If you want good teachers, reward them for it

Incentive in the engineering professoriate needs recalibrated

Engineers know that learning math and physics can be dry, but hopefully, you also know it can be engaging as well. It is highly dependent on the teacher. Educators that invest in their courses are much more likely to inspire their students to do the same. This is easier said than done, however, as many engineering schools have a major distraction. Research.

Now, hold on. I’m not in any way discounting the importance of research, but this brings up an old, and some would say flawed, formula. Professors are rewarded for research success and for that reason will be dedicated to research. The more grant money and publications you can produce, the more likely you are to get tenure and promotion.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but something important is missing. Teaching. The fact that teaching accomplishments receive less weight at many institutions shifts focus off of the primary benefactor of education. The student.

As described in PRiSM, focusing on teaching  “promotes better learning experiences for students, improving the odds they’ll stick to science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.” This is about retention, engagement and the success of graduates.

Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU), describes the problem, “It’s no longer acceptable for a faculty member to say, ‘Look to your right and left. Only one of you is going to remain.’ That’s an excuse for poor teaching, and not having to teach everyone.”

There are a variety of reasons students leave engineering. The retention plan is often most visible in the freshman-level curriculum through initiatives in transitioning from high school and applying engineering principles early on. Incorporating more career-oriented relevance, rather than simple math and physics is important to keeping students interested.

At the other end of it are the teachers. Rewarding teaching accomplishments is sometimes difficult because it is not so quantitative as research dollars and number of publications. “If institutions had robust methods for peer review of teaching, then they might evaluate teaching more rigorously in promotion decisions.”

This can be (and is) done through the use of teaching portfolios which document teaching activities for easier interpretation. These portfolios may include student evaluations, course syllabi, examples of class assignments and exams, a copy of students’ work with instructor’s feedback, etc.

Coming from a school where this portfolio model is used and teaching is weighted more heavily than research for tenure and promotion, I can attest that it necessitates a special focus on delivering the class material and developing the curriculum. That is not to say that research isn’t rewarded as well, it’s just not the end all be all in evaluating performance.

That’s the infamous Goldilocks dilemma. When it comes to teaching, research and service, what is the “just right” balance and how is that played out? This question is not new, but it is gaining more attention and inspiring change to keep pace with our technological dependence as a society.


Image courtesy of  news at JAMA