||Developing Teaching Quality in MBA Programs
We often hear about great teachers, those who change their students’ lives, as if they had some rare genetic gift that others cannot learn or perfect. But greatness in the classroom can be learned by anyone willing to do the necessary work—and that includes anyone with the passion and drive to become a business school professor.
By By Alexandra Duran, MSW, CSW, JD
MBA Innovation, MBAs In Action, MBA Roundtable
Teaching skills may come easier to some than to others, but the myth of the natural teacher, whose native abilities allow him or her to perform consistently at the top of world renowned faculties and to be rated by their students and peers as a “teaching star,” term after term, is just that—a myth. The skills required for greatness in the classroom are learned and developed over time, just like any other professional skill set.
Some are lucky enough to have good models, perhaps teachers of their own, to emulate. Some have mentors who help them develop. Many professors have had neither. They have had no real opportunity to learn teaching skills, and that is not their fault.
In addition, professors do not all seek the classroom as an end in itself. The primary motivation for some professors may be research opportunities and the advancement of their academic careers through publication. These professors may view teaching as part of the bargain they must make to obtain other academic opportunities, not as the source of joy and satisfaction that the classroom can be.
For many professors, achieving excellence in teaching will require participation in an individualized coaching program. Coaching offers insight into what needs improvement, perspective on motivation and teaching attitudes, sharpening of classroom skills, approaches to optimize, individualized communication of course content, improvements in relationships with students, and overall, an advanced understanding of the classroom as a social entity.
Coaching in this context requires a willingness to confront professors, who typically are world class experts in their respective fields, with certain potentially difficult facts. It may be hard for professors to learn that they are perceived, accurately or not, as failing or in danger of failing to communicate their love of their subject, to deliver course content, or to foster an environment that will inspire and promote learning. That perception is often powered by poor student evaluations of teachers and lower rankings for MBA programs.
Success in Today’s Classroom
When professors and students think about learning, they often have different criteria for success in mind. Students tend to look at learning and evaluate professors from the near-term perspective of whether an individual class, course, or classroom experience meets their expectations. For their part, professors are concerned, and rightly so, with conveying an understanding of information that students will need long-term, so that they have the building blocks for lasting achievement in their business careers. Although these criteria for learning are different, both must be met for professors to be successful and to be seen as successful. Professors must not only understand this point intellectually, they must also determine how to cultivate a consistently effective learning environment that makes the best use of their own intelligence, intellectual and emotional, and their personal styles.
It is a truism that students learn in a variety of ways. Today’s students have had, and will continue to have, broader exposure to more, different kinds of media than any generation in history. This blizzard of media has changed the way today’s students interact with information and how today’s successful professors motivate students to engage with course content and enable students to learn. It is no surprise that a successful, modern learning environment is often an interactive, multimedia experience.
Professors succeed when they respect and respond to the fact that some students will understand and integrate course content best by hearing it, while others must read or see it. Still others will not truly understand course material until they write about it or present it. Group discussion is often essential. Other students may need solitude and time to reflect and integrate course material. A quiet student may be as involved, and may be learning as effectively, as one who volunteers comments and participates more conspicuously in the discussion.
To succeed today, professors must learn to identify the array of their students’ learning styles. Achieving teachers entice students’ participation at a personal level—that is, in a way designed to engage each student. By doing so, professors create an environment in which students can relax and engage with the material in whatever way works best for them. Today’s students learn in such environments. They enjoy the experience, and their teaching evaluations reflect that.
Putting Numbers in Perspective
Numerical ratings and rankings have their place, but they do not speak to process issues. The professors I have worked with often feel that no ranking on a numerical scale, good or bad, is a fair measure of their classroom work. Reducing that work to a number has clear limitations. Numerical rankings, no matter how prestigious the source, provoke a certain understandable defensiveness if the number is bad, and perhaps equally understandably, complacency if it is good. Ratings and rankings do nothing to explain how classroom opportunities are lost or how social interactions in the classroom must be organized and conducted for quality teaching and learning to occur.
Professors facing low ratings for teaching are often hearing of problems with their performance for the first time in their working lives. Rather than motivating them to do better, a low rating can rob them of self-confidence, often when the right changes could be made quickly, and lead to significant and sustained improvement in their performance.
