Higher Education

Those who can teach, those who can’t teach in college

That’s of course an entirely unfair overgeneralisation, but I guess I have your attention now, right? I recently took part in a scientific conference on the latest research in Spanish (more about the content in a different post) and what struck me was the bad quality of some of presentations done by people who are top notch research professors in their colleges. It is something I’ve seen before and which I don’t think is a problem of the individual teachers.


While my experience is limited to the German university system, I had this problem with instructors who got their education in many different countries and I’ve heard similar things from people with different national backgrounds.


In Germany, when you sign up for your degree, you have to make the broad choice of whether you want to go for a teaching degree in, say, English and Biology, or whether you want to study English with the prospect of a career in university. While the bulk of the classes are the same, the teacher candidates get education science and didactics on top in order to prepare us for our jobs. The “pure” BA/MA people don’t get those, and as a result often enter teaching at the highest educational level with a solid education in their subject matter and no knowledge at all about teaching and testing.


What’s a Tyler Matrix? Bloom’s taxonomy? Objectivity, reliability, validity*? Aims, objectives? How do I set up a test and grade it? Many of my fellow students and sadly instructors have no clue about those things, resulting in horrible teaching and horrible tests, especially in the small classes where individual instructors rule with absolute authority. This is highly unfair. Not only can students not be sure that they learn the skills they need for central examinations, they also don’t know if the test resembles the course material in any way. I remember one test that consisted of three questions that could all be answered with 1 sentence, but since the test was 2 hours long and the sole source of our grades it was clear that the professor wanted more, but it was complete guesswork what that more was.


There is progress being made. Now my university offers optional classes for people who realise that a PhD doesn’t make you a competent teacher, but to me those baby steps are too late, too few. It relies on people voluntarily getting those qualifications and in no way guarantees that students are getting good instructions and fair grading, which is especially problematic since those grades are later treated like an objective evaluation of a student’s skills.


What are your experiences? If you teach in college, did you get information on how to actually teach? Did you experience the badly trained college instructor as well?


*Though the science majors might be better off in that aspect than the arts majors

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Giliell is still a student and has been since shortly after the dinosaurs died out. She's also a parent of one pre school kid and one primary school kid. On top of that she teaches language classes.
Feminist, crafter and Social Justice Rogue. Lover of cupcakes and all things baked.


  1. March 27, 2015 at 12:06 pm —

    Your observations are spot on. I live in the US and taught middle-school science and high-school physics for almost five years. My undergrad degree was in Liberal Studies with concentrations in Science and Education. That degree prepared me pretty well for teaching, but I really needed more physics education to teach upper-level classes like AP Physics. So a few years ago I returned to college in hopes of earning a second undergrad in physics.

    The teaching at my state university is appalling. Professors manage to turn some of the most amazing discoveries of all time into mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. Worst of all, professors are TERRIBLE at creating exams. And I usually have no idea what will be on them. Also, many physics and math professors have this confrontational weed-out mentality that I just don’t understand–STEM subjects are hard enough and weed-out enough students on their own, it doesn’t need their “help.” (And, BTW, I do not have these problems in the few humanities courses that I’m taking.)

    I have talked to some of my friendlier professors about this. I understand that professors are not taught to teach. I understand that most professors get paid peanuts (if anything at all) and that they can be under a lot of pressure to do research. Nevertheless, there are simple things professors can do to improve things–common sense things such as proofreading an exam for typos!–that they don’t do or are unwilling to do. I don’t get it.

    Universities are losing a lot of potentially talented STEM students because of this. Attrition rates in science and math majors are really high here in the US. There are so many articles about why US students don’t major in STEM or why US students leave STEM majors. From my perspective as a former teacher and as a non-traditional student, the answer seems so obvious to me.

  2. March 30, 2015 at 6:31 am —

    While Ive had a few fantastic professors (mainly due to their passion and extensive knowledge of a subject I was also already interested in), I agree with you. Ive had a few writer friends who have gotten jobs teaching college classes and they have no clue how to pace a three hour class (bathroom breaks, please!), how to engage adult students, how to communicate goals of the course, and construct valid and reliable assessments. And of course generally have no clue what the difference between a formative and summative assessment is and why they should have some of each. In my experience, college teachers are focused on their instruction – not on student learning.

  3. March 31, 2015 at 10:14 pm —

    I agree that this is a problem, and I think that the optional workshops schools have instituted as a corrective are an especially poor solution to it. Most people who would benefit from them are actually too busy to take them, and what’s more they probably don’t think they need them (Dunning-Kruger).

    I do think though that approaches to solving the problem should take into account the ways in which post-secondary education is and should be different from high school. This includes a shift in some of the pedagogical burden from the teacher to the adult student, who should be coming to grips with the process of distilling key concepts from larger bodies of information independently.

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