Note to universities: Hire better instructors

15 09 2010

In my four years in college, at IUPUI and IU Bloomington, I have found a fatal flaw that consistently plagues higher education: bad instructors.

In an institution whose sole raison d’être is education, one would think that there would be strong priority for seeking out effective instructors and lecturers. I have found that this has been a hit-or-miss endeavor for IU.

There seems to be a school of thought that a school can simply toss a grad student or a PhD into a classroom full of new undergrads and they will be good instructors. A PhD does not a good teacher make. A person might be an expert in whatever field it is that they are teaching, but if they lack the ability to communicate their knowledge effectively and make sure the students understand and retain that knowledge, then they are not good teachers.

In my junior year, while in the Informatics program, I had a PhD student as an instructor for an introductory PHP/OOP course. This class was a disaster. She knew all about Object-Oriented design, but had never taught a class before nor did she have any clue about what would be involved. This resulted in her simply mumbling through her weekly slideshow and expecting each and every student in the room to understand perfectly. She also took to posting line after tiny line of PHP code on her slides and just flipping through them expecting us to instantly know what it meant.

When I took Calculus I during my sophomore year, this time at IU Bloomington, I had a Chinese-born grad student as the instructor for my recitation session. Because she was so soft-spoken, I was forced to sit in the front row to even notice when she was speaking. Unfortunately, her accent was so thick that it was nigh-impenetrable. I do think she was doing her best. I also believe in having an international perspective in American academia, now more than ever. However, if a class is going to be taught in English, then the instructor should be capable of speaking loud, clear, intelligible English. Likewise if the class’ language is Spanish, Chinese, or Finnish.

I would like to state that Indiana University and IUPUI are excellent universities and most of their instructors and lecturers and fantastic. Jason Sisk, Barb Hayes, and Joseph DeFazio are all people whom I had as lecturers at IUPUI and I think they are great teachers. However, if one has a bad instructor, it can ruin the class. That is the reason I am writing this post.

What do I think makes for a good instructor? Here is a short list of the most important qualities, listed in no particular order:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Perfectly fluent in the language that is being used in the course (normally English in the United States)
  • Deep and broad knowledge of the course’s topic
  • Enthusiasm for the subject
  • Enthusiasm for teaching the subject
  • Openness to criticism of teaching style and willingness to change
  • Excellent communication skills

In a nation where the education system is in decline, good teachers are in demand, now more than ever. University departments need to try much harder to only hire lecturers who have good teaching skills, possibly even requiring some kind of educational certification. The idea that a PhD or a researcher can just walk into a classroom and be a great teacher is flawed at best and reckless at worst.

Universities: hire good instructors. Don’t just toss a grad student in front of a class. I would wager that you will see higher grades and happier, more productive students.

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