Learning to teach at the postsecondary level

Teaching a class requires skill and knowledge of the subject and of how adults learn and develop. Postsecondary instructors must care about and develop their ability to teach.

Learning to teach at the postsecondary level by Nancy Knowlton

I got a job teaching at a university in my last year of a full-time MBA. I had approached the dean of the faculty to let him know that I didn’t have enough money to pursue the second year and consequently I was taking a year off to get stabilized. His solution to my problem was to give me a job teaching computer science, a course that had come easily to me in my undergrad program. I accepted the position, because it solved my financial problem and I was intrigued by the opportunity. I wasn’t scared off by the additional workload of lecturing during my MBA, although with hindsight I should have been (it actually was a lot of work when I considered not just the lecture prep and delivery but also the marking of the tests and assignments).

The first thing that I did was to ask the dean how I was going to learn to teach. The answer was simple – I was to figure it out on my own, because that’s how all lecturers and professors got into teaching. Not satisfied with that simple answer, I checked with other professors, and they told me the same thing – that’s how they began, and that’s how it would be for me as well.

Practice makes perfect

That direction wasn’t good enough for me. When I had a good collection of lectures prepared, I went to the audiovisual department and checked out some video equipment. I set everything up in my assigned classroom, locked the door and taped my first lecture. Like anything, I expected to have a learning process, but I was unprepared for how terrible I appeared in front of the camera and, therefore, my pretend class. I sat in stunned silence and watched an inept, uninspiring performance play out in front of my eyes. As hard as it was to do, I stayed with the practice and review for a full month before classes started. In the end I felt confident and as prepared as I could be for the start of the semester.

One unexpected outcome of teaching for me was the depth to which I learned and understood the courses that I taught. Not only did I have to prepare to explain some complex concepts in a simple fashion, but I also had to learn to craft questions for discussion and assignments that would bring out the learning in my students. That was not possible through anything but a deep understanding of the course content. I also solved and answered every question in the textbook so that I could be prepared to help students who might have struggled with the same questions. It turns out that as I learned to teach, I learned in the process.

Important responsibility

In hindsight, the whole process of beginning to teach at the university level was insane. I had no grounding in how students really learned beyond my own experience and reflections. I was well-motivated and sincere in wanting to see my students perform, but that did not prepare me for the important responsibility that I had for the learning and development of these students. I was fortunate to have smart students who ended up doing well, quite likely in spite of my involvement.

A university education

Even though I am many years removed from this experience in a postsecondary classroom, my understanding is that teaching at the postsecondary level is still being initiated in the same way. Academics are entering the classroom with no fundamental understanding of teaching and learning and often with no interest in teaching. For many university lecturers, teaching is a necessary evil, part of their appointment that allows them to do the things that they really want to, namely consult, research and publish.

Ask students what they want from their university education, and the answer will center on teaching and learning. They want a quality instructor who will help them get through their classes, developing their knowledge and ability to think in meaningful ways with the end objective of getting a good job or launching a career that will enable a good life. Clearly for some, the research and publishing interests of their professors matter (for example, in more technical areas), but for many (for example, in business or commerce) this is of secondary or no interest.

Then ask universities what product they think they are delivering and how they are addressing the needs of students. The answers may surprise us. Teaching is not likely to be rated a top priority at many of the world’s top universities. The selection, appointment and retention of professors is not typically based on their teaching skills (and that calls into question the whole process of professor evaluations at the end of a course).

Skill and knowledge required

It is not enough to rely on the good intentions or motivations of the lecturer or professor at the front of the classroom. Teaching a class requires skill and knowledge, not just of the subject but of how adults learn and develop. Discounting this latter requirement is tantamount to snubbing one’s nose at the needs of a customer in the business world, and we all know how long customer-dismissive entities stay in business – not long.

Times are changing

Universities have a long and proud history and tradition, but their existence could be severely challenged in the future. Technology is already threatening to test the university degree with the advent of free online courses and MOOCs (massive open online courses). Universities have been the arbiter of what constitutes an education in a particular field and have been granted the right to confer official recognition of learning through degrees. But that does not mean that this will always be the case. I am already opening my mind to how I would consider a nontraditional education in job applicants, and I would suspect that many others are asking the same questions.

Universities must really think about their role in a world that will be more technology enabled and dependent. Professors cannot switch on autopilot when they enter the classroom and regurgitate the same information that they have for years. Too much is new and emerging in so many subject areas. Professors must care about their teaching abilities and that means gaining knowledge and skill in how adults learn.

It’s time for us to do away with the entrenched thinking that a smart or educated person can make a capable teacher in the postsecondary world. Just because we have had this system in place for hundreds of years doesn’t mean it should be perpetuated. Like the K–12 system, we must think holistically about the needs of students in the future, and that means starting with a blank sheet of paper and building, from the ground up, a workable system that we and students can afford and that delivers the outcomes that we all need.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.