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Students largely have favorable opinions of professors, tenure

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“I’ve had some really incredible and engaging professors,” wrote a Student Voice survey respondent attending a private university in New York. The next sentence of that comment, however, reflects just how individualized the education experience is, and how hard it is for students to give an overall rating of professors: “I’ve also had some really awful, racist/sexist/homophobic professors who didn’t listen to any student feedback.”

Still, when asked about the quality of current professors in six areas, the 2,000 undergraduates responding to the Student Voice survey, conducted in mid-April by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, largely gave high marks. That’s especially true in terms of academic rigor, communicating course expectations, technology use and choice of instructional materials, which at least one in four students rated as excellent and between seven and eight out of 10 students rated as either excellent or good.

Students had slightly lower ratings of professors on engaging lectures/assignments and on relationship building, although one in five still say professors are excellent in these areas.

Bonni Stachowiak, producer and host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and the dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University, in California, says one of her most popular blog posts ever covers how not to be boring: “It’s something a lot of people struggle with.” She sees the problem as twofold, including both instructional materials and the actual teaching.

An Arizona public institution student would like to see better presentations: “Instructors create lectures that are too long, that overemphasize simple concepts, that underclarify complex concepts, and that make use of PowerPoint presentations [with] inconsistent indentation, bulleting, spelling and grammar.”

A public university student in Massachusetts wrote, “Most teachers just give you information without engagement.”

Professors who lead conversations in class and relate them back to course content often make a lasting impression. Lucia Reynolds, a sophomore at Texas Christian University, had that type of experience this past fall in the English course Gender, Culture and Representation, with Brandon Manning. “We would have an open conversation about pop culture from our perspective, and he’d relate something we brought up to something else that was part of the curriculum. That made the subject a lot more interesting, and we wanted to engage more,” she says. “The hope for me and other students is that the relationship building is intertwined with coursework.”

Now, Reynolds finds herself hearing about news in pop culture and wondering what Professor Manning would say about it.

The Student Voice survey sought students’ say on grading, tenure and choice of instructional materials. Highlights include that:

  • Eighty-nine percent of students agree either strongly (44 percent) or somewhat (45 percent) that their professors grade fairly.
  • The majority of students report their professors are choosing up-to-date (61 percent) and diverse (53 percent) instructional materials.
  • Students are much more likely to have a positive opinion of tenure than a negative one, 57 percent compared to 18 percent—and the positive outlook jumps to 76 percent when “not sure” responses (one in four) are removed.

Students pick up on signs that their professors are—more than two years in to COVID-era teaching—stressed. Examples include having at least one professor who appears disorganized or has been late for more than one class session—or knowing of professors who resigned during the pandemic.

In addition, more than one-third of students have at least one professor teaching virtually when the intended format was in person. This situation is more common at public (36 percent) than at private (27 percent) colleges.

Regarding professor experiences, “COVID has given students more insight than they might have had before COVID,” says Alexis Petri, co-director of University of Missouri at Kansas City’s Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence and senior director of faculty support in the university provost’s office. She cites early-pandemic observations in a survey of UMKC students such as, “I never knew what an adjunct was, and now I know it’s someone who gets paid very little and doesn’t have high-speed internet because the university doesn’t give them high-speed internet.”

On the positive side, students may notice professors who are more open now to flexibility in teaching. As one Student Voice survey respondent at a Colorado public university shared, this spring a professor met one-on-one with individuals in a small class. “I was able to have a thorough conversation about my learning style, what I thought was working and what wasn’t. He took notes, and while he couldn’t tailor his instruction to any one student, he did a great job of switching up his teaching styles and being flexible so that everyone had an opportunity … to learn how they learn best. It was the most supported I’ve ever felt in school.”

Impressions of Course Materials

Reynolds at Texas Christian gets frustrated by assumptions that $100 textbooks are affordable to students—and even more so when she can find a free online version of materials professors have asked students to purchase. “I don’t think professors purposely want to choose the most expensive materials, but I definitely don’t think that it’s fully thought through,” she says.

Only 38 percent of survey respondents believe professors take affordability into account when choosing instructional materials, while 22 percent say they do not (the remaining percentage reflects those who don’t feel strongly either way). Students at four-year institutions (n=1,750) are three times more likely than those at two-year institutions (n=250) to feel professors aren’t concerned about affordability.

In Adrianna Kezar’s experience as director of the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, professors haven’t understood just how hard students have been hit with textbooks costs. “That’s a real concern and something we need to be spending more time thinking about,” says Kezar, who leads the Delphi Project on Changing Faculty and Student Success. While higher ed has made progress addressing this issue, she sees it as “here and there messaging … There’s not campus leadership saying, ‘Let’s rethink our strategy.’” In her opinion, provosts and individual academic department leaders need to be taking on the cause.

At Montgomery College in Maryland, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Sanjay Rai has supported and encouraged development and use of open educational resources. The MC Open initiative designates Z-courses and Z-degrees that allow students to take individual classes or earn a degree without spending any money on textbooks.

