January 16th, 2012

The Ideal Professor vs. The Typical Professor


It’s a new year and a new semester, with new courses and different students—along with perhaps a few favorite courses and students you get to spend time with all over again, and maybe a couple of each you won’t miss at all. In other words, it’s a new beginning.

As we begin again, I thought this characterization of “The Ideal Professor” might be of interest. It’s offered by students who were asked to compare their Ideal professors with their Typical ones. This cohort of juniors and seniors rated professorial characteristics in three areas: personal, course design, and policies and behaviors. The items were selected for the survey based on research in each of these three areas.

Perhaps a bit surprising is the lack of strong distinctions between Ideal and Typical professors. “We found that preferred qualities and behaviors were not wholly absent in the Typical professor—they simply appeared less pronounced than in the Ideal professor.” (p. 182) Despite overall similarities, the research team does describe some of the differences between the two as “striking” and eight of these are listed below. The numbers reflect the percentage of students who endorsed this characteristic for their Ideal professors and the percentage who said they characterized the Typical professor.

Teaching Characteristic Ideal Typical
Professor speaks clearly/not monotone 93 80
Course and daily goals appear on the syllabus 83 52
Students have a voice; input on course policies and procedures 40 7
Professor talks informally with students sometimes 43 15
Professor lectures 78 93
Professor uses discussion 58 37
Professor does in-class activities/demonstrations 57 21
·Uses humor often/occasionally
·Uses humor occasionally only
97 75
·Cheating/plagiarism policy—investigates and resolves incidents
·Do not know what approach is used to deal with academic dishonesty
58 64
Solicits anonymous, written, informal feedback on teaching/course 68 17
·Solicits student feedback two or more times per term
·Never solicits student feedback
72 30

The research team offers this succinct summary: “Overall, our research suggests that Ideal professors are highly accessible to students, allow student input into the course policies and procedures, provide for significant variety in the course, and provide a comfortable learning atmosphere for students.” (p. 182)

Two findings are worth noting as we launch a new year and another semester. First, students indicated that overall, personal characteristics were not important for their Ideal professor. I take that as a validation of our individuality. Ideal professors aren’t all cut out of the same cloth. We can be who we are; we shouldn’t try to create some inauthentic teaching personae. And I think it’s encouraging that the characteristics these students identified as belonging to those teachers who most effectively taught them were not absent in Typical professors. They just weren’t as pronounced. I take that to mean, if you aspire to be ideal, you don’t have to do new things, just more of those good things you already do.

The question not answered by this research is whether the characteristics identified as ideal have any bearing on student learning. Based on other research, it is probably safe to say that most of the characteristics don’t cause learning but they may make it a more likely outcome of a classroom experience.

Reference: Epting, L. K., Zinn, T. E., Buskist, C. and Buskist, W. (2004). Students perspectives on the distinction between ideal and typical teachers. Teaching of Psychology, 31 (3), 181-183)

  • Jen Leigh

    This was a perfect study to bring to the first day of class and solicit students reactions. Thanks for your timely and relevant introduction to the information.

  • John Thompson

    In the blog article, the data in the first row of the Teaching Characteristics table for "Professor speaks clearly/not monotone" are reversed from the data in the article in Table 1, p 182: Ideal Teacher = 93.30 and Typical Teacher = 79.70.

    In summarizing their research, the authors note the following: "Our data also provide a picture of what the ideal teacher and classroom–that is, the best, most inviting learning environment–look like from the students' point of view." This point parallels Ken Bain's "Natural critical learning environment" (What the Best College Teachers Do, 2004) in which effective teachers and engaged students together construct a safe and challenging space which evokes "deep learning." A collaboration in learning.

    Again, thank you Maryellen, for bringing this article to our attention.

  • John, thank you for pointing that out. We've corrected the table.

  • Connie

    This study was with student in an onground face-to-face environment. I would like to see how online students would have responded.

