You get what you ask for: Incentives and Behaviour

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Seth Godin recently put up a blog post entitled “Pushing Back on Mediocre Professors” about professors not pushing themselves enough to be relevant to students who are paying for an expensive education.

While I agree with him that many professors don’t push themselves enough to provide a meaningful education, I think there might be a rejoinder.  Pushing back on students.  Most of my students are hard-working and dedicated.  But a significant minority of students are not.  They don’t read the textbook or show up to class.  They have a strong sense of entitlement, expecting high grades for little work. 

Active learning is one of the most effective methods of teaching. However, it demands more of the student. It doesn’t work if students aren’t prepared for class.  It’s hard to have a conversation about a reading or a case study if the prof is the only one in the room who has actually prepared for the discussion. If students are busy texting or using facebook, it’s hard to engage them in a conversation.  Learning is not exclusively the responsibility of the professor, but a shared responsibility between professor and student. 

There is a second reason that many professors are less than stellar teachers.  They aren’t rewarded for good teaching.  The tenure system has distorted most professors’ priorities.  As long as their teaching evaluations are not too bad, they’ll be okay.  But if they haven’t published consistently in top journals, they won’t get tenure.  So they focus on research and publishing, not teaching. Organizations get what they ask for by creating reward systems.  And universities don’t ask for good teachers, they ask for good researchers.

When we set up reward systems, we chose to emphasize certain behaviours and devalue certain other behaviours.  Every organization has to make trade-offs. Universities have chosen to reward research, at the expense of teaching.  

Every organization is the same. There are things that are valued and loved (research) and things that are loved (teaching).  Every university out there values research by providing time and money to support it, as well as tenure to demonstrate love.  But teaching, well, every university loves to talk about great teaching, but when it comes to resources, there’s no money or time provided to teach well.  So if you’re a career driven academic, you focus on research. 

So Seth, you might be right.  But that doesn’t mean things are going to change.


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