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KENNESAW, Ga. — Michele DiPietro had his listeners in stitches with his impressions of dumb things college students say in class.
Then he sobered them up with advice about how they could do their own jobs better, and asked how they handled such recurring classroom challenges as apathy and short attention spans.
DiPietro’s disciples were junior members of the faculty at Kennesaw State University, near Atlanta, where he directs a center to improve the quality of teaching at the school.
It’s one of a growing number of efforts to address the dumbfounding reality that most college professors never expressly learn how to teach.
“It’s no longer enough to get your Ph.D., stand in front of a class, and let the chips fall where they may,” said Hoag Holmgren, executive director for the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, a national group focusing on teacher training.
The trend is being fueled by demands from parents and policymakers to get more for the money they’re investing in higher education, and by the growth of faculty-rating websites and a new body of research about effective teaching. DiPietro himself is coauthor of a book on the topic called How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.
Faculty seem to be craving training, too. Only 18 people came to DiPietro’s workshop, which is voluntary, the first time he offered it at Kennesaw last year. This summer, 75 did. He taught them such techniques as varying their teaching styles, and not just standing in front of a classroom or auditorium and lecturing, showing interest in students, and encouraging them to discuss the material as much as possible.
Teaching centers like the one at Kennesaw State generally provide services such as one-on-one consultations aimed at helping professors improve their classroom performance, workshops on subjects like how to handle course loads, or lessons from the latest research on learning, and online guides to using technology in the classroom.
At Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, the number of faculty signing up for confidential consultations to improve their teaching has gone from 100 to 180 in less than three years, said director Marsha Lovett.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching— the nation’s oldest such initiative—conducts 2,800 consultations a year, more than double the number of a decade ago, said Matthew Kaplan, its interim director. The university also runs “teaching academies” that all new hires in most of its schools are required to take. Some departments hold monthly “How Learning Works” sessions, too, Kaplan said.
“Teaching is a much more important part of the package now,” he said. “It’s more than just knowing the content.”
Doctoral programs in which most faculty prepare for their careers in academia focus almost exclusively on knowledge of the subject they intend to teach, research, and write about, according to advocates for better university teaching.
But now, said Holmgren, “There’s an increase in accountability, in the measurability of student learning and the effectiveness of teaching.”
His association is made up mostly of people like DiPietro, whose jobs are to help faculty improve their classroom skills. There are 1,750 members, and that number has been growing at about five percent a year for five years, Holmgren said.
Some wonder why it took so long for higher education to teach its faculty to teach.
“I mean, come on,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director for Gallup Education, a branch of the polling agency whose surveys show that nearly four in 10 college graduates say they never had a professor who made them excited about learning.
“It shows a lack of selecting for the right talent, a lack of training,” Busteed said. “And it shows what we value and espouse. Institutions of higher education have not valued high-quality teaching.”
DiPietro said this may be changing. But he points out that the same economic pressures pushing higher education to improve teaching and learning have caused some universities to move in the opposite direction, closing their teaching centers. Western Kentucky University, for example, last year shut down its Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching.
But DiPietro also said increased consumer awareness — “Families are saying, ‘I’m paying this tuition and this graduate student is teaching my child?’” — will drive up demand for the services at centers like his.
Universities are also finding that graduate students who want to go into academia face a tougher job market, meaning training in teaching can give them an edge.
Jae Turner is one of those. Two years after getting her Ph.D. in Women’s, Gender and Sex Studies at Emory University, and after a year of teaching part-time at Kennesaw, she has been interviewing for full-time faculty positions.
DiPietro’s teacher-training seminar, which Turner attended, wasn’t her first. She also took a six-week course on using digital educational technology. “I’ve certainly taken advantage of everything I can to improve my teaching,” she said.
“It’s a question of motivating students,” Turner said. “If they feel that I don’t care, it’s not going to work.”