March 28th, 2012

What’s Wrong with Teaching Awards


I have to admit I’ve never been a terribly big fan of teaching awards. I know, teaching isn’t rewarded and recognized as it should be, so why in the world complain about something that does honor teaching excellence? Let me explain my concerns.

First off, there’s the amount of the awards. I don’t think $2500 (and that’s more than many awards) for any number of years of outstanding teaching is much of a reward, especially when compared with the level of reward that research productivity garners. Those rewards are salary increments, not given once, but as permanent additions to the salary. Is something always better than nothing? Or can something be so small that it ends up devaluing what it’s supposed to be rewarding? We live in a culture where value is measured in monetary terms. Some basketball stars get $10,000 every time they take a shot. Most teaching award stipends don’t even keep up with increases in the cost living.

When I make this point to my colleagues, they almost always respond that the award isn’t about the money. It’s the honor, it’s knowing that one’s efforts are appreciated by the institution and by one’s students. That is a valid point, but it raises another concern: the selection criteria used to decide who gets the awards. Nancy Chism, who has completed one of the few substantive analyses of teaching awards (she looked at 144 different award programs across a range of institutions), found that 52% specified no criteria beyond teaching excellence. What does this assume? That the characteristics of teaching excellence are so obvious there is no need to name them? That conclusion reinforces the perception that good teaching is ephemeral (Chism’s term)—that we can’t define it, and we only know it when we see it. This makes it pretty hard to assist anyone who aspires to excellence.

When good teaching isn’t defined and award criteria are not specified, this leaves these awards open to various kinds of manipulation. In the early part of my career, my institution distributed a booklet picturing winners of the major teaching awards with accompanying laudatory commentary about their teaching. Thumb through that booklet and you’d think the faculty at my institution were gender balanced and racially diverse. In fact, those were the years when tenure-track female instructors filled less than 15% of the positions, and racial and ethnic minorities were in less than 5% of the tenure lines. I’m not saying the recipients didn’t deserve the awards. I’m simply proposing that the absence of criteria makes it easy to let other factors influence whose teaching gets recognized.

Chism’s analysis also revealed that when characteristics were specified, they were all about teaching performance: communication skills, organization, high standards, clear goals, enthusiasm, strategies for student engagement and an emphasis on higher order thinking skills. This focus explains why so many winners of teaching awards have these larger-than-life, charismatic teaching styles. Their teaching is performance-driven. But I wonder whether there is ever recognition for those teachers who help students learn in quieter but perhaps more enduring ways.

To improve current teaching award practices, Chism recommends specifying the criteria and then collecting evidence that supports the criteria. If excellent teachers are “organized,” what evidence documents their organization? The course syllabus? Judgments offered by students in the class? Observations by colleagues? Similarly, if excellent teachers have “high standards,” what are these standards and what illustrates their application in the classroom? Chism found that often the evidence collected isn’t relevant to the specified criteria.

Consistently excellent teaching deserves reward and recognition. I just want the rewards and recognition to appropriately acknowledge the effort that goes into teaching that regularly results in learning for a range of students, and I don’t think what is typically done now is the best we can do. There’s room for more creativity and innovation.

If your institution uses a unique approach, or if you’ve heard of one or can imagine a teaching award that you would love to win, please share it below.

Reference: Chism, N. V. N. (2006). Teaching awards: What do they award? The Journal of Higher Education, 77 (4), 589-617.

  • Laura

    So then I should feel bad about awards I've won? Great…thanks for taking away one of the few positive areas in my job.

  • Paul

    And if your an adjunct who consistently has "sold out" classes forget it – your teaching excellence is not under consideration for recognition.

  • Alison

    This is an interesting article coming from Dr. Weimer, who has earned Penn State's Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2005.

    "The award recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty who have been employed full time for at least five years with undergraduate teaching as a major portion of their duties." -Penn State Live &lt ;>

    I wonder if this award uses exemplary criteria or if it served as inspiration for this article…

    I am in the process of creating awards for our university for both online teaching and online course designs. It had not occurred to me that I could create an award without specified, measurable, and observable, criteria. I am interested in hearing what criteria others have used in their awards.

  • Jeff

    Check out Miami University (Ohio): The Knox Teaching Award requires a 100-page teaching portfolio from nominees.

    Frankly, I'd argue that a bad teaching award is better than none at all. Weimer compares the rewards accorded to researchers vs. teachers. How about the rewards showered on coaches? Surely, teachers ought not labor in anonymity when it comes to public recognition by institutions of higher learning. If the point were to argue for better conceived and more intelligently awarded recognition, sign me up.

    • Sharon

      Similarly, the Graduate Associate Teaching Award… , given to ten graduate students at The Ohio State University each year, requires nominees to submit a teaching portfolio in order to be considered for the award. The portfolio is much smaller in this case which is appropriate considering that TAs generally have fewer years of teaching experience to record and considering that there are generally well over 100 nominees, which creates a lot of reading for the awards committee! The set of criteria on which applications are evaluated, though, is pretty thorough! I recommend checking them out. Our award winners come from a diverse set of departments, and have a diverse range of teaching styles and responsibilities. The one thing that unites them is that they are all excellent teachers.

      The points raised in the article about teaching being under-appreciated are, of course, true. However, I'd argue that a teaching award does good work not only in honoring the awardee, but also in doing something to help remind others that excellent teaching is something that can be aspired to. True, teaching doesn't pull in the money that research does. But I think it would be far worse if awards, as a means of pointing out good teaching, were to lose this presence and function in the public discourse.

