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Turning the Tables: Professors Becoming Students

By Megan Kelly

Ask any undergraduate student and they will have a story about a horrible professor: one who had slides filled with text, talked in circles, or seemed knowledgeable and passionate about his subject, yet had no idea how to teach the content. With these encounters occurring so frequently, it is evident that most professors have never been trained to teach.

In the 2014–2015 school year, there were 1.7 million students attending university in Canada alone. That is almost two million students paying incredibly expensive tuition to learn from professors they can’t even understand. Not only are these paying students, they are also future employees being sent into the workforce where they will do a mediocre job if not properly prepared. Why is it that we require a Masters of Education degree to become an elementary school or high school teacher, but post-secondary education, with some of the hardest content to teach and a very crucial time for proper instruction, requires no formal training? Just because university students are adults does not mean they do not require or deserve high quality instruction from high quality instructors.

One main concern that professors express about learning to teach is that training would use up time and resources that could be allocated towards research. Research typically has a higher status than teaching. Rewards, recognition, and respect are given to professors who are successful researchers, but are rarely given to those who are successful teachers. This is especially true for non-tenured professors, who must produce substantial published research in order to reach their tenure status. In an atmosphere that does not encourage spending time on teaching, professors struggle to improve these skills.

Professors should be trained to teach because this training promotes success in their students. Through training, professors are encouraged to adopt an active learning approach. Active learning moves away from traditional lectures and encourages students to interact with content, peers, and instructors. Active learning increases knowledge retention and encourages the use of higher-order cognitive skills (White et al., 2016). In fact, taking an active learning approach increases exam performance so much that the overall course average is raised by half a letter grade. Failure rates can also decrease by 55% when taking an active learning approach. Undergraduate classes benefit from an active learning approach even more than elementary or high school classes, emphasizing the importance of its implementation in universities (Freeman et al., 2014).

Even more surprising is the fact that professors actually enjoy training programs and, subsequently, being better teachers. In one study, professors who were trained to take an active learning approach were skeptical at first, but by the end of the program, all but one said that active learning was enjoyable and satisfying (Sabagh and Saroya, 2014). The MacPherson Institute at McMaster University also implements training programs for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and professors. At the end of each workshop, professors must complete a workshop feedback form, and most professors say they were at least satisfied with the workshops. Overall, professors feel more fulfilled when they feel like more successful teachers.

With clear benefits to both professors and students, universities need to ensure that their professors are trained to teach. Higher-learning institutions should address barriers to professor instruction by allocating time and resources to training teachers and ending the “research is superior” mentality. This can be done simply by emphasizing excellence in teaching and by rewarding those who are excellent teachers. In fact, when professors were asked what they perceived to be the greatest barriers to pursuing training, many said a lack of recognition and appreciation from their institution and their colleagues. These professors also said that creating rewards and incentives for teaching well would impact the value of and engagement in workshops (Sabagh & Saroyan, 2014).

Proof that incentives work comes from Lund University in Sweden, which awards extraordinary professors with the Excellent Teaching Practitioner title. This title comes with a raise in salary, a diploma, and extra funding for the professors’ departments. Torgny Roxa, an academic developer in the Faculty of Engineering, says that this reward system shows that teaching and education are taken seriously, which motivates professors to excel. This system should be implemented in Canada to encourage instructors to put effort into their teaching.

To increase the number of professors who receive training, existing workshops could be made mandatory. The MacPherson Institute is working toward this by implementing workshops for new faculty and subsequently reaching out to anyone who does not attend in the hopes of training all incoming educational staff. The MacPherson Institute also holds workshops throughout the year using a very effective approach. In phase one, professors learn about concepts such as stimulating and moderating discussions, designing and delivering a lesson, or navigating challenging classroom situations. Professors regroup after a week or two and enter phase two: implementing the skills learned in phase one in front of their workshop peers. Phase three occurs six to eight weeks into the course, when professors return again to discuss their success. This is a system that not only improves teaching skills, but is also enjoyed by professors. If institutions made these workshops mandatory and gave professors time off to attend, they could ensure that all professors improve their teaching.

Implementing these changes in professor training can have both small-scale and large-scale implications. Within a university, professors will find more enjoyment in teaching their course and may even gain a better understanding of their subject when they can break it down effectively for students. Students will find more enjoyment and satisfaction in classes they can understand and succeed in. The higher-education institution will also benefit by attracting more students with their strong teaching reputation. On a larger scale, training professors could benefit future society. The students of today will be working members of society tomorrow and it is critical that they have a positive impact.

Just as every undergraduate has experienced a terrible professor, they have also experienced an amazing one: one that has made an impact in their lives, fostered their love of a topic, and helped them succeed when they didn’t think it was possible. Every professor should have the tools to make a difference like this.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Sabagh, Z., & Saroyan, A. (2014). Professors’ perceived barriers and incentives for teaching improvement. International Education Research, 2(3), 18–40.

White, P. J., Larson, I., Styles, K., Yuriev, E., Evans, D. R., Rangachari, P. K., & Eise, N. (2016). Adopting an active learning approach to teaching in a research-intensive higher education context transformed staff teaching attitudes and behaviours. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(3), 619–633.