Measuring the value of teaching

These criteria offer a way to get beyond the sales pitch and get down to a school's real commitment to education.

Did you ever wonder how to figure out which universities most value teaching? Of course, every catalogue professes the school’s “profound commitment” to this grand ideal. But if you want to know how such professions translate into policy and daily practice, you need to ask some probing questions. The questions have to be the right ones, of course, informed questions that do not permit vast generalization or easy evasion. Consider the following, for example. They might be called “the top ten ways you can tell which universities most value teaching”:

Do your graduate degree programs include a required course in teaching the discipline? If graduate students are required to take classes on everything in their discipline except how to teach it, the lesson is not lost on them. Especially because graduate students teach so many undergraduate classes, the lack of serious training in pedagogy will have detrimental effects on undergraduate classrooms.

Do your on-campus hiring interviews involve candidates teaching a demonstration class, and do hiring dossiers include a teaching portfolio? To make an informed decision on candidates’ teaching skills, hiring committees need more documentation than a vague phrase in a recommendation letter affirming that Smith “will doubtless make a fine teacher.”

After hiring, do faculty receive ongoing support so that they continue to develop as teachers throughout their career? It’s far easier for teachers to keep improving and wanting to improve when a school provides regular occasions to meet with others who share the same challenges and the same ambitions for excellence in the classroom.

Are salary and promotion decisions based on teaching in the same proportion as teaching plays in the total contract? University faculty wear many hats and perform many jobs. One way you can determine how high a priority an institution places on teaching among all these jobs is to determine what percentage of raises is based on teaching. After all, that’s the way faculty determine it.

Do outstanding teachers receive chairs, not just prizes? Prizes are a good start in recognizing teaching, but only a long-term award like an endowed chair rewards the long-term success that characterizes excellent teaching. Donors who put up the funds for chairs are eager to support teaching because great teachers are usually what they remember from their college days; and you can bet that if a school has no endowments that recognize great teaching, it’s because they haven’t been asking for them.

When a faculty member is being wooed to leave and go elsewhere, does this university try to retain them by offering a “reduced teaching load”? That means the university is willing to trade good teaching for good research; it means that teaching is considered an expendable bargaining chip in a negotiation where research is more highly valued.

Are student evaluations of teaching made public? If they are kept secret, even from the evaluators, then students have no reliable way to distinguish better teachers from worse. They are forced to choose their courses blind, and problem teachers can effectively stay under the radar.

Do peer reviews of teaching involve faculty or staff from outside the department? Of course, salary and promotion reviews might have no peer review component at all, and that fact is telling in itself. But if the reviews are performed internally, they are often clubby and uncritical. In order to have maximum effect on improving and assessing teaching, internal reviews need to be supplemented by a fresh perspective from outside.

Do senior professors teach first years and nonmajors as well as majors and graduate students? Universities are justly proud of their most accomplished faculty, but if these stars do not teach freshman and nonmajors, or if they don’t teach undergraduates at all, you can easily graduate without ever being taught by one.

Do instructors, who mostly do teaching, receive as much respect (and pay) as faculty, who mostly do research? Be on the lookout for discriminatory categories (like instructor or education specialist) that segregate off teachers, no matter how good they are, as second-class citizens who can never achieve the school’s highest accolades.

Overall, the above criteria offer a way to get beyond the sales pitch and get down to a school’s real commitment to education. And if you find a university genuinely committed by policy and practice to quality teaching, you will have a pretty good chance of getting it.

Joel Weinsheimer is a Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University. Please send comments to [email protected]