I’m a college professor. I also teach college professors how to teach. So I know … there are some truly bad professors out there.
I’ve got to say … we’re not all bad at teaching. But there are certainly many terrible university level teachers.
There’s a simple answer why.
The Quick Answer
Your elementary school and high school teacher is specifically trained to teach. They’ve literally got a degree in the ‘art of teaching’, or what we call ‘pedagogy’.
That’s not true about your college professor.
A professor is often thrown in front of a class with no teacher training whatsoever. They’re hired for their knowledge of the content (science, art history, engineering, etc.), not for their knowledge of how to teach.
It’s rare that a college professor actually has training in teaching.
There are some other possible reasons, too, which include:
- They don’t think of themselves as teachers.
- They’re really busy.
- Student evaluations have no power or effect.
- University morale is very low.
- The tenure system protects them from getting fired.
- Many are just waiting for retirement.
I would stress, many university teachers are very good at teaching. But I’m answering a specific question here about those that are bad teachers.
9 Reasons College Professors are Bad at Teaching
1. They’re not taught how to Teach
We generally see good teaching as being at the intersection of two types of knowledge:
- Content knowledge (knowing about what they’re teaching – science, art, geography, etc.)
- Pedagogical knowledge (knowing how to teach it)
Here it is as a Venn diagram:
Unfortunately, for the most part college professors are hired for their content knowledge, but not their pedagogical knowledge.
I used to teach a course specifically for university lecturers. It was a postgraduate certificate in teaching and learning in higher education.
And it was remarkable how little thought the lecturers who filed through my classrooms put into teaching.
They didn’t know the basics, like:
Differentiation – The ability to change how you teach to match the needs of your students.
Scaffolding – The act of providing guidance, then gradually removing it as your student develops more knowledge.
Active Learning – The art of learning through ‘doing’ rather than listening.
2. They don’t think of themselves as Teachers
Many university teachers are hired into the faculty for reasons other than their teaching skills. This includes:
Research – Many professors see themselves as researchers, not teachers. Their main job is often to conduct research in a lab, but they have to teach a few classes as well.
They’re there for the Prestige – Universities want to hire professors who have written popular books or published PhDs from prestigious Ivy league universities.
They’re Writers – They are hired to write books and journal articles, and teaching is an afterthought.
3. Student Evaluations have no Power or Effect
While student evaluations are commonplace in universities these days, they’re often very flawed in a number of ways:
They’re Unscientific – The questions on the evaluation questionnaires are often really poor and wouldn’t pass any research review. They’re often worth less than the paper they’re written on.
They don’t Change Anything – Evaluations are often anonymous and only passed on to the teacher, not administrators. If they are passed on to administrators for review, administrators have little power to make changes or fire staff. Just about every faculty has that one professor who everyone knows is a terrible teacher but no one can do anything about it.
4. The Professors are too Busy
University teachers have a lot of bureaucratic burdens placed upon them. They need to sit on committees, participate in university marketing, attend graduate student meetings, and liaise with the media.
While I empathize with this, I don’t think it’s legitimate for a college professor to be bad at teaching simply because they’re busy. Their obligation should remain to the students who are paying extortionate amounts of money for their education.
5. Low Morale in the Higher Education Sector
It’s rare that I come across a university professor who ‘loves their job’. Sure, there are some, but they’re in the majority.
The issue of low morale often comes down to infighting between the teachers (and their unions) and the administrative staff. A lot of the time, educators are getting new bureaucratic burdens placed on them with no additional time to deal with them. This leads to a lot of bad blood within the higher education sector.
6. The Tenure System
The United States is one of very few countries in the world who still have a tenure system. The UK, for example, abolished it over 20 years ago.
The academic tenure system is designed to defend the freedom of speech of academics. It is designed to ensure that a tenured professor cannot be fired except for in extreme circumstances. It allows academics to:
- Conduct research that might be anti-government, without backlash.
- Make controversial statements.
- Publish bold and creative opinions in the service of public debate
But imagine if you knew you couldn’t be fired in your job. Perhaps you might get comfortable, stop working so hard, and make less effort in your teaching with the knowledge that no one can touch you.
7. They Assume you know too Much
I’m guilty of this.
College professors spend their lives reading academic journal articles and being deeply embedded in academic discourse.
Then they get their students to read a journal article with endless confusing words and phrases in them that you haven’t been sufficiently taught to understand.
We sometimes forget our students are new to the language we use in universities. And that’s on us. Really, professors should think carefully about whether the texts they set their students are readable and at the right level for their students’ learning.
8. They’re waiting to Retire
Okay, this is the last one because it’s the least relevant and most controversial point. But unfortunately, I’ve met this more than once in faculty staffrooms.
A lot of professors are very comfortable in their jobs, but they don’t really like the job. They know they’re guaranteed a very nice income until they retire which is on average at the age of 65. So they’re just riding it out.
They’ve lost any passion for their subject area or their teaching. They’re sick of complaining self-entitled students. And they just don’t care because they’ve only got 4 years until they can retire on a nice retirement income.
They hate the job, but they’re not going to give it up.
9. Because you’re a Bad Student
While I’m inclined to agree that there’s some systemic issues that cause bad teaching in universities, it’s also important to pause and consider whether your expectations are wrong.
Maybe they’re not a bad teacher – you just have the wrong expectations.
University and high school are different. You’re supposed to engage in self-study at university. You’re expected to turn up to class prepared to talk and contribute. And you’re expected to have the skills to find answers to questions yourself.
So, reflect on how you can try harder to help yourself and be selective about when you email your teacher and what questions you ask. Don’t seek hand-holding, but do reach out to the teacher for help of you’re stuck or need to be pointed in the right direction.
And also remember that most university libraries provide significant study and learning support for students if you still need help with the basics like “how to read a journal article”.
The good news is that a lot of universities are aware of this problem. When I was hired into my university in the UK, it was under the condition that I complete a postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education within 2 years so I could be trained on ‘how to teach adults’.
But all things move slowly in the big bureaucratic world of universities. And bad teachers continue to be hired every day. Especially at research focused universities who care more about how many books and journal articles are published than how good the education is.
I’ll end reiterating one last thing: these points are certainly not true about all college professors. There are some wonderful teachers at universities. The best teachers in the world are likely walking the halls of universities – especially in education departments.
But it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot of rot in the higher education sector because of the incentive structures that are baked in seemingly forever.