Q&A with Michael McPherson

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Editor’s note: Last week, we sat down with Michael McPherson, co-chair of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, for an insightful discussion about why colleges and universities should invest in their faculty, measure the impact of good teaching, and create more productive working environments specifically for their adjunct faculty members. McPherson highlighted some of the important findings published last fall in The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America.

Michael McPherson -acue.org1. Why should institutions invest in quality instruction when they have so many competing priorities?

MM: There are obviously a number of things institutions need to be paying attention to, and not everything should be put aside in favor of teaching. But I think we have to recognize that, in far too many parts of American higher education, teaching has been assigned an extremely low priority. The main business that most college faculty are in is teaching undergraduates, and they get very little training in most cases for that work—they get evaluated in many institutions more on their scholarship than on their teaching, even if what they spend the most time on is their teaching. With very little support to enable faculty to do their jobs, something that comes through loud and clear is, “Folks, we really don’t care about teaching.” And that has to be addressed.

2. The report says, “Effective student/faculty interactions are correlated with increased retention and completion rates, better grades and standardized test scores, and higher career and graduate school aspirations.” Why do you think so many institutions leave faculty development out of their student success strategies despite the pressure they’re experiencing to raise completion rates?

MM: Well, I think one challenge is that our level of knowledge about how to improve teaching is not very high. It’s not surprising that that’s true because the subject has been so widely neglected. There are, of course, substantial exceptions to this generalization. But on the whole, attention has been given to assessing research performance in American higher education, with elaborate systems for measuring it. People measure what they care about, and they measure research, and they don’t measure teaching, except with student questionnaires, which are generally a weak indicator of performance.

3. So you think that designing some kind of framework for measurement would go a long way in disseminating the importance of teaching?

MM: I think it’s one thing that institutions should be investing in. And I want to be clear that I’m not simply talking about measuring teaching outcomes, but actually measuring, tracking, observing teaching performance. It’s very difficult to go straight from what a teacher does in class to what a student’s test scores are, because obviously those are influenced by a great deal of factors.

Actually, I think one of the things we’ve learned from a lot of work in K-12 is that conscientious observation of classrooms by trained observers with organized ways of providing feedback on performance can be very effective in improving teaching performance. When there are classroom observations in higher education—and again, there are exceptions—these observations are done, for example, by full professors going to the class of an assistant professor, but that full professor has not been educated about how to judge performance in the classroom. So those observations may actually be worse than nothing, because you’re getting random feedback.

4. What role can or should tenure evaluation and contract renewal play in elevating the importance of teacher quality?

MM: Experience from K-12 education suggests that there’s a real tension between doing evaluation for the sake of improvement and doing evaluation for the sake of promotion. And both are needed, but they should be kept in reasonably separate boxes. If you want to learn how to teach better, you don’t want to be putting on a show which is going to figure into whether or not you get tenure. So I think there does need to be a systematic way of assessing teaching performance and assessing teaching outcomes. But those ought to be complementary to attempts to learn more about how to improve teaching, by putting what’s learned into practice.

5. What can be done at the graduate level to help aspiring instructors reconceive of the role of a college faculty member, with attention to pedagogy and ongoing evaluation of their teaching?

 MM: These are challenging matters. Graduate institutions are not, all by themselves, going to decide that they’re going to devote more of their energy to preparing future teachers. They’re only going to do that if the institutions make clear that they are looking for evidence of high-quality teaching. So really, it needs to start with the institutions leading activities that signal “we really care about this.” One of those is evaluation for promotion and tenure, how much weight is given to teaching and so on.

But an even more obvious thing is we simply can’t have teaching being done without thinking in a serious way about how to prepare faculty well and how to create environments in which they’re able to do good work. We have to change the concept of a teaching professional because, in the current understanding of undergraduate teaching, especially at four-year institutions, the PhD is a research degree, not a teaching degree. That’s not going to change unless the institutions signal that they’re going to value teaching and, similarly, if the institutions are willing to find the resources and determination to improve the working conditions of people who are in part-time positions or adjunct-type lecture positions. Without those changes, I think it’s going to be hard to make progress in any substantial way.

6. When you mention improvements for faculty in part-time or adjunct positions, what types of changes are you referring to?

MM: I think one is better job security. That doesn’t mean tenure, but it should mean multiple-year appointments, in many cases. A second is providing working conditions that allow people to do proper work. It’s really not optimal to have to meet your teacher for office hours at a Starbucks because your teacher doesn’t have an office. So relatively straightforward things like that are important. But something that’s subtler and may be even more important is if we recognize how valuable good teaching is and give the people who deliver the bulk of the teaching a voice in how the institution operates. Adjunct faculty, in some cases, are not even invited to faculty meetings, and they have very little opportunity to vote on matters that are going to affect them. That all reflects back and can be problematic.

