Few students ready to teach, survey finds Ph.D. candidates say they're unprepared for classrooms

by Linda K. Wertheimer
The Dallas Morning News

Doctoral candidates say they don't get enough lessons on how to teach though their first job is likely to be in a college classroom.

That finding in a recent study doesn't surprise Dr. Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Wetherington leads an effort at SMU to help teaching assistants and new professors in the classroom.

"That's a chronic problem," Dr. Wetherington said. "There are very few universities that have any systematic way of training their Ph.D.s to teach."

In the study released last week, a majority of doctoral candidates surveyed said they were "somewhat prepared" or "not prepared" to teach lecture courses. Just over 36 percent said they were "very prepared." The survey of 4,111 doctoral students at 27 schools, including the University of Texas, was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The study also indicated that many doctoral students feel unprepared for other duties they'll perform as professors, including advising undergraduates.

"You talk to most new professors, and they say, 'Wow, I don't really know what I'm doing, and I'm kind of making this up,'" said Dr. Chris Golde, a research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-wrote the study and an accompanying report.

"It's something that people just shake their heads at and say, 'Isn't it silly that we haven't been taught to teach?'" she said. "The assumption is you know your material well, you're an expert, so then you can communicate that."

Nationally, the spotlight typically has been on teaching in public schools not colleges, with the exception of complaints about teaching assistants who speak English poorly, Dr. Golde said. She said she wants the survey to expand the discussion to the quality of teaching on college campuses.

"We know from the K-12 system that there are really ways to think about the teaching and learning process that can make people better teachers," Dr. Golde said.

Rachel Dunagan, a 21-year-old junior at SMU, said she has had varied experiences. Some of the least-organized teachers have been teaching assistants, she said.

"They really don't know what they're doing structure-wise," she said. "I wouldn't put them in a lecture room anytime soon."

But, she said teaching assistants, usually younger than professors, often relate better to students.

At SMU's Center for Teaching Excellence, teaching assistants and new professors get tips, Dr. Wetherington said. The assistants take a half-day seminar, while new professors attend a full-day seminar on teaching and get more guidance through lunchtime talks.

Seminars, workshops

SMU, which opened the teaching center in 1993, also is creating an academy of distinguished professors who will hold seminars and workshops for newer faculty, Dr. Wetherington said. More, though, should be done to train professors before they start their jobs, he said.

John Seebach, a 29-year-old doctoral student in anthropology at SMU, said he's not so sure universities should add more teaching instruction.

"Graduate school is about completing research and about standing on your own as a scholar," Mr. Seebach said. "Being a professor is a natural outgrowth of getting a Ph.D. I think a lot of it can't be taught."

He said he was learning how to be a teacher by doing it. He already has taught lab classes and soon will teach a lecture class.

"It's a trial by fire," Mr. Seebach said. "You go in and you do the job. You try to do it at the best of your abilities."

But Dr. Victor Worsfold, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said it's better to offer training than to subject new professors to a "sink-or-swim mentality." Dr. Worsfold directs UTD's 4-year-old Teaching Quality Enhancement Program.

For new professors, UTD offers luncheon lectures on teaching. The school also requires teaching assistants to take seminars on teaching. Dr. Worsfold said he wants to add a mentoring program that matches professors with graduate students. His efforts are limited because he is the only staff member in the quality enhancement program, he said.

"In the best of all possible worlds, we would be doing more," he said.

Dr. Worsfold also noted the study's finding that only 28 percent of doctoral candidates surveyed said they felt prepared to teach students from different backgrounds.

"We now have a great diversity of students who bring all kinds of different skills," Dr. Worsfold said. "The professorate hasn't carefully thought through how to train students to teach properly, given those circumstances."

He said he would like to see UTD's program evolve into something like the professional development program set up at the main UT campus in Austin.

UT's program includes efforts to link doctoral students with professors at other universities, where the doctoral candidates spend a semester learning what faculty life and teaching is like. They also get instruction in areas such as incorporating technology into the classroom.

Building networks

In the last three years, 1,000 graduate students have taken courses at the center, said Dr. Richard Cherwitz, UT's associate dean of graduate studies and director of the program. The number keeps growing, but participants account for less than 5 percent of UT's graduate students.

"We just started offering these courses on a full-time basis three years ago," Dr. Cherwitz said. "You're not going to change this overnight."

At Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, each department decides how and whether to offer training, said Dr. Neal Easterbrook, director of graduate students for the English department. In his department, tenured professors aid doctoral students who teach on campus. The professors observe students as they teach and give tips on a range of topics, including how to craft test questions and how to cope with plagiarism.

Even if colleges better prepare doctoral students for teaching jobs, that doesn't fix another problem: a shortage of full-time openings for professors. Doctoral students also said in the survey that they need more advice on career options. Darlene Pagan, 32, couldn't agree more.

Dr. Pagan graduated from UTD in May with a doctorate in humanities. Now, she's juggling part-time jobs at three colleges while hunting for full-time work. She has applied to 60 colleges and interviewed with 10.

"I've gotten rejection letters from universities, and some of them flat out tell you, 'We have 500 applicants for this position, and you weren't selected,'" she said. "How do you begin to compete with that?"