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Proof Your Professor Really Does Care

Posted on Friday January 18, 2013 by Michael Keathley

Earlier this week, I shared documentation that from whatever context faculty are studied, they tend to provide the same rationale for wanting to work in education: They are passionate about their profession, and they want to see their students succeed (“Educators Offer Consistent Reasons for Working in Higher Ed,” 16 January, 2013). A new book, Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience, by Catherine Hoffman Beyer, Edward Taylor, and Gerald M. Gilmore of the University of Washington is garnering a lot of attention because their study—like my post—shows that contrary to the media’s negative portrayal, professors really do care about student learning and progress.

If my previous post and the study referred to above are not convincing enough, combining these with some additional evidence will demonstrate clearly that most professors do care about their students, especially their academic success.

An Inside Look
Colleen Flaherty provided a good summation of the Beyer, Taylor, and Gilmore study for Inside Higher Ed ( “Better Than We Think,” 10 January, 2013). Flaherty explained that the study focused on a representative sample of 55 professors at the University of Washington, drawn from a pool of exceptional faculty nominated by department chairs, random professors, and some chosen to round out the demographics of the group. She shares these main takeaways:

      • Nearly all participants continually think about ways to become better professors, even when they didn’t realize they were doing so.

• Student engagement and performance guide faculty in determining what works and what does not.

• Professors described their teaching as a never-ending process of refinement and adaptation to meet the needs of students.

• A tendency to over prepare for classes pervaded the responses, even for those who were teaching the same class multiple times.

• Teaching has become more student-centered over the last decade; however, most seem to feel teachers can do even better

Flaherty concludes that the study: “paint[s] the professoriate as an overwhelmingly self-reflective group striving to achieve better learning outcomes over the course of their academic careers.” In my own experience as a faculty member and administrator who has observed hundreds of professors, I agree with the above findings. For the most part, faculty continually strive to find and apply best practices in teaching that will meet student needs and help them achieve their personal, academic, and professional goals.

Additional Evidence
If the information in the posts cited above doesn’t convince you that professors care, here is some additional evidence to consider. In a Faculty Focus article, “Students Place a Premium on Faculty Who Show They Care,” Dr. Maryellen Weimer discusses this issue of a caring professoriate by summarizing the findings of Steven A. Meyers’s literature review on the subject (11 January, 2013). She explained that professors show they care about students by focusing on effective instruction and maintaining academic standards. More specifically, most faculty:

      • Arrive at class prepared.

• Stay current in their field.

• Set standards for the course.

• Organize the curriculum.

• Provide clear and effective instruction.

• Try to engage students in the subject matter and in learning.

• Attempt to connect with the students and relate the subject matter to learners (e.g., by sharing personal examples, encouraging discussion and critical thinking, and even showing their personality, especially their sense of humor).

To this list I would add the:

      • long hours spent providing feedback on assignments;

• time and effort spent evaluating student progress and grading;

• guidance provided on issues beyond the curriculum (e.g., requested academic and career-related advice);

• sacrificing of personal time to be available to students during office hours and by email, telephone, chat, and other forms of electronic communication;

• setting clear boundaries if student behavior gets out of line;

• maintaining of a well managed classroom that is safe, even when their own lives are placed in jeopardy.

In my own career, I have witnessed quite a few other professors working hard and making sacrifices in the above ways to the point of martyrdom because they care so much about their students. I have often conducted myself in this manner. Likewise, I have also been aware of students who shared stories about how their lives were changed by a caring professor. These examples from Northern Michigan University are typical of what I have heard from current and former students about their professors.

The Problem and Solution of Perception
Given the above information about how much faculty care about their students, why is the stereotype of the uncaring professor so prevalent? Meyers pinpoints what is perhaps the definitive explanation: Students do not see actions such as preparing lesson plans and evaluating academic progress as acts of caring the way their professors do (Weimer, M., 11 January, 2013).

An analogy to parenthood may be helpful in understanding this disconnect in perception. When I was a kid, I thought my father was weird for obsessing over things like whether or not we had milk. Not once did I consider that he did that because he cared about me and my siblings until I became a father. Now I’ve spent nearly 20 years obsessing over things like making sure there is milk in the refrigerator, and I understand fully that I do so because I care about my children.

Herein lies the solution if you are a student who does not see your professors as caring in spite of the evidence that they do. Just as I had to become a father to understand that my dad cared, you can put yourself in the place of your professors. How would you show students you care? Would you make sure you were well prepared for class? Current in your field? How many of those professorial tasks would you do because you care?

Developing this understanding is not always easy given the context of a college classroom that may be packed with students or online. However, when the information shared in this post is considered, it is obvious: Most professors really do care about their students.

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