Teaching: the difficult path

TEACHING is not only undervalued but career limiting, according to a tce survey of IChemE academics.

    These eye-opening results follow in the wake an identical study by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering earlier this year, which asked to what extent are university promotion procedures seen to incentivise teaching achievement in engineering.

    The results make for uncomfortable reading, and should challenge the community to review how it evaluates and rewards teaching excellence, and how it will bridge a gap in industrial experience.

    Shockingly, the Royal Academy of Engineering survey found that just 20% of respondents described teaching as a “very important” criterion in a candidate’s appointment to a first lectureship, but as its results aren’t broken down by discipline, we sent out our own survey to IChemE academics in a bid to dig deeper and see how chemical engineering departments compare.

more positive but poor

Chemical engineers give slightly more weight to the current value of teaching, with 33% saying it is very important in the appointment of a first lectureship but a significantly larger proportion (62%) want it to carry that value (see Figure 1). Research is overwhelmingly ranked by all as the most important facet, though there is a collective recognition that this needs to be reduced.

    One of the most striking findings of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s survey was the differences in perspectives between ‘managers’* and ‘teaching staff’** – and this has been replicated in our survey too.

    Just 31% of chemical engineering teaching staff perceive teaching as very important in appointment to first lectureship, while it’s 47% for management. Both agree it should carry more weight at 60% and 75% respectively (see Figure 2).

    On a regional perspective, just 12% of Australian academics as a whole describe teaching as currently very important, with a lower than average proportion (51%) saying it ought to be classed as very important. Malaysian respondents have a more positive perception with 42% saying teaching is currently very important.

    One stand out difference is the perception of the importance of industry and societal impact with management saying there needs to be a large upward swing in weighting (see Figure 2).

    From these results it’s safe to conclude that teaching is undervalued in the promotion of academics. This is likely hindered by the lack of prominence that teaching excellence has in university policies on promotion (see Figure 3) with just 12% of chemical engineering staff describing it as very prominent.

    The answer to the overarching question ‘does teaching advance your academic career’ looks increasingly negative in light of the findings that more than 60% of staff respondents and 40% of management report that sources of evidence used to assess teaching quality in appointment to a first lectureship is less than robust (see Figure 4).

    The point is truly hammered home by the finding that more than 80% of staff (whether primarily teachers or not) and 75% of managers agree that teaching only-posts are career limiting (Figure 5), with UK respondents more strongly agreeing that this is the case.

    Despite these concerning results, there is a recognition that a rebalance in emphasis is needed with research giving way to teaching. This carries through to recognition in promotions, with more than three quarters of respondents saying that change is necessary (see Figure 6).

    This call for teaching to receive as much recognition as research during promotion was strongly emphasised in the anonymised free text section of the survey, though this was tempered time and again with the admission that “teaching excellence is practically difficult to assess objectively” and that the current reliance on feedback from student surveys simply isn’t robust enough.

    “It would help to have a decent and consistently applied metric for teaching quality,” wrote one respondent. “Some senior colleagues’ ideas of quality teaching amounts to eye contact and speaking clearly in lectures.”

    There are calls for “independent quality assurance mechanisms” to assess teaching, along with the suggestion that a recognised, competent body – such as IChemE – should be charged with making these evaluations.

    The issue of consistency and transparency was consistently raised, and is well emphasised in the split between management and staff views on how loosely university promotion policies are followed (see Figure 7).

money talks

A handful of respondents said that teaching excellence can only be truly recognised in a consistent and transparent manner if universities, heavily focussed on income, can give a financial value to teaching.

    “The situation will only really change if teaching performance somehow feeds back into departmental income,” wrote one respondent. “This happens with research, when a grant is won, but there is no equivalence for teaching.”

    “Credit university teachers with the value of their teaching so that it can be accumulated on a CV in the same way that the value of research funding is accumulated, to give some objective financial basis for evaluating an individual's accumulated teaching contribution,” wrote another. “Otherwise, it is very hard to judge the size of a teaching contribution in promotion cases, compared with research in which numbers of papers and value of funding are easily accumulated.”

    Once a model has been established to more fairly evaluate teaching excellence, universities and institutions like IChemE should create annual prizes to raise the recognition of those excelling at teaching and provide role-models for other teachers to aspire to, said respondents.

divide and conquer

A commonly-held view is that universities focus on excellence in research and teaching by dividing the activities into two entirely separate career tracks.

    “You need people that want to specialise in teaching and are rewarded accordingly. Some academics are really good at teaching and should not be burdened with research expectations. Others are really good at research and should not be burdened with teaching.”

    It appears this policy of separation is already in use at some departments, though not in a positive sense, but rather to ensure excellence in research possibly at the detriment of student education. Just under 40% of managers responding to the survey agreed that teaching-only posts are being used to sideline poor researchers from research activities (see Figure 8).

    Some disagree with separation calling instead for a more nuanced and flexible approach, with academics given teaching- or research-heavy timetables depending on their abilities.

    “These are not necessarily teaching-only posts. Research as well as industrial developments should filter into the teaching process whether in the form of case studies, examples or project work; but there should be a potential for a good teacher to be able to take on more teaching and have a lowered research productivity requirement.”

absence of experience

Finally, one of the standout findings from our survey is the perceived shortfall in the value placed by engineering departments on industrial experience (see Figure 9). Just 39% of respondents feel experience is valued but this should be much higher at 62%. This is in stark contrast to the Royal Academy findings where less than 30% said it should be highly valued.

    The call in free text replies for more industrial experience among teachers ranged from the inflexible “a few years of industrial experience should be mandatory” to the more forgiving “85% of academics should be focussed on research with 15% from strong industry backgrounds focussed on teaching.”

    Either way, the view often repeated is that the focus on research funding is leading to the hiring of too many non-chemical engineers, which as result is having a negative impact on teaching.

    “Chemical engineering departments need to hire chemical engineers to teach chemical engineering courses. While this seems like an obvious statement, in the past 5–10 years some departments have been hiring chemists on the basis of their research profile, and giving them teaching duties such as mass transfer, process control and other specialised chemical engineering courses, for which they have zero expertise. This unethical practice is damaging to students in the short term, and industry in the long term.”

    “Few recent recruits have engineering degrees and none have practical experience,” writes another respondent. “This is resulting in a degradation of the quality of the teaching and student experience. I am currently the only member of the department with industrial experience – and I am 70 years old.”

    As well as hiring in industrial experience, there are also recommendations that academics be sent out to seek it, through the likes of exchange programmes and sabbaticals.

    “I like the idea of strongly encouraging all academic staff to spend blocks of time in industry. It might give a boost to research, teaching and consulting.”

plan of action

The findings of this survey should prompt a high-level and overarching review of departmental promotion procedures, including towards more senior posts like professorship, which the Royal Academy of Engineering survey also found was heavily skewed.

    There is little doubt that the current system is heavily stacked against teaching, which far from helping to advance academic careers is stymieing them and along with the strong focus on research is seen by some to be degrading the education of our next generation of chemical engineers.

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