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Why Are STEM Professors So Bad? (Or Are They?)

STEM professors are notorious for being terrible teachers. Countless STEM students complain about how bad their professors are at teaching and relaying information. This leaves many wondering, why are STEM professors so bad?

STEM professors are often so bad because they don’t have adequate teaching skills. Some universities hire professors solely for research and prestige. Universities don’t provide them with proper training, so these STEM professors, though academically capable, end up as bad teachers for their students.

Of course, not all STEM professors are bad. But there are trends taking place that have resulted in a noticeable number of STEM professors that aren’t up to the challenge. Let’s explore why so many STEM professors are bad teachers and why it might not entirely be their fault.

Why STEM professors are so bad.

Reasons Why So Many STEM Professors Are Bad at Teaching

Everyone knows how hard it can be to learn STEM. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA revealed that first-year STEM undergrads are more likely to change fields and withdraw from college before they graduate compared to their non-STEM counterparts (source). 

That’s why low-level classes are known as “weed out.” These classes supposedly weed out students who weren’t competent enough to pursue education in STEM. However, it’s not always about academic competence or even intelligence. 

In some cases, students report that they could barely learn from their professors. Why is that?

Professors Weren’t Taught How To Teach

Students may not realize this, but STEM professors are almost always not trained to teach. A typical STEM professor may have had some teaching experience by the time a university hires them, but they most likely haven’t received any formal training (source). 

This lack of educational training is harmful to the classroom and the students’ learning experience. 

Teaching takes more than knowledge. STEM professors often don’t have the necessary skills to engage students in conversation, draw their attention in class, or even relay new knowledge and information. 

Instead, they rely on their academic prowess, teach as if they’re talking to their colleagues, and just hope the students understand what they’re talking about. 

The Tenure System Protects Bad Professors

Did you know that most of the time, tenured professors aren’t the best teachers? The tenure system is a professor’s pathway to academic job security. It grants professors academic freedom and protects them from being fired for no reason (source).

Unfortunately, tenured professors aren’t necessarily the best teachers. According to a study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University, tenured professors actually underperformed when teaching first-year students compared to their non-tenure line colleagues (source).

Some argue that professors stop working hard to support their students when they know they can’t be fired. 

And even when these professors do a poor job teaching, students are often reluctant to file a report to the faculty for fear of retribution or the assumption that the university won’t hear their complaints.

They’re Preoccupied With Research

Sometimes universities only hire professors to do research, produce journals, and write books to add to the university’s prestige. In some cases, universities require a certain amount of research experience but don’t set a minimum teaching experience requirement (source).

So, instead of spending more time in the classroom or answering students’ questions, these professors usually spend more time conducting research. So, students lack the guidance to understand their materials and end up absorbing less knowledge.

They Assume You Know More Than You Do

Being deeply embedded in academic discourse, professors are usually surrounded by people with similar levels of competence. 

And after being in the field for years, they are already used to technical jargon and complicated concepts. So much so that sometimes, they forget that their students don’t have the same understanding as they do (source).

Often, professors assume their students already understand the material they’re teaching. As a result, they don’t go in-depth when teaching or take extra time to ensure their students understand the materials.

Moreover, universities gravitate towards professors that are known to be natural prodigies in their fields. However, learning and mastery often come naturally to these professors. As a result, they can barely understand their students’ struggles. 

In contrast, educators who aren’t naturally “gifted” can better understand their students’ limitations. These educators usually can guide and teach their students better (source).

Professors Are Not Always At Fault

So, now that we know why STEM professors are often bad teachers, one question remains: is it really their fault? Can we blame them for being terrible educators? Or are there any other parties contributing to this problem?

Universities Focus More on Research

As mentioned earlier, universities often hire professors to do research and add to the faculty’s prestige. For some universities, these are their main goals, and educating students is regarded as an afterthought.

STEM professors are often told to focus on their research, even if that means sacrificing time in the classroom. Some universities even tell professors not to let teaching get in the way of their research instead of the other way around. 

Universities often provide professors with comprehensive training sessions and seminars to aid them in their research. However, universities rarely, if ever, provide formal training to the same professors to improve their teaching skills. 

Even university support units for professors only serve as professional development centers to further their careers, not help them become better teachers. So, it’s unfair to completely blame STEM professors for being bad teachers when the academic environment doesn’t support them. 

The Education System Is Flawed

And of course, the current education system itself is inherently flawed. 

For example, take the most common teaching style, conventional lectures. Research has shown that this is the least effective way to teach and engage students. Yet, traditional lectures still make up about 55 percent of STEM classroom interactions (source).

Student-centered learning strategies, such as group work and open discussions, can improve students’ learning capabilities. However, with the current system standing as it is, significant changes are unlikely. 

Many professors realize that changes must be made, but most end up sticking to what they’re already doing. After all, it can be difficult for the professors to convince the faculty that adopting new teaching methods may get better results. 

Other issues, such as large class sizes, the lack of proper tools, and even inadequate room layouts, make it even more difficult for professors to bring about change into their classrooms (source).

Conclusion

Learning STEM is already hard on its own, so imagine having to keep up with all the complex materials when you have a bad professor. Many STEM professors are bad teachers because they don’t consider themselves as teachers and thus, have poor education skills.

However, we can’t put the blame solely on these professors. Universities should focus more on equipping their STEM professors with proper teaching skills. 

Reforms in the education system are also needed. A change of approach in the classroom and learning system might help improve these professors’ ability to teach and the students’ ability to absorb knowledge.

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