Monday, October 24, 2011

Encouraging Better Teaching at Research Universities

The editorial writers at the Harvard Crimson offer some thoughts about how to improve the educational experience there.  Their piece raises some mildly interesting issues.  What would motivate the lazy faculty at leading schools to try harder in the classroom?   As UCLA raises its tuition, we need to raise the quality of our undergraduate educational experience.

Here I offer my magic recipe for cooking some fresh high quality teaching.

First, there is selection.  University faculty have to become younger.  Mandatory retirement at age 70 would improve teaching on average.  Excellent teachers over the age of 70 could be recalled.   I am 45 and I plan to retire at age 62.  At that point, I plan to visit a different university each year and let the market decide where I will go next.

Second, Universities need better graduate students who are motivated to do a good job as Teaching Assistants. This takes $.   I would love to see UCLA engage in major fund raising targeted to providing better deals for Ph.D. students.    This is a case where I believe in efficiency wages.     Teachers have lots of discretion.  A well paid teacher is a happy teacher who will not cut corners and go the extra mile for the students.   As my father says; "Cheap is expensive".  More $ for Ph.Ds would increase the # of Americans entering such programs and language skills matter in undergraduate teaching.

Third,  Deans should figure out how to have professors co-teach a course where they actually show up for the other's lectures.   When my colleagues are in the room for my undergrad talks, I raise my game. I want to show my colleagues how I play the game (and they are impressed).

Fourth;   Undergraduates could be given a research pot of $ which they will paid if they sign a research contract with a professor.   Professors who need research assistants would then have an incentive to compete for these students and would respond by giving more interesting lectures to attract students to want to work with them.  So, such research grants could be given to students with a GPA greater than 3.7 and faculty would compete for this subsidized smart labor.  More generally, encouraging undergraduate researchers with Profs would improve the undergrad experience.

Fifth;  Professors who stink in the classroom should be identified and punished.  There are lots of crappy jobs that have to be done in Departments.  Give these assignments to the profs who stink in the classrooms .   I recall that when I was a student at Chicago, there was one prof who had only 1 student registered for his class. He was rewarded for doing a bad job by having no work to do.  Bad incentives!  To pull this off requires a Chairman of the Department who is tough enough to deal out punishment.   Most profs play nice but this holds back the university.   Departments need enforcers.  Charles Oakley should make a comeback.

Six:  The University's Deans, Provost and President should all have to teach a course every 2 years so they don't forget the reason they entered academia in the first place.

Seven;  Teaching evaluations?  I don't think that these are the answer.  I'm not convinced that profs read them.  At UCLA Econ, each faculty member receives his own ranking and how he compares to every other Prof in the department.  The sheet is reported sorted by "overall score".  Does any department engage in "shame and ostracism" in which the faculty member with the lowest scores is mocked?  I don't think so.  Each individual faculty member must judge him/herself .    At UCLA, we have a step promotion system and teaching is one of the categories that is part of the evaluation for step promotion.   I'm not convinced that this incentive system yields more faculty effort.

Eight:  The Deans could figure out how to have faculty "teach" outside of standard classes.  At UCLA, other faculty are always asking me to give guest lectures.  The great Deans of UCLA should have a pot of $ and offer a payment to faculty who give a big lecture for the whole community.  If 500 people show up to hear Math Genius Terrence Tao talk about math then he has contributed to the teaching experience at UCLA and he should be rewarded.

Nine:  The Deans need to promote Loyalty to the University.  Faculty have discretion and private information about their classroom effort.  How do universities minimize shirking?  When I was a Visiting Prof at Harvard btwn 1996 and 1998, I noticed how many faculty were graduates of Harvard and had children who were attending Harvard.  These folks expected to spend their whole careers at Harvard and they were loyal to Harvard and sacrificed for the common good.   When a person does a "good deed" without explicit cash compensation, are they a hero or a sucker?

Ten:  Smaller classes for upper-division electives.  Faculty have to get to know students.  In smaller classes, students will talk more.  Students are not eloquent public speakers. They don't receive enough practice but speaking is more important than writing essays in the real world.

Teaching and research go hand in hand.  For U.S universities to stay several steps ahead of China's and India's universities, we will need to continue to innovate.  A tenured, comfortable faculty need to be confronted with carrots and sticks!

Now, why do my opinions matter? I've been a prof for 20 years and I like to teach.  67,000 have watched me give this talk about climate change adaptation.  I am also the son of a famous teacher at NYU's Medical School.   For most of my adult life, my father has stressed to me the importance of being a teacher and what it means to be a teacher.


2cents said...

I have thought about this subject many many times. Here are just a few quick thoughts. FYI, I'm an undergrad with a political science degree (from one of the UC's) and an econ degree. Each degree is from a different university. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1) Teaching evaluations? I agree with you 100%! They are a terrible way to critique you. This is done on one day at the end of the term where we're given about 5-10 minutes tops to fill them out. A) There should be a way to do it anonymously online so long as you're a student in that class. B) We students should be required to fill one out every 2 weeks and you professors should be required to review them with your superior present at least once every 3-4 weeks throughout the term. C) Every single evaluation should be posted online visible to every student and every faculty member in the department. SHAME & OSTRACISM would be great incentives for teachers not to suck and it would allow you to judge whether the critiques of another teacher are reasonable. I think professors are smart enough to judge one another reasonably. For example, if every review says, "tests too hard" then maybe they are or maybe it’s a hard subject. But if every review says, "we can't understand you, you speak too fast, stop going off on tangents" then that professor should be embarrassed and punished. And Sometimes I think of a critique during the week or during a class but then do not remember it at the end of the term when I'm cramming for finals.

2) I like your idea of team teaching. Often times I would love to have another professor in the room. Sometimes I know my professor is making things up, faking it, or just generally not prepared for the lesson. Other times, I simply benefit more by listening to the smartest people in the room discuss topics they know best. And when an explanation is terrible from one professor, maybe the other could help. Furthermore, perhaps I would benefit by hearing questions from one professor who might not be good at that particular class. For example, maybe an environmental economist is not very good at econometrics but nonetheless he could ask some pointed questions or understand where we students are having trouble because he has an outsider’s perspective.

3) I would love to have your "boss" make 3 appearances to my class each term to observe. These would be unannounced to you. I had a stats class with approximately 400 students with a teacher who could barely speak English. Nobody ever went to class because they couldn't understand him. I went a few times and there were never more than 15-20 people in class, but on test day, the lecture hall was packed. I think if his boss had attended 3 random lectures and each time only seen 20 students out of a 400 enrollment he would have said, "hmm...what is wrong with this picture." And this term, I had one professor who was 10 minutes late once and then completely missed class with no warning or explanation. Could you imagine not showing up one day when your boss did? I bet you’d be in some hot water.

4) There are far too many "general ed" requirements in too many fields. And you should be able to substitute them with courses from your major if you are an upperclassman. Sometimes I think professors don't care to try in class when they know the students aren't trying. For example, making me take the "history of dance" does not make me a well-rounded student. I take it because it fills a requirement and it’s an easy-A. Then I skip it all the time. I’m sure professors can sense this happening. I would benefit much more, and so would the professor of that “history of dance” class if I were not there but instead taking another upper-division econ class. Win-win.

Allen Knutson said...

(Terry Tao has two rs, but Terence Tao only one.)

Kristen Mendez said...

I have to agree on you about speaking is better than writing in the real world, but there is more demand in essay writing service, actually I haven't seen a company that is hiring a speaker. Do you agree?

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