CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief

 

   

As part of the Professional Development Programme (Teaching) organised by CDTL, groups of participants work on research projects related to teaching and learning. This issue of CDTL Brief presents some findings from two PDP-T research projects completed in November 2002.

May 2003, Vol. 6, No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Excelling at Teaching and Research:
A Preliminary Study of Best Practices
 
Ms Lim Sun Sun
Information & Communications Management Programme
Dr Tomasina M. Oh
Department of English Language & Literature

Dr Thorsten Wohland

Department of Chemistry
(listed in alphabetical order)
 

Introduction

Ask many new faculty (defined as fresh from their PhD, and in the first 3–5 years of service) how their research is going, and most likely the answer will be that they have not been able to get much done because they have been con-centrating on their teaching. In many of these cases, it is not that their teaching load is excessive, but rather that as new faculty, they feel an extra urgency to perform well. Since it is teaching, more so than research, that physically requires their attention almost immediately after they begin their appointment, they channel a large portion of their energy into excelling at it, often at the expense of their research.

This is in essence some of what Boice (2000) has observed himself in spending about 20 years studying the work patterns of new faculty in North American academic institutions. According to his figures, the norm for most new faculty tends to be: 6 hours/week actual teaching; 18–30 hours/week preparing lectures; 2–6 hours/week consultation. If this is true, then it is a sobering thought, given that on average we work (officially) about a 50-hour week, which does not leave much time for research, not to mention the other administrative duties that some of us have. One of Boice’s claims is that most new faculty fall into this trap of being bogged down by teaching because they are guilty of ‘immoderation’ in their work.

Boice found that only 3–5% of new faculty perform exemplarily in both teaching as well as research (Boice, 2000). The others who do not perform in this fashion fail to do so not because of commitment or ‘lack of expertise in his or her area of scholarship’, but rather because they did not practise particular work habits. As a result of his work, he identifies several ‘exemplars’ that characterise this small percentage of ‘quick starters’. These exemplars fall in the area of teaching, research and ‘socialisation’1 and are defined in terms of independent ratings of student approval of teaching, scholarly productivity and social approval from gate-keeping colleagues. In other words, these quick starters seemed to take a particular approach to their teaching preparation and presentations, which also gave them enough time to work on and develop their research careers without compromising their teaching quality.

For teaching, the exemplars noted among the quick starters were:

  • Waiting actively, instead of rushing into tasks (i.e. thinking first before just ‘putting everything down on paper’)

  • Beginning before feeling ready (i.e. avoiding procrastination)

  • Preparing for lectures in brief, regular sessions instead of binges at the cost of other important areas of work (e.g. writing)
  • Stopping in timely fashion

  • Moderating over-attachment to one’s teaching2 as well as overreaction to criticism

  • Moderating negative thinking and strong emotions in one’s self

  • Letting others do some of the work for them as collaborators (e.g. experts giving lectures) and critics

  • Moderating classroom incivilities—quick starters show how to moderate classroom incivilities—partly defined as students who arrive late, noisily, and persist in talking aloud when someone else has the floor—with simple strategies of openness, pacing and patience

In short, the ‘quick starters’ identified by Boice were more organised and efficient at dividing their time between research and teaching, were better at coping with stress, possessed more objective perspectives with regard to their own work, and reacted towards/managed students in a positive manner.

Boice’s claim that academics were often lop-sided in the emphasis they placed on teaching, research and socialisation motivated us to conduct the following study, given that our personal experience as well as that of other colleagues recognised some truth in what he was saying. In this preliminary study, we set out to find out:

  • The work habits of new faculty at NUS with regard to teaching (i.e. Are new faculty here guilty of the ‘immoderation’ in teaching preparation that Boice claims others elsewhere are?)

  • New faculty’s perception of NUS students, and whether specific problems with regard to students exist

  • The type of support that would make new faculty feel less isolated

The present study is a report of our findings.

Method

27 new faculty members participated in this study. The criteria for selection were: (a) the participants must have been at NUS for not more than 5 years, and (b) that this was their first academic position.

Materials and Procedure

A self-administered questionnaire was used. The questionnaire was designed with a mixture of multiple-choice, Likert-scale and open-ended questions. It contained a total of 19 questions. A concerted effort was made to keep the questionnaire brief so that the response rate could be raised. Following Boice’s findings and our own research imperatives, our questions focused on these main themes:

  • Work habits with regard to preparation for teaching

  • Perception of NUS students’ general attitude and their level of participation in class

  • General emotional and mental state of new faculty, and their response to criticism of their teaching

  • Interest in interaction with other new faculty

  • Interest in having guidance in their initial years

The questionnaire was distributed through two main channels—CDTL’s Professional Development Programme Teaching Practicum (conducted during the first semester of AY 2002/2003) and via email for colleagues who had opted not to attend this practicum. A total of 27 completed questionnaires were received.

Results

Only some of our results are reported here, due to lack of space. Our study found that:

  • New faculty’s work habits with regard to preparation for teaching

    • A majority (85%) prepared for lectures when their schedule allowed, rather than on the day before (13%)—i.e. few seemed to practise these ‘binges’.

    • The predominant mode of working was a combination of short and long periods (48%). Most (88%) veered towards a reluctance to delegate work.

    • Work load: See discussion below.


                

  • New faculty’s perception of NUS students, and problems faced, if any

    • Most felt that the students were conscientious and hardworking, but tended to be too examination- and grade-oriented. The students were seen to prefer to be spoon-fed, and as a result, they performed well when given guidance but were not particularly aggressive or creative. This sentiment was encapsulated in one respondent’s statement: “Try to memorise instead of thinking and applying knowledge”.

