January 15, 2010

Are Senior Faculty Members Still Effective Teachers?

By: in Teaching Careers

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Now that I’m one of those “senior” faculty, I hear a lot of digs about faculty who need to retire … deadwood, still standing but hopefully about to topple. The belief that the teaching effectiveness of most “seniors” declines is strong and persistent. Is it true or yet another one of those academic myths?

Interestingly most of the research on the subject is rather dated. To believe it applies now, you must assume that senior faculty teaching today are the same as seniors were in the ’70s and ’80s. Given everything else that has changed in higher education, I’m not sure how valid the assumption might be.

Second, as with so many other topics in social science research, the limited results that do exist are not consistent. For example, one study from 1974 found that only 6 percent of the variance in ratings could be attributed to age. On the other hand, a 1989 study of 106 psychology faculty members (all faculty members are probably not like psychology faculty members) was able to document an overall negative correlation of .33 between age and general teaching effectiveness.

However, one of the definitive sources on senior faculty (see reference below), after a review of research on the topic, offers this conclusion: “In summary, no studies found a large negative association between a faculty member’s age and effective teaching. If a negative effect exists, it is small. It is clear, however, that senior faculty are interested in, committed to, and devote significant time to teaching.” (p. 31)

That last conclusion is justified in part by a study of New Jersey senior faculty who participated in a lengthy 50-question interview. The researchers wondered if these veterans still found “joy” in teaching. “The data were clear: the overwhelming majority enjoy teaching and care a great deal about student learning.” (p. 25)

That’s encouraging, but not everything that came out of these interviews was. The daily obligations of teaching keep even senior faculty very busy, leaving little time to focus on teaching per se. “Without periodic opportunities to revitalize their professional lives generally and their teaching lives in particular, faculty members report that their ‘teaching vitality’ tends to slip.” (p. 24)

And despite these needs for renewal, half of these interviewees said that they did not discuss teaching with their colleagues. Only one in 10 reported talking to colleagues about instructional topics such as books, lab materials, and student complaints. And this kind of pedagogical conversation wasn’t happening for this cohort in departmental meetings either. Only one in 14 reported that classroom teaching was discussed at those meetings. If faculty in this cohort talked about teaching, it was through some institution-wide faculty development program.

According to these data, “seniors” do care about teaching, and they don’t decline precipitously in their effectiveness as measured by student ratings. But for these folks, those who know their institutions and colleagues best, teaching remains a private, isolated activity; and if it is this way for those with years of experience, it’s not a big stretch to assume the same for faculty in all age cohorts.

References: For a good review of the research on age and teaching effectiveness see, Bland, C. J., and Bergquist, W. H. (1997). The Vitality of Senior Faculty Members: Snow on the Roof—Fire in the Furnace. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 25, No. 7. Washington, DC: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

The results of the interview study of New Jersey faculty appear in, Finkelstein, M. J., and LaCelle-Peterson, M. W. (1993). Institutions matter: Campus teaching environments’ impact on senior faculty. In Finkelstein, M. J., and LaCelle-Peterson, M. W. (eds.) Developing Senior Faculty as Teachers. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 55. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Excerpted from Senior Faculty and Teaching Effectiveness, The Teaching Professor, March 2008.

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