Our Universities: Professorial Impact

Treat students with dignity and respect. Set high standards.  Expect performance.  Experienced, effective, teachers should meet students at “the door.”

“Once they leave, they don’t come back.  It’s more important to do better in your intro course than in your capstone courses.”

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, from an interview with Scott Jaschik


“How College Works” by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs will be published next month.  Last August, Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed previewed an excerpt regarding the power of first impressions on freshmen.   In sum, good teachers influence neophytes for the rest of their lives.  The validity of the study will be addressed by critics in a fortnight.  The work addresses attracting students through good teaching, and good teaching encourages good “studenting.”   Likewise, poor teaching is debilitating. The horse-sense of the findings reported is so plain as to be inarguable.

I work in a college with thousands of students where no freshmen classes in majors are taught by teaching assistants.  Certainly some graduate teaching assistants are better teachers than some tenured professors.  Hard to believe defies common-sense, but true nonetheless.  However, the likelihood of a life transforming experience is highest with proven veterans.

This same college had the highest first semester to second semester freshmen retention rates of any college on campus last year.  Students are challenged. The college regularly posts sturdy indicators of student performance from high school.  Excellent faculty, personally engaged with motivated students in small classes, promote and allow interaction and the sharing of insights, ideas, and initiative. The nuances of a particular profession, joy of intellectual work, value of skill, and the power of an inquisitive mind are also made apparent.

How is student experience infected with purposeful passion?

One:  Make sure every freshman has a course of 20 of fewer students taught by a senior teacher who is perceived by peers to have mastered the craft of teaching.  A complex task but, according to Chambliss and Takacs, it would have a significant impact on student success.

Two:  Create merit, reward, and tenure processes that demonstrably value teaching as equal in importance to research, scholarly and creative work.  Experience indicates 95% of tenure denials are for weak scholarship.  Rarely is anyone denied tenure for weak teaching.  Logical conclusion:  Excellent teaching abounds and an abundance of outstanding scholarship exists.  This is not always the case.   Faculty are able to capably judge both, and will, with committed leadership.

Three:  Make sure every freshman has one 30 minute reflective meeting each semester with a senior faculty member, who is not their instructor, to discuss intellectual and career interests and address questions such as: what the student wants to do with his life, why she wants to do it, and how he can get to a place where those opportunities live.  Impossible? Here’s the arithmetic.  A campus with 3,000 new freshmen and 500 senior faculty would require that each faculty member meet with 6 students for 30 minutes each semester, a total of six hours per year.  This is not onerous, and both faculty and student will profit from the interaction.  If either believes the interaction profitless, a doubter’s departure is a positive outcome.

Four: When graduate students teach, shift some opportunities to second, third, and fourth year classes, and let more advanced undergraduates benefit from graduate student energy and freshness.  Talented graduate students can excel in such settings.

Five: Do away with any freshman courses that are taught solely by non-senior faculty.  If the courses are not worth paying senior faculty for, cut them.  Otherwise, students and institutions pay dearly.  The arithmetic works but cultures must change.  Instead of thinking of introductory courses as punishment, or beneath the dignity of experienced faculty, conceive them as the foundation for all that follows. Programs, techniques and current fetishes don’t substitute for know-how, dedication and experience — strong teachers with a group of students, each coming to know the other, sparkle with superiority.

These five ideas are difficult to implement, but institutions committed to students and their life-success will find ways to bring them about, or similar suggestions that put students in chair one, day one.

Our universities can increase retention and student success.  It’s horse-sense.

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