Career incentives actually discourage innovation
It is a truth universally acknowledged that what gets rewarded gets done. In the case of faculty members, those rewards consist primarily of promotion and tenure. Career incentives dictate how faculty members spend their scarce time and energy.
In this environment, learning innovations come as an afterthought. Faculty members by and large feel that they do not stand to benefit from innovating in the classroom. In some cases, they may be actively discouraged from doing so by their colleagues.
Despite an overabundance of ways to improve the classroom experience—from peer instruction to problem-based learning to flipped classroom and active learning models—many faculty members actually feel that their careers may suffer if they test out a new technique.
Three reasons for perceived career risk
When asked, faculty members cite three reasons that they feel learning innovations bring career risks:
1. Tenure committees prioritize research, not teaching
For junior faculty on the tenure track, diverting attention away from research can have severely negative career impacts. Their colleagues evaluate them largely based on their research accomplishments, not on their innovations in the classroom. Assistant professors who spend weeks or months redesigning their curricula and delivery methods risk falling behind.
2. Common assessment measures produce “false negatives”
At many institutions, student evaluations are the sole source of insight into the success or failure of a new instructional method. When faculty members test out a more rigorous way of teaching their courses, students may protest in their evaluations—even if they’ve learned more during the class. Few faculty members want to risk the embarrassment and negative career consequences of a seemingly unsuccessful instructional pilot, despite the potential for greater learning gains.
3. Contingent faculty lack the job security necessary for trial and error
Not every learning innovation will work at first. For contingent faculty members without long-term contracts, the prospect of an instructional experiment going awry threatens their job security. This creates a situation in which the interests of instructors who educate a majority of students at many institutions lie not in using the highest-impact teaching methods, but rather in using the safest and least controversial ones.
Change career rewards to incentivize more innovation
Provosts across the country recognize that they must hardwire career rewards for learning innovations if they are going to advance student learning. Groundbreaking institutions have tried three strategies to incentivize learning innovations:
1. Revise tenure guidelines
The University of Michigan has recently moved to consider revising the guidelines under which tenure committees operate to better reward high-quality instructors. The new tenure guidelines would focus in particular on effective pedagogy and mentoring activity. It has yet to be seen how tenure committees will react to the new guidelines.
2. Request teaching practice dossiers from instructors
To counterbalance the “false negatives” of student evaluations, the University of Alabama launched teaching practice dossiers. Academic leaders ask every faculty member to submit an annual record of the new teaching strategies they have used in the classroom. Leaders review these dossiers for signs of growth and improvement over time. For creative faculty members, the dossiers provide documentation of thoughtful and promising experiments, regardless of student response.
3. Establish instructional roles with job security
At Northwestern University and the University of Denver, academic leaders have begun hiring academics into instruction-focused roles with long-term job security. Multi-year contracts allow instructors to test new approaches to teaching and learning without the risk that a single semester’s failed experiment will undermine their job security.
Learn how to identify and encourage innovators on your faculty
To explore how academic leaders are reducing the risks of learning innovations and increasing adoption on campus, read our study Scaling Learning Innovations – From Early Adopters to Campus-Wide. Download the study