Why you’re a bad teacher

It’s back to school time y’all and Dr. Raptor is here to tell you why you’re bad at teaching (and what you can do about it).

OK so maybe you aren’t a bad teacher, but I’m sure you know some folks in academia who are. Even if you’ve got some great teaching chops, I’m here to talk about why most of us could still be doing better. And don’t lie, my click-bait title reeled you in, right?! Right?! (call me, Buzzfeed)

Top 4 Reasons You’re Bad at Teaching

  1. Your education did not involve any training or coursework in teaching, you TA’d a few classes in grad school but other than that you’re just winging it.
  2. Your tenure/promotion/next job depends on student reviews of your teaching, so you teach in a way that makes students feel good about themselves, instead of in a way that best enables their learning
  3. You ignore research on education and learning in your discipline or don’t even know it exists; or you do know it exists and don’t use it because it takes too much time and effort to change your classes.
  4. You don’t really care or don’t have the energy/time to care because your institution doesn’t care or actively dissuades you from caring.

OK so now that we’ve got the main reasons you suck at teaching, let’s unpack them! Weeee!!!

Your education did not involve any training or coursework in teaching

This one is tough because there’s only so much that’s under your control in grad school. However, most schools now offer some sort of teacher training for graduate students. It may not be easy to find, but if you do some searching you may be pleasantly surprised. I took a class in grad school offered by a random astronomy center on campus which, who knew, had a science education research group. It was tough to find in the course catalog and I had to argue a bit with my advisor to let me take it, but it was suuuuuper useful and opened my eyes to a lot of stuff, like the fact that there’s a WHOLE DISCIPLINE devoted to research on how people learn (see below). Go figure.

I also had to argue with my advisor about how much I TA’d. Our department required us to do two semesters, but I knew I was really into teaching and wanted to do more. I convinced him to let me do this by 1) discussing my career goals with him clearly and often and 2) Getting a NSF GRFP so he wasn’t paying my stipend anymore so really what was he going to do to stop me? (note: This strategy does not always work depending on your advisor slash I was sort of a brat in grad school).  While the external funding thing was a windfall I was lucky to get (“luck”, i.e., I went to a prestigious R1, came from a prestigious R1, etc), I think most folks can at least seek out campus resources to learn about teaching, and get as much experience as you can teaching, even if it’s not as much as you’d like.

You teach in order to get positive student evaluations

This one is so hard. We all want to be liked, especially when being liked is essential to us keeping our jobs or getting a job in the first place. The problem is that many studies show that positive teacher evaluations don’t correlate with learning. Whomp whomp. This makes intuitive sense – real learning requires discomfort and confronting one’s ignorance, as well as just putting in the time. Professors who use the best teaching techniques like frequent testing tend to get poorer student evaluation ratings because students rate people they like more highly than those they don’t, and turns out, most students don’t like being given tests every week. This is of course in addition to the many many biases against white women, POC and other minoritized groups in student evaluations —  a rant for another day.

So what can we do?

Talk to your chair, department, deans, diversity and equity program, etc about this problem. In your self evaluations discuss these issues and cite the research. And in your classes, explain what you are doing and why. Share the educational research with your students. If students know why you are giving them daily quizzes they are less likely to think that you’re a giant jerk-face (this has at least worked for me). I would also suggest trying to start off by taking small risks instead of whopping ones, testing the waters of how your teaching changes impact your all-too-important teaching scores before totally redesigning your courses.

You ignore the research

We are all busy. I get it. It’s hard enough to keep up with the literature in your own area of study, never mind an entirely new set of journals and techniques and ideas. I try to keep up with just one or two education journals in my field and also try to follow people who do education research on social media so stuff will show up in my feed. Again, make it manageable for yourself — maybe change 1 lab or 1 lecture or 1 assignment a semester based on something you’ve read about in an education research journal.

If you’re designing a new class from scratch, this is an amazing time to build your syllabus from the ground up using information about how students learn. One technique I’ve loved using for new courses is backwards design where you basically pick the final assessment first, then build the course to ensure students can be successful at the assessment.

Other quick tips from the educational research world: think pair share and jigsaws, identifying students’ prior misconceptions and other useful stuff from this website on active learning, and basically everything in this book.

No incentives

This one is sort of similar to #2 in that much of the problem is external, not internal. It’s not that you don’t care, it’s that no one else cares and you gotta keep Them happy if you want to stick around for another contract / get tenure, etc.

Honestly, I don’t have a good answer for this one except that those who have the ability to do so (i.e., tenure, power, etc) need to pressure our administrations to value teaching as part of tenure and promotion at all institutions, not just ‘teaching focused’ ones. Personal change isn’t enough, we need to push our institutions to truly value teaching and learning. Why this should be so hard when we work for, you know, educational institutions is mind boggling but it is the sad reality at many schools.

Depending on your situation, you might be able to advocate and argue for the importance of pedagogical research in your department / field of study. Talk about it with colleagues. Find others on campus who are working to improve how we teach. There are a lot of useless duds out there lecturing like they’ve been doing since 1982 and waving their hands about but there are also a lot of folks mixing things up. If your department/program is trying to attract and retain under-represented groups, maybe share this article with them (which you should read regardless!!).

Wrap up time

It’s easy for me to tell you that you should care and that you should take the time to read another 2 journals, revise your courses, and change your pedagogy when ALL of those things take time away from your research and/or potentially harm your student evaluation scores which are already stacked against you if your identity isn’t “the norm” in your field. So again I’ll say, start small. Even if you don’t have the incentives, make a little more effort than you did last semester. Then a little more. Being a good/better teacher matters. It sounds cheesy to say we’re educating the next generation but hey, we are. Those lil’ soft squishy brains need us to try our best.

OK pep talk over! Back to class!


Dr. Raptor



4 thoughts on “Why you’re a bad teacher

  1. Great incentives here! One more thing I found a problem was that, when I did try to read the pedagogical literature, I did not understand the jargon. So I found a colleague, (didn’t matter that she was in a different science discipline) who had a more rigorous background in teaching, who knew what those strange words and phrases meant. That way, I was able to work through some of the articles. (That person and I ended up trying several innovative strategies, particularly in the labs, and publishing collaboratively). Then we found that actually getting the pedagogical publications regarded as highly as science research publications, but that is another topic.

    We were also lucky that there was an administrative unit at our university dedicated to helping staff with all matters concerning teaching, even to running courses for TAs and they had a really dedicated, talented and amazing staff at that time. That helped enormously.

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