How to Improve Undergraduate Teaching: A Performance-Based Accountability System

Publication, Education, Rodney Clifton


Currently, administrators at Canada’s universities, particularly at the research universities (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, UBC, etc.) do not value undergraduate teaching. In fact, they consider teaching, and especially teaching undergraduate students, of much less value than bringing in research grants and publishing articles and books (see, for example, Clark, Trick, & Van Loon, 2011; Hacker & Dreifus, 2010, 78). The devaluation of undergraduate teaching has been acknowledged in a number of recent books with provocative titles such as: Ivory tower blues: A university system in crisis (Cote & Allahar, 2007), Higher education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids—and what we can do about it (Hacker & Dreifus, 2010), Academic adrift: Limited learning on college campuses (Arum & Roksa, 2011), and One-party classroom: How radical professors at America’s top colleges indoctrinate students and undermine our democracy (Horowitz & Laksin, 2009).

Generally, the authors demonstrate that often students are short-changed by indifferent instruction, huge classes, run-away grade inflation, ideological indoctrination, political correctness, and the dumbing down of the curriculum. Increasingly, student leaders are demanding that something be done to ameliorate poor teaching of undergraduate courses (see Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, 2010). In fact, some students have argued that teaching should be evaluated using reliable and valid institution-wide course evaluations, and that professors should be rewarded for teaching well and punished for teaching poorly (see, for example, Hira & Cohen, 2011; Vedder, 2004).

Increasing demands by student leaders are now forcing university administrators to pay much more attention to the quality of under-graduate teaching (Hira & Cohen, 2011; Owram, 2012). Most Canadian universities have established special centres that offer workshops and short courses to professors for the purpose of improving their teaching skills, and nearly all reward a few of their most outstanding teachers. Most universities also have been using standardized teaching assessments and publishing the results, but they have not been rewarding good undergraduate teachers and, more importantly, punishing bad teachers. Some professors, of course, say that students are incapable of assessing good teaching, but this is a self-serving claim that contradicts the research literature (see, for example, Marsh & Roche, 1997; McKeachie, 1997). In fact, the literature shows that undergraduate students can distinguish “snakeoil peddlers” from truly good teachers.

Although there may be value in publishing teaching evaluations, rewarding a few super-teachers, and establishing teacher-training services these have little or no effect on raising the general quality of undergraduate instruction. Rating classroom instruction may make teaching more transparent, but it hardly makes it more accountable because such ratings do not, by themselves, translate automatically into improved teaching performances. Likewise, rewarding a few star teachers has no obvious effect on the instructional proficiency of the vast majority of professors, some of whom say privately that they would be humiliated to be recognized as being excellent undergraduate teachers. Teaching centres also have limited value because poor teachers are almost never forced to attend courses, and there is rarely any follow-up to ensure that their teaching has improved. If these interventions have not resulted in significant improvements in undergraduate teaching, what more can be done?

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