is nonsense for four reasons: (i) professors are not and need not be equipped to be nannies, tutors, psychologists, etc.; (ii) notwithstanding (i), it is impossible for a professor teaching a class of hundreds or tens of students to know even the names of the students, let alone knowing them at any personal level; (iii) students believe that what they don’t agree with is wrong, and they do not want or follow advice that they don’t agree with; and finally, and most importantly (iv) the delineation of responsibilities must be kept unambiguous: professors are responsible from the teaching, students are responsible from the learning. How students learn, after how much studying and practice, when and where, is none of the business of the professor and the university at large. This is how it was for centuries and it worked very well: the competent succeeded, the incompetent failed.

    Once again university degrees should be earned based on the demonstration of competence, not granted based on the payment of tuition.

  3. Dr. Holly Dobbins / June 9, 2022 at 09:51

    About 20 years ago Syracuse University led the world in addressing this issue with their Future Professoriate Program. Graduate students, especially TA’s, participated in a two week professional pedagogical training conference and program before their first teaching assignments, and received supplemental training and development throughout their graduate studies ultimately building a professional teaching portfolio in a certification program. Unfortunately the program now exists in name only. A “research directed” person took over the graduate school and all but eradicated the decades of work. However, almost everyone who graduated SU with a Ph.D. from 2000 to 2015 were very well prepared to teach! It was a model I would like to see every institution to follow. Dr. Stacy Tice led the program.

  4. Nick Schlotter / June 9, 2022 at 17:50

    Makes me wonder how so many of us graduated from Carleton years ago and went on to successful careers. I don’t need to do a survey to know that most faculty, trained in Division I schools, aren’t focused or trained in pedagogy.

    I know these topics are all the rage since I am a faculty member at a different institution but I would really like to know if making faculty responsible for mental health issues our students have is really a great plan. I don’t have the time to become well versed in the field of mental health – I barely am keeping above water with my current workload. Hiring actual psychologists makes more sense to me.

    You haven’t addressed a plan for how to do this training. What are these alternates you are discussing?

  5. Roderic Girle / June 9, 2022 at 23:15

    If students are to be front and centre then it’s important to find out what their university experience is. There is research on student experience. Student experience will probably vary greatly from country to country. So it would be interesting to compare student experience in Australia and New Zealand (Australasia) with student experience in North America and with the United Kingdom. I have mentioned those three areas because they are English speaking.

    As for basic differences, for example, in most Australian universities the majority of students live off campus at home. In many universities elsewhere in students live on campus. So Australian students can continue with the family and social life that they have developed at High School. So most Australian students don’t have to form new friendships and social contacts. This has quite an important impact on the way they see the university. If students live on campus then they have to find new friends and new social activities. This can cause problems.

    Student experience includes the way in which they chose courses, how they study, and how they relate to academic staff, both lecturers and tutors. When these things are known then academics can better address the way they plan course content, lectures large or small, tutorials, assessment and consultations. It is not unusual in Australasian universities to have first year lectures to classes of 300 or more students. That poses quite different problems to the problems of teaching classes of 30 or so.

    So, it looks like the whole business of university education has to begin with some research about student experience at the university in which the academic is teaching.