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6 thoughts on “Q&A with Michael McPherson”

  1. Concerning the question of what can be done at the graduate level to affect the ways we view the profession of teaching at an undergraduate level, I advocate two courses of action which may prepare graduate students to create enhanced learning environments for their students and to acquire security in their teaching positions. My first proposal would be to incorporate an intensive teaching internship, involving mentorship, within graduate programs as opposed to the prevalent system of employing graduate students for low-level undergraduate courses as a means of securing a more cost-effective labor pool. Graduate students are more likely to receive an offer of a faculty position if they have teaching experience, so why not provide access to pedagogical knowledge more readily. Secondly, participation in graduate student unions will aid in ensuring graduate students employed as lecturers receive fair compensation and will set this population up for success in the future by gaining knowledge of their rights as faculty members. A major duty of graduate programs is to prepare their students to enter the professional world, either in academia or private research. Students aiming to pursue careers in academia should be given proper pedagogical instruction to improve the educational experience of the next generation. The solution needs to be incorporated through all levels for real change to be enacted. This means not simply waiting for universities to edit their teaching evaluation process, but to preparing more adept teachers who will ultimately cultivate critical thinking skills in undergraduate students.

  2. What I am finding is that this article is highlighting a large flaw in academia. While educational institutions, as they stand, are meant ton inform the public of various formats on knowledge, the professors are not taught on how to teach. This leaves a large gap, which may create a detrimental system where the suffer is the individual who is paying thousands of dollars a year to ascertain this knowledge. Of course, this is far from the instructors fault, however the university and entire educational system must due something to fill in the void that is so direly needed. Not only will that make teaching easier, students, society and higher learning institutions can only benefit from a more competent labor force, higher retention rates, and education hegemony which is so all but missing in the learning process.

  3. What I am reading here is that the academic system, as it currently stands, is mostly interested in quantifiable outcome data. This includes retention and graduation rates. There is little value placed on the teaching aspect. Many higher ed students have been trained to take tests and advance. Little emphasis is placed on the active learning process. This is extremely unfortunate because the ability to retain the information is diminished, test scores are not enough to foster innovative ideas that higher ed was meant to. Currently i am taking a teaching course at Cal State La. This speaks to the point made ,”So really, it needs to start with the institutions leading activities that signal ‘we really care about this.’ ” (McPherson 2018). This is one way institutions can signal that we value the pedagogical process. I feel very fortunate that the faculty here have offered this course. I also concur that environment is crucial to the teaching/learning dynamic. Unnecessary stress caused by the lack of job security and respect facing adjunct and part-time faculty is distracting to say the least. This is reflected in their ability to develop relationships with students and staff alike. faculty and student contact is highly correlated with student success, and I would argue, teacher satisfaction too.

  4. I echo Jerry Field’s sentiments with a slight variation. Full disclosure, I am not entirely a fan of the current tenure system for other reasons beyond the one that is most germane to this discussion and mention by McPherson: Tenure tends to put pressure on the system to evaluate for promotion rather success in educating undergraduate students. There are also self-preservation tendencies with tenure that end taking priority over the mandate to actually cause learning. That said, the pedagogy does need to be addressed, and also, while we teach and involve undergraduate students in research, this does not warrant the persistent preference for a PhD to teach undergraduates. The curricular structure of doctoral degrees (PhD, EdD, DPsyc, etc) are increasingly becoming similar and the preference irrelevant: ironically, so will the criticism in the near future. Admittedly, this is not quite as simple in the STEM fields, however, anyone who undertakes the task of teaching undergraduates must be taught and trained on how to teach, beyond developing the requisite expertise in their field.

  5. I am disturbed by the title of this article. My M. S. is in Mathematics with and emphasis on teaching at the community college. My PhD is in instructional Leadership and Curriculum Development. How can you state that a PhD is Not a teaching degree. I think some research on PhD’s would be a worthwhile endeavor here!

  6. An excellent interiew and a long time with questions and answers that need to be discusssed. I’m all for tenture, with a number of detailed responsibilites, in addiition to publishing. community involvement aids enrollment. So many answers will upset the status quo thats need a full discusion and often.. The pedagogy needs to be slightly updated using a more detailed description than Ben Bloom has invisioned. The attitude of our potential teachers has changed as have the number of teaching aids avalable, and addressing the proper use of the electronics. On line is an expansive use of eductaional facilities, but direct the subject matter to keeping pace with job requirements. Let try and keep up the conversation, new ideas and updating curriculum and administration should be given more conversation and action. (fast action)

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