Q&A with Michael McPherson

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.

14 thoughts on “Q&A with Michael McPherson”

  1. The lack of investment there is in making sure instructors are properly trained is disheartening. It isn’t very comforting to show so little care in the individuals who are supposed to prepare and guide the people who will impact the world. Many skills are involved in the art of teaching. Having an instructor enter the classroom with little to no training can result in various issues that can pertain to the students and the instructor. Introducing courses that involve having the students learn how to teach can benefit students who do not want to teach in the future. Teaching covers a wide variety of skills that are applicable in many career paths. Another step to this process is improving the work conditions instructors find themselves in. The institution of education values the profit of enrollment rates and the number of graduates. How can we continue the growth of these rates when the quality of workspace lacks for instructors? A teacher should not have to stress where they are going to meet their students for office hours. There should be an available space to interact with students and focus their attention on them comfortably. 

  2. The manner in which professors have been presented to students has always been in the role of educator and even superior. However, as the aim to retain students and create better educators becomes more prevalent the impact of a more inclusive learning environment should be an objective for all institutions. Therefore, revitalizing graduate program core requirements to implement more pedagogical-centered courses may essentially pave the way for better educators and a better understanding of teaching practices. Although institutions tend to leave faculty development out of student success strategies, by incorporating a teaching curriculum that acknowledges both student and faculty perspectives the learning outcomes will reflect a shift towards a growth mindset amongst all.

  3. The author points out that there is a disconnect between universities and instructors and students. I feel that the universities care more about getting students in for enrollment than if they care about student and professor success.Why have large lecture type classes with over hundred students? Universities and colleges like to use shortcuts such as graduate students. Melanie Borstad makes two great points, one point she makes in which, I remember having read a while back on graduate students wanting to form unions because they did not receive fair pay.I believe that it would be a good experience for the graduate student if it were to be about mentorship ensuring that they get teaching positions.Another shortcut universities use is adjunct positions because they are limited in many ways.They might have a harder time to interact since they may not have an office on campus. They might have to travel to other campuses and not have the time.

  4. First of all, I would like to thank you for standing up for the rights of both students and those instructors who don’t have a voice in the educational system. As a student, I can attest that the overall well being of our instructors really does affect the quality of instruction. Most often the institution will overwork professors to the point where they are burned out. The educational system is currently interested in statistics that promote the school’s prestige such as graduation rates, published research articles, GPA, or average retention rates. However, more interest should be placed on whether students are gaining the skills to be successful in the real world environment.

    In my experience, faculty lecturers have been most exploited in this bureaucratic institutional system. Lecturers have no job security and can be let go without any cause. They are paid per unit rather than salary, they are not paid for service, and they are not allowed representation on subcommittees in the senate. For two years they have been trying to get representation on sub-committees of the university so they can advocate for changes in policies that would bring them equal fairness. Instead, they are exploited and overworked. In addition, faculty have a section in their RTP file which requires them to participate in extra activities on campus. So rather than spending time planning lectures, their time is divided into many different areas.

    These are just some of the ways that institutions do not protect their lecturers and professors which then affects the quality of education they may provide to students. So I ask, How can we shift focus, priorities, and budget from research to learning, when higher educational institutions are more concerned with increasing their prestige as an institution? I propose that universities provide yearly training sessions for faculty. This would help professors review positive teaching habits and to stay updated on the most modern modes of instruction.

  5. One potential solution that might best illustrate the notion of “we really care about this” that would align with assisting current faculty with learning how to better teach would be to also hire more faculty. Since there is a significant amount of pressure placed on faculty to publish and research, as well as maintain their responsibilities of teaching and administrative duties, many simply may not have the time or energy to devote to proper preparation in their teaching. When the University as an employer shows that publishing is more important, is makes sense (although sad to see) that other priorities such as teaching may fall to the wayside. By hiring more faculty, a university can reduce the workload placed on the current staff, and by reducing their workload, faculty now have the time to devote to making their teaching as effective as possible. Also, the reduced stress may help in terms of their research and publishing duties. One observation that I have seen as a graduate student is the sheer amount of “work” that is required outside of simply being in a class and teaching. With committees, helping graduate students, outside research, the demands seemingly exceed the number of hours in a day. While the economics of such a move would need to be discussed, this would also help new graduates, as there are way more qualified applicants with degrees than there are open positions available.

  6. Academic institutions should focus on enabling programs that will create high student and faculty retention rates. I strongly believe that job security should be a factor of obligation within an academic institution but also having Faculty feel rewarded and appreciated for their work. I think that creating bridge programs with corporations or non-profits will get more students prepared for jobs. For example, providing Paid internships or stipends to serve as incentives for both instructors and students. Let’s say, if a professor mentors a student during their internship, they both get a stipend. The professor can connect with the company, is able to mentor a student and receives a stipend. The student receives the experience, connects with their mentor, and receives a stipend as well. I think that really implementing multiple bridge programs that can be motivators for improving faculty and student development.

  7. At the risk of veering too far off topic, it seems to me that a lot of issues brought up in this interview stem from a lack of proper funding. Budget cuts to public universities have played a large role over the past 30 years in transforming schools into feeling like they’re being run like mini little businesses. Further, this business mindset seems to have seeped into a lot of administrator positions and put into practice a system and attitude of constant scarcity that has hit teachers the hardest. One thing I find troubling about this reality is the acceptance that “that’s just how it goes.” I feel academia should act as a vanguard to politicians and those seeking to cast votes and write donation checks for those in positions of power that routinely neglect the opportunity to make major investments in higher education. So for me, the struggle of preparing teachers how to teach is reflective of a larger struggle dealing with investment in higher education. I also disagree with those in the comments offering fixes that continue to uphold the current state and hierarchy of academia. Showing adjuncts more respect sounds nice and all, but I feel we need to really interrogate the cause and need for the classification of an ‘adjunct’ in the first place. Additionally, grad student unions should be the rule, not the acceptation. I also think that due to the individual nature and ethos of each university, far more campuses should consider democratizing themselves in an effort to have more power and financial decisions distributed evenly amongst those who regularly participate in the teacher/student relationship. This calls for more students on hiring committees and in curriculum construction. Some of these solutions won’t exactly fit everywhere, and there will be institutional resistance, however what is clear is that problems of teaching how to teach have persisted to this day despite the best efforts of some of the brightest minds around. I think if one thing can be done it is creating the conditions on the campus where students and teachers alike carry more of the responsibility of how their campus operates. It is in this space where I believe we can come to solutions about how to better prepare our teachers. Cuz at the moment, this aint it. We should be looking to reinvent higher education, not fix what it is.

  8. Question two introduces the need for faculty development, what exactly can help faculty develop outside of the traditional educational settings?

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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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