In some cases, improvements in teaching are mediated through attention to small things. For example, there are practical, classroom consequences for professors who do not learn to strike and maintain the appropriate social line with students. Professors must be accessible to their students, of course. However, newer professors are sometimes overly friendly. They may lose professional detachment, and with it, the authority and credibility to teach effectively. On the other hand, without enough interaction, teachers can be seen as cold, stand-offish, unlikable, uncaring, and then, while they may wield authority in the classroom, they are such unattractive messengers for course content that, to students, they are irrelevant and unhelpful. At either pole, teaching suffers. With a healthy balance struck with respect for each professor’s character, teaching flourishes, and all other things being equal, learning improves.
When the necessary commitments from faculty and administrators are present, truly remarkable improvements are possible over brief periods. I have been personally associated with schools whose grades for teaching excellence jumped two letter grades over as many terms. Individual faculty members’ ratings for teaching soared over the same period and sometimes faster—all in response to coordinated and comprehensive efforts to address and respond to teaching quality issues. Those of us who are in the business of helping MBA programs foster this level of improvement know that the credit for it is due, in every case, to faculty and administrators working together. Individual faculty members are due credit because they do the courageous work to improve their classroom performance. Administrators with the vision and drive to put the necessary resources in place turn their faculty’s commitment into the improvement of their programs. By working to resolve teaching issues for the long-term, professors and administrators invest in excellence. The return on that investment is improved ratings and rankings and enhanced alumni sentiment.
In the end, program rankings reflect whether and how MBA programs commit to teaching excellence. Because every ranking system reflects teaching quality, there are benefits for MBA programs that resist the temptations to discount student feedback, cite budget pressures as a reason for inaction, or decide to do no more than manage the institutional perception of unimpressive ratings or rankings.
When and How to Begin
Program administrators play an important role, for good or ill, in responding to concerns about teaching quality. The initial approach is often to arrange for an expression of institutional concern, a faculty meeting or a one–off presentation by a teaching expert. These approaches have their merits, and they are certainly affordable and provide administrators with a way to demonstrate their concerns rapidly and with a minimum of disruption to institutional routines.
One-off events of whatever kind are, at their best, an orientation to the process of improvement, not the process itself. One-day workshops, lectures, or panel discussions may prevent disaster, but ultimately, they are just a beginning, and are unlikely to bring about any substantial development of the skills necessary to achieve classroom excellence.
Administrators who seek to improve faculty ratings, program rankings, and alumni attitudes for years to come will not accept a one-off event as a complete response to concerns about teaching quality. Deans and administrators signal their commitment to teaching quality by investing in programs with the elements referred to above. The best of these programs offer discerning, nonjudgmental observations of individual faculty, skill development, and feedback from students and peers, with access to “mid-course corrections” as needed.
The academic calendar is an important tool for administrators charged with improving teaching quality. Students quickly form durable judgments about courses and teachers early in each term. They readily share their opinions with others, particularly while the course-change period and their enrollment options remain open. Administrators who are aware of this dynamic take steps to improve teaching quality long before each term begins. Planning for improvement in teaching quality takes place best as an organic part of course development. Teaching and learning improve when professors decide, as they design courses, how to accomplish two related goals. First, the course must present content in a way that will encourage students to internalize the lessons that will help them throughout their careers. Second, the presentation must motivate students to conclude, rightly, that both the course and professor justify the commitment of their time.
The resources made available to professors during course development will ideally include those that respond to student needs and to the individual personalities and strengths of each professor whose performance is at issue. An individualized approach is needed for program-wide improvement. Generalized anecdotal advice as to how to teach well is of little or no use. A nonspecific approach will work for some, but because it is tailored to none, it will leave others— perhaps those in the greatest need—unsupported.
Guidance to enhance teaching quality is available from many sources. In deciding what is best for their individual programs or teaching careers, professors and administrators should evaluate resources, based in substantial part, on how those resources have performed in similar academic environments.
Ultimately, the goal for each program is academic excellence on the program’s own terms, with a distinctive and distinguished faculty of engaged and happy teachers, a satisfied and energized student body, and a cadre of proud and grateful alumni. These elements of success are mutually reinforcing. With the right resources in place, improvements in teaching quality are achievable, quickly and economically, across the spectrum of MBA programs everywhere.
About the Author
MSW, CSW, JD, has been engaged in the United States and beyond as a special resource for professors and administrators at leading business schools to promote new teaching dynamics in their programs. Drawing on her experience as career coach, trainer, human resources professional, speaker, and entrepreneur, Duran helps faculty members develop a professional skill set that allows them to achieve classroom excellence and reach today’s students. Details at www.alexandraduran.com.
© 2010 Alexandra Duran. All Rights Reserved.
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