    • In response to how NUS students compare to students whom they had taught elsewhere, many stated that our students are more passive and “need encouragement to be independent, take initiative and disagree”.

    • Many students are also unwilling to ask questions in class, and as a result, staff have to put in an extra effort to create a relaxed environment that is conducive for asking questions. However, the general feeling amongst respondents was that NUS students take their work more seriously than students from other countries.

  • New faculty’s emotional and mental state

    • Many (63%) reported ups and downs rather than indifference (30%).

    • Many (67%) reported reacting strongly to criticism.

  • New faculty’s interest in interaction with other new faculty

    • Many professed a high interest in this, and the preferred mode of interaction was through periodical social gatherings (61%) rather than through official ones (28%).

  • New faculty’s interest in having guidance in their initial years

    • A majority (45%) expressed interest in a mentorship programme.

Discussion and recommendations

We can draw several conclusions from our questionnaire as to how new faculty members at NUS compare to the ones studied by Boice. New faculty members at NUS have on average a teaching load of 8.5 hours/week (range: 2–16 hours/week) and thus show a similar teaching load as the faculty members studied by Boice (6–12 hours/week). However, NUS staff use much less time for preparation and work, a total of only 24.5 ± 10 hours/week (range: 5.5–42 hours/week) compared to 36–60 hours/week in Boice’s study. This is shown clearly as well in: (a) the ratio of preparation of teaching material to actual teaching hours, which is 2.4 ± 2.2 (range: 0.3–10) compared to 3.6–5 in Boice’s case; and (b) in the total working time spent on teaching, which is 40% for NUS staff and 45–75% for Boice (percentages were inferred from data given and assuming a working time of 80 hours/week). These numbers demonstrate that although new faculty members at NUS have similar teaching loads as other universities, they do not suffer from the symptoms described by Boice, namely spending too much time on teaching to the detriment of research activity. This is actually surprising since teaching is very much emphasised at the NUS.

Nevertheless, new faculty members at NUS are not perfect ‘quick starters’ and we identified by our questionnaire problems in other areas:

  • New staff members feel emotional when criticised on research or teaching. This can lead to unwillingness in accepting criticism and it hinders teachers from evaluating their own performance objectively, as well as from changing and improving their teaching. 

  • There is a lack of willingness to delegate work to others. This leads to inefficient time management and possibly faculty spending time on issues that should be left to graduate students or technical staff.

Having identified these problem areas, there are several questions that should be studied in more detail:

  • Are these problems true only for new staff members or are they also valid for established members of staff who were not in the scope of this work?

    This question could be solved by another questionnaire to NUS faculty irrespective of their time of service.

  • Why do new staff members hesitate to delegate tasks?

    There are at least two possible explanations: new faculty are too strongly attached to their work—this would explain the emotional feelings towards criticism—or it could be a general lack of confidence in other co-workers.

  • How can this tendency to avoid delegation be reversed to optimise time management and efficiency?

    A lack of confidence in co-workers is often more an inability of new faculty to correctly judge which tasks can be fulfilled by somebody else or an unwillingness to invest time to explain a task which can be done more quickly by the new faculty member himself. If a group leader makes an effort, he can easily find out the capabilities of his co-workers and the initial investment of his working time usually saves time in the long run.

  • Can new staff members be taught to detach themselves emotionally from their work and take a more objective view of criticism (note that this should be the ideal model of a researcher and teacher)?

    Making this over-attachment clear to new faculty might already be the first step in helping them overcome this problem. In addition, videotaping lectures and reviewing the tapes under this aspect with fellow teachers might show new faculty their own strength and the strength of others in teaching. Such discussion might make it easier for new faculty in the future to accept criticism in at least the field of teaching.

Especially these last two questions should be discussed in context of the training of faculty provided by CDTL.

Finally, we would like to mention the possibility of improving the social interaction of new staff members in at least two respects:

  • In the questionnaire, most participants indicated that they would like to see some form of mentorship, a programme already installed in some NUS faculties. Mentorship here is meant in the sense of an experienced staff member helping and explaining to new faculty about administrative duties and academic procedures at NUS through frequent meetings, especially right before important dates (e.g. deadline for university proposals, start of semester, start of exam periods). The mentor can also advise the new faculty on the quality of his performance and where improvement can be made. This mentorship programme is not meant as a scientific collaboration or a scientific advisory role for the mentor.

  • Many new staff members would like to see some kind of periodical social gatherings to exchange experiences. Social gatherings can considerably enhance the motivation of new faculty by showing them that others experience similar problems in their starting years, thus putting initial problems in perspective.

In conclusion, new faculty at NUS have a similar teaching load as new faculty at other universities. Contrary to Boice’s study, our study suggests that they seem to cope well with their duties and have enough time for research. However, we have identified some problem areas in which new faculty at NUS do not perform well. These include strong emotionality when criticised and problems in delegating tasks. Both issues affect the efficiency (i.e. time management, teaching performance) of teachers, should be further studied, and could ultimately be included as seminars in the training of new faculty at the CDTL.

Bibliography

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for New Faculty Members. MA: Allyn & Bacon.


Footnote:

1 Academic and non-academic interaction with other faculty members that furthers the productivity of the new faculty member (e.g. learning the culture, motivation, feedback).

2 This includes the amount of preparation spent on teaching (i.e. spending moderate amounts of time on preparation rather than what Boice calls “binges”).

 
 
 First Look articles





Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
Excelling at Teaching and Research: A Preliminary Study of Best Practices
   
Student Perceptions of Teachers, Courses and Classmates at NUS