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Professional Opinion

Colleges need to teach Ph.D.s how to teach

Solving the shortage of academically qualified higher ed business professors
University Business, March 2017
Donna Fletcher is a higher ed professor of finance at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Donna Fletcher is a higher ed professor of finance at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Legislators, parents and students are not the only ones asking questions about the cost and quality of higher education.

As educators, we don’t hesitate to ask ourselves and our universities to push for improvements.

One major hurdle remains, however, as the academy does more to encourage and reward research output than it does to support work in the classroom.

For the future of higher education to be its brightest, the current teacher-scholar model needs to be recalibrated.

We must put our Ph.D. candidates—our future faculty—on the path to success in the classroom. Are we doing the best we can? Most importantly, are we spending enough time teaching them how to teach well?

Faculty challenge

The aim of the teacher-scholar model is to improve and ultimately balance teaching and research. Excellence in the classroom is critical, and colleges and universities, particularly business schools, are calling for improved teaching quality.

For example, the Pathways Commission on Accounting Higher Education has stressed the importance of teaching quality and in their final report stated that “the need for a dedicated focus on continuous improvement in all aspects of the educational process (curriculum, assessment, graduates’ success, etc.) is critical” to the development of teacher-scholars.

As a business school professor, I know firsthand that the shortage of academically qualified business professors continues to be a challenge as we look to expand our faculty.

And it’s not just my university. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business has documented this challenge nationally.

In part to answer this call, we are seeing a significant influx of Ph.D. applicants—many of whom are former practitioners in a range of disciplines and many of whom come from countries around the world—looking to earn a doctoral degree here in the U.S.

How to increase quality

My colleagues and I have seen newly minted Ph.D.s who come to us feeling quite overwhelmed after their first teaching experiences. When it came to their research, they seemed comfortable enough with the process, but not when it came to the classroom.

So we took action. We designed a teaching workshop specifically to address the need for increased quality in the classroom, and it’s been a great success. Here’s what we did:

  • We developed a highly participatory curriculum for a seminar where facilitators and attendees brainstorm what does and does not work both inside the classroom and during office hours.
  • We created guidelines for setting the right active learning tone, including using case analysis, peer-to-peer teaching and classroom breakout sessions.
  • We specified how participants must work with the facilitators on effective testing and grading, individual class preparation, and creating synergies between teaching and research.
  • We designed the course to show new professors how to excel at their first teaching assignments and to show experienced professors how to improve their possibly rusty teaching skills.
  • We focus on the Socratic Method, emphasizing asking questions to engage students, improve participation and enhance peer-to-peer teaching.

Faculty are responsible for the education of our students, and the teaching we do must be treated equally, along with research and service, in evaluating our success. Those who offer Ph.D. programs must step up their game to help train students to be great teachers.

We are making this a higher priority at my university. So is a credentialing program for college teaching designed by the Association of College and University Educators, a for-profit company that argues that college teaching needs improvement.

For the benefit of all of our students—including those pursuing business, the nation’s most popular undergraduate major—we hope that other institutions will follow suit.

Donna Fletcher is a professor of finance at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts

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