Higher ed institutions can also partner with publishing companies and campus store providers to keep prices down. “We’ve got two agreements in place, and faculty can pick,” says Petri of UMKC. Mini grants encourage professors to produce their own OER and course packs, and students are given guidance about their savings options. The university’s Affordable & Open Educational Resources webpage also includes a form so that students can anonymously email a professor about textbook affordability.

Other instructional materials decisions got praise from Student Voice respondents. More than half of students say materials are up-to-date or reflect diversity, and nearly half say professors choose interesting course materials. Students at four-year colleges are more likely than those at community colleges to say professors choose homogeneous and/or boring instructional materials.

Teaching professor Jenny Amos in the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign thinks students’ impressions of course materials would have leaned more negative had the survey asked specifically about textbooks. “Many faculty like to teach from the book they learned from,” she says, adding that she will pull from her own original textbooks sometimes out of habit.

For one foundational engineering course, Amos says the core textbook is accurate but that she brings in websites and other materials to ensure examples reflect current practices.

In general, adds Amos, engineering courses can easily tie in to hot topics like the engineer’s role in social justice and equity or today’s supply chain issues.

Her department leaders encourage professors to continue having flexible course materials as well. During COVID, students could often watch a recorded lecture or request a transcript—yet some faculty dropped those options as courses began meeting live again. Maintaining transcripts and recordings aligns well with typical accommodation requests from students with disabilities, who may need more time and an alternate way to engage with materials. “Whatever we do to meet a request for accommodations may benefit all students and enhance their learning,” she says. “But for some faculty, it’s an extra step and it’s more work.”

Montgomery College students have pushed for online learning continuing to be an option, even as learning has resumed in person (about two-thirds of courses as of spring 2022), Rai says, comparing the need to offer both in-person and virtual learning to the restaurant business. “Restaurants are not going to say, ‘We’re not doing GrubHub anymore.’ They’ll do both.” Yet, higher ed as a whole is not prepared to continue accommodating students who can’t be in class, Rai adds.

Montgomery students can register for courses designated as on-campus, distance learning (no scheduled meeting times) or remote (meets online at scheduled times).

Regarding students asking for recorded lectures as an accommodation, especially during COVID, graduate student Erick DuShane has experienced professors who create recordings but “sort of gatekeep the materials,” thinking students are taking advantage of that option. “If a student asks for something, it’s because they need them,” says DuShane, who is studying social work at Boston College after having graduated from University of Rochester in 2020.

Assignment Grading Assessment

Only 5 percent of Student Voice respondents disagree that their professors generally grade fairly, while 44 percent strongly agree grades are fair. Even among the 370 students with GPAs of less than 3.0, 36 percent strongly agree about grading fairness, and only 6 percent disagree (most of this group has a GPA between 2.0 and 2.9, with just 41 respondents reporting having less than a 2.0).

Students at private colleges, compared to public colleges, are more likely to strongly agree, yet students at two-year colleges are more likely than their four-year-college peers to strongly agree. Among first-generation students, opinions about fair grading vary by race, with first-gen Asian students being the least likely to agree strongly about fairness.

Equity, transparency and honesty are important to fair grading, believes Stachowiak of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. “I’ll know it when I see it” thinking about assessing assignments isn’t equitable, although it is the way many managers approach giving feedback to employees. “I don’t think we should perpetuate that—building educational decisions to match dysfunction in the business world,” she says.

One public university student in Georgia wrote that professors “choose favorite students, and they grade differently … I paid for these classes just to have my grades based on subjective views rather than my work.”

Timely, meaningful feedback is difficult when class sizes are large, Stachowiak acknowledges. “I don’t want to pretend those systemic issues aren’t real.” However, some faculty waste time marking incorrect grammar in a paper, even though research has shown that doesn’t improve writing. She suggests noting in the syllabus the expectations students should have about how quickly grades will be turned around, so students aren’t thinking assignments “should be back [within] an hour when I think a week is reasonable.”

In terms of providing feedback to students efficiently, Stachowiak points to a feature some learning management systems have that allows a professor to message all students who didn’t pass to encourage visiting during office hours for help, or message all who got an A to offer congratulations.

Feedback helps students to make course decisions as well. At Fordham University, where the deadline for course withdrawal without penalty has been extended during COVID (it was April 22 for spring 2022), students rely on timely grades and comments, says Rachel A. Annunziato, associate dean for strategic initiatives and a professor of psychology. “They need feedback to make decisions about whether they drop the class, and on how to work on the next paper based on the feedback from the last paper.”

Petri from UMKC also encourages faculty to communicate on the syllabus about timing realities. For example, she says, “it’ll take this long for a longer assignment and this long for a shorter assignment, and this is how long it will take for me to get back on an email.” She will tell students about specific time blocks set aside for grading and note that she’s a researcher who teaches.

Using rubrics, ideally with criteria communicated in advance of an assignment or exam, is a common grading-fairness recommendation. “You’re telling them, ‘In this skill you are lacking; here’s what I was expecting and here’s how you performed,’” says Amos, from Illinois. She suggests using grading software such as Gradescope or Crowdmark to help provide quick feedback using comment suggestions. In her experience, sometimes what students deem unfair about grading is not the grade itself but the communication of that grade.