  • kathryn

    Thank you for addressing an issue that nobody else does, except in whispers or mutters.
    I have long wondered about the criteria and never had any clear indication.
    It seemed to me that asking about the award made me look petty or jealous.
    It also used to surpise me who won. Interestingly they were 'performers', I think. I do wonder about the long-term impact on students; i.e., the quieter style, enduring influence.
    In the end, an award is a good idea because it does give one pause. I do believe it reminds people of the importance of teaching.

  • Gerald Grow

    I observed a similar result when I published a typology of teaching in the early 1990s. Describing teachers as T1=authority, coach T2=motivator, performer T3=facilitator, participant and T4=delegator, adviser, it became clear that teaching awards went to the T2 teachers, the performers.

    I argued that successful teaching requires matching the teaching style to the learner's readiness to be able to be self-directed — along a matching scale for students of S1=dependent, S2=interested, S3=involved, S4=self-directed.

    This is not a comprehensive view, but it has been helpful to many, and it is available here:

  • Joe

    "Those rewards are salary increments, not given once, but as permanent additions to the salary."

    Mmm hmmm, good luck with that.

  • Kathryn Kujawa

    At our institution, awards are also based on the number of students voting- so if you happen to be a great teacher who does not teach classes over 20 students- you have no chance of competing with profs that teach mass general lectures of 300 students! my students get great jobs and internships and continue to thrive after they leave— so isnt that also something to consider?

  • Jim Pangborn

    Cynical, embittered adjunct here: I've always figured that those awards were basically for excellence in record-keeping, such that the person with the most post-it notes gets the prize. As witness, at my institution the award for excellence in teaching for adjunct faculty has gone unclaimed for years, 'cos no one has time to apply for it. For further reading, see Bill Readings, _The University in Ruins_, on the emptiness of the concept of excellence.

  • Tiffany

    Sure, I'm a cynical and embittered adjunct lecturer. But as someone who has won these awards in the past, by student led organizations that acknowledge teachers for their excellence in the classroom, and being available outside the class as well, I am extremely grateful. The students themselves vote, they write letters of recommendation and fill out forms that demonstrate you meet a list of requirements. It isn't a performance, its called having a passion for what you do. I teach small lit classes at a science oriented university, and I find it insulting to say that we are "performance oriented" in our teaching. Yes, there are some jacked up awards out there that only serve as popularity contests, but why discredit all for just a few? Better yet, when we're all starving to death on these salaries, why hate someone else because they got a one time payment of $2,500 and were finally able to catch up on their mortgage so they wouldn't loose their house? Higher Ed isn't exactly passing out raises right now, you know. If you have a passion for what you do and a heart for the students to help their dreams come true, its nice to have someone so "thank you."

  • Brigitte Valesey

    I do believe that recognitions and rewards for exemplary teaching, when designed well, really do matter. The scholarly value of teaching recognitions depends on clear expectations for teaching excellence, exemplary practice, and evidence of learning impacts. At Widener University, our Fitz Dixon Innovation in Teaching Award has several distinguishing features: mission-driven and teaching innovation-oriented criteria; grounding in exemplary pedagogical practices; strong assessment evidence of deep learning and student engagement; and an external review process in which peers (college presidents, deans, and faculty experts at other institutions) provide nominee rankings and detailed recommendations. The external review, in particular, provides external validation of faculty teaching innovations and the potential for their contributions at the national level. At Widener we have a well-attended annual faculty awards banquet, in which we celebrate the work of all the nominees and awardees. Award recipients receive a monetary award and give a President's Lecture the following year. Some awardees have followed up with conference presentations and even placed in or won national awards. Exemplary and effective teaching deserves recognition.

  • Linda

    We've recently instituted "Lecturer of the Year" awards–and I can't help but hope someday to win it–but here is the rub: there are over 60 lecturers teaching General education (unloved) courses from 7am to 10 pm and all of us are in some way slighted by not being chosen. We vote for the winner ourselves–we who never sit in on each others classes, see each other in passing, and all work in isolation. What is the criteria? Popularity. What else? As my Auntie used to say "What am I? Chopped liver?"
    (not that liver isn't …never mind)

    • Mohammed

      There should be multiple awards instead of just the "Lecturer of the Year". The students' survey should be one of the criteria for selection.

  • SENRA2

    I wholeheartedly agree that teachers are under rated and unappreciated. I am an assistant professor at a major state college of medicine and I come from a long family of teachers. Over the years, I have seen teachers (from elementary school to college professors) reduced to all but worthless in the eyes of the community at large. At the same time, atheletes and coaches are paid absurd compensation for playing "games". This is insane. Where are our priorities. Even as a professional, I am strugglig to pay my son's tuition at Princeton University ($50,000 per year) and we will be saddled with debt for years to come, whereas some "atheletes" and coaches look forward to multimillion dollar salaries for playing games. This is ridiculous.

    • Mohammed

      I think Dr. Maryellen Weimer should be addressing the issue of overpaid coaches instead of making herself feel good by making a big issue with puny awards given to teachers.

  • teressa

    I think the award system is an effective way to recoginze teachers for their efforts. This system can motivate teachers to work and present quality education for all.

  • Catherine

    Where I teach, the award goes to someone who hasn't received it yet. There is no other criteria. Sure, the teacher is supposed to be "excellent, well-liked by peers, effective with students, etc.," but there is no serious accountability. Consequently, there have been some most undeserving recipients over the years. For example, one year the teacher was selected by the principal, with whom she was having an affair. Another year, our worst, most mean-spirited teacher was "voted" in because it was "his turn."

    This award does not involve any money at all, but it is supposed to be an honor to the recipient. I received it many years ago but have always wondered if I truly deserved it because of the way it is dispersed.