Opinion: How To Find The Best Professors

(L-R) Gary Pavlechko and Dom Caristi. Photo provided.(L-R) Gary Pavlechko and Dom Caristi. Photo provided.

By: Dom Caristi and Gary Pavlechko—

Muncie, IN—We have advice for college students hoping to find the best teachers: Look for professors who believe they can always improve.

Student evaluations of teaching have been criticized for years for a variety of shortcomings. “Rate My Professors” also suffers from unreliable data.

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the best college teachers care about their teaching. Most professors would rather mentor hard-working students than bright students. So it is with teachers. Those who work at being good teachers are the “best.”

Mindset helps to explain this. Faculty members who care about their teaching are likely to have a growth mindset. That is, they believe that they can improve what they do. In order to improve, they are most likely to discuss teaching with their colleagues, survey classes outside of the institution-required assessment and participate in programs hosted by their campus centers for teaching excellence.

This is the “secret” we provide to students seeking the best teachers on their campus: find professors who voluntarily participate in faculty development programs without extrinsic rewards and you will find the faculty who care the most about their teaching.

There will be plenty of faculty who find fault with this recommendation. Here are some of the excuses they will use:

I’m already a good teacher. This is a curious response. We have yet to find a researcher who believes that past research serves as evidence that there’s nothing more to learn, yet we’ve met plenty of faculty who believe that since they already know how to teach there’s no point in learning anything new.

I don’t have the in-class time to spare. Asking our students for feedback in class takes time away that could be used for other purposes, but if it leads to improved learning, it is time well spent. There are ways of soliciting feedback that take absolutely no class time, and class time can be recovered by moving some of the in-class activity outside of class.

I don’t have time in my own schedule. Just like our students, we will make time for things that are most important to us. Improving our teaching takes time and faculty members must find the time to improve their teaching.Participating in book groups, workshops or discussions about pedagogy all require time commitments, but they yield positive results.

At Ball State, our Division of Online and Strategic Learning directs the Interactive Learning Space Initiative, an effort to strengthen learning though pedagogy, space design and technology. In six years, more than 130 faculty have volunteered. They are better teachers today because they went through the workshops, worked with mentors and have taught in renovated spaces, but they were already good teachers because they had a growth mindset about teaching when they applied for the program.

Our advice to students who want to find the best teachers on their campuses: forget about unreliable rating systems. Find the professors who care so much about teaching that they work to improve.

Dom Caristi is a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University. Gary Pavlechko is the director of Teaching Technology at Ball State University.