Petri will have students go through peer review prior to submitting a big project, which builds their skills in providing constructive feedback plus involves their own assessment. “The self-assessment gives me something to respond to in my comments,” she says, adding that some students go way too easy on themselves, while some are extra hard on themselves.

Tenure Favor

From Joe Hoyle’s perspective as an associate professor of accounting at University of Richmond, an educator for more than 50 years and a blogger on teaching since 2010, students don’t care much about faculty tenure or governance. “If you go to a nice restaurant and get a good meal, do you care much about where the chef went to college?” he says. But when a student gets a really bad professor or an older faculty member who seems to be off, that student may question why the person is still teaching and hear, “Oh, they’ve got tenure.”

That lack of awareness may account for one in four Student Voice survey respondents answering “not sure” when asked whether they have a positive or negative view of tenured professors (defined in the survey as those who have essentially been granted permanent employment). Still, more than half feel the system sounds good, and more than three-quarters view tenure positively when unsure responses are removed.

“Tenure is directly related to the diversity situation with our faculty, but I don’t think students have really put that together, except for maybe in New England. If you’re around the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons, where they make the news all the time, your day-to-day might be different than in the Midwest. We don’t really care what our universities do unless it’s really juicy.” —Alexis Petri, co-director of University of Missouri at Kansas City’s Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence and senior director of faculty support in the university provost’s office

Perhaps surprisingly, the political leaning of respondents, whether they attended a private high school or if they are first-generation college students had little bearing on responses. Students who identify as being in the upper class socioeconomically do have a more positive view of tenure compared to those in other income groups, with about twice the positive responses (with a plus or minus 13 percent margin of error, however).

Students whose hometown is in New England are most likely to view tenure negatively, and those from states in the West are most likely to view it positively. Filtered by race, Black students are most likely to have a positive view (about one in three), compared to slightly less for Hispanic students, one in five white students and just 14 percent of Asian students. White students are most likely to look at tenure negatively.

“Tenure is directly related to the diversity situation with our faculty, but I don’t think students have really put that together, except for maybe in New England,” says Petri, who adds that it might be because the region has some of the oldest universities. “If you’re around the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons, where they make the news all the time, your day-to-day might be different than in the Midwest. We don’t really care what our universities do unless it’s really juicy.”

At Fordham, when Annunziato was pursuing tenure, students would find out (when asked to officially evaluate her teaching, she believes) and ask how they could help. “I think it’s really confusing, who’s what and who’s permanent.” She wonders if the survey results leaning positive reflect that pandemic-era students are attracted to any concept involving certainty and stability in the current moment.

In a recent Inside Higher Ed survey, provosts showed support for both the current tenure system and alternatives. Sixty percent agree (somewhat or strongly) that tenure “remains important and viable at my institution,” but 60 percent also favor “a system of long-term contracts over the existing tenure system.”

In the same survey, 73 percent of provosts say their institution relies “significantly” on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction, and nearly the same percentage anticipates no future change.

Just 3 percent of Student Voice survey respondents say an adjunct has been their favorite professor to date, while 7 percent identify a lecturer/instructor as favorite.

“Adjuncts are a very mixed bag,” says Hoyle. “They often don’t have much teaching experience, so it’s kind of on-the-job training. They’ve got to hit the ground running, and sometimes that’s just difficult.”

DuShane, who participated in the CFES Brilliant Pathways college access and career readiness program prior to college, says he still doesn’t quite understand differences between professor job titles, in part because titles doesn’t reflect the best or the worst. “Some professors use tenure to their advantage and don’t see a reason to adjust how they teach,” he says. “I also think there are some part-time faculty who are really phenomenal and can be overlooked.”

Montgomery College has focused in recent years on faculty professional development, including both full-time and part-time professors, with adjuncts receiving compensation for the Structured Remote Teaching training, says Rai. Instructors participate in a seven-week comprehensive training on engaging students, and the student completion rate has increased by 11 percentage points since 2014. In addition, the Faculty of the Year Award, which comes with a $5,000 prize, goes to one full-time faculty member and one part-time one, along with up to 19 outstanding faculty award opportunities, worth $2,000, annually.

“I can tell you it’s paying off,” says Rai. The 2020 Survey of Entering Student Engagement from the Center for Community College Student Engagement listed Montgomery as one of the top institutions in the country on student engagement.

Although known as an R-1 institution, UIUC encourages excellence in teaching through several different instruction awards (both at the institution and academic school levels), and teaching academies add to quality instruction, says Amos. When she has won awards, the recognition came with fanfare and colleagues would request the opportunity to observe her teach.

Stachowiak calls on provosts everywhere to recognize excellent instruction. “Don’t treat all faculty as a monolith,” she says. “There are those who are really showing up and engaging learners. Find ways to promote and celebrate that.”

Read more coverage from this survey, focused on students seeking stronger connections with professors but rarely taking the lead.

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