  • Dewey Dykstra

    What I find surprising is that the criteria checked into seem to imply or assumes that the good prof basically presents portions of the established canon by approved methods. For several reasons one can call this the folk theory of teaching. There is a VERY large body of research published in peer reviewed journal which reveals that such an approach to teaching leaves students essentially unchanged in their understandings of the aspect of the world studied and has no impact on the development of reasoning of the students.

    In my experience if there is any respones to this it will be a defense of this folk theory of teaching generally to the effect: it worked for us and it works for our students. Let me challenge challenge such responders to actually measure what happens with their own students.

    • Chris

      I agree Dewey. I challenge all teachers to step outside the box and established methods. In my course evaluations that I conduct outside of the institutional ones, I find that some of my most challenging sections taught were the most well-received by students. Some related that they felt they could apply the learning to their job / family/ life situations. Some stated that while the lesson may have seemed off-the-wall at the time, they truly learned something.

      In actuality, a lot of folk theory instruction we received did not work for us. It's why we had 'resource classes'!

  • M. McClerklin

    The ideal professor should interact with students and let them know that they are there to HELP them to learn. This was an interesting article and gives us something to think about as we begin a new semester.

  • Barbara Ninan

    I just discovered the Teacher Professor Blog today and am very excited with this discovery. I am a fairly new college teacher. The article was very informative and I liked the fact that to be an ideal teacher you need to strengthen and do more of things you are probably already doing. I noted that the category with the biggest increase in percentage was that “professor talks informally with students sometimes” which went from 7% in the typical professor to 40% for the ideal professor. This indicates to me how much students value a little extra attention. This made me think of a book that I am reading, On Teaching and Learning by Jane Vella (2008). The person that wrote the forward in her book mentioned that she sometimes invites her students to dinner in her home to get to know them better. While I am not necessarily advocating that all teachers invite their students to their homes, I know I am going to focus on creating opportunities to spend a little more informal time talking to my students. Thank you for sharing this inspiring article review.

  • Mudasiru O. Yusuf

    This is really wonderful. These are characteristics which are essential for Faculty.

  • laprofe63

    I'm a bit surprised that lecturing is favored over discussion and in-class activities. Maybe this is a disciplinary bias, but as a language/literature (that is, humanities) professor, I'd like to think my students would reverse those numbers. Lecturing puts students in a passive role that they may find most comfortable

    • laprofe63

      (…it cut off my post.) they may find lecturing comfortable, but it's far from ideal in most classes I teach.

    • Rebgraves

      I'm not surprised that students are comfortable with lectures. We were all trained in it from middle school on up. And, lectures are easy. They don't require thought, just silence & sitting still. Easy enough to do as a tired student.

  • Pingback: Around the Web: New Year, New Semester « the Bok Blog()

  • Luis S. Guerra

    I teach General Biology to Freshman and Sophmore students. I find that somtimes I have to act out what I am teaching, I move around the classroom and emphazise the most most important concept. I always stress the biological concept and how it realate to them in their daily lives. Then I tell them to first visualize the concept and then fill in the details. I use a lot of humor, and ask a lots of questions on the topic under discussion.
    In these type of courses there is little critical thinking or discussion by students (Most have never been expose to biological concepts); however, I always relate the subject or biological concepts to their everyday lives. How Cellular Respiration is a major part of our daily being, how photosynthesis provides food for us, etc. etc.
    I am a very informal professor. I take time to talk to my students, help them out and explain to them what they must know. After every lecture, I give them a summary of what they should have learned and ask them to read the summary before going to bed.

  • Pierre Exy

    I think that if a professor loves what he or she does, students will have the best opportunity to learn. A professor cannot sell what he or she will not buy.With this said, the student collegiate experience is determined on the professor's lover for his or her job.

  • CherylR

    I agree with Pierre. The sheer love of one's discipline is contagious, and I know I strive for as many history enthusiast converts as I can get! I think that a professor's love for the subject, blended with the elements of humor and a touch of informality encourage student engagement more than anything else we can do.

  • Pingback: What course evaluations are worth | CELT Blog()

  • Pingback: Working through “the blahs” | CELT Blog()

  • Pingback: muraPOI: January 26, 2012 | Brandon Muramatsu()