Why we can't afford bad teachers in first year

New research shows how much early instructors matter


I arrived at the University of Guelph just shy of 10 years ago and was so excited to study marketing that I spent much of frosh week highlighting and making notes in my intro to marketing textbook.

By week three, I was skipping my marketing classes because the professor couldn’t speak enough English. He verbally stumbled through the same lecture notes that he had posted online and when asked in one early lecture to elaborate on some point, he couldn’t even find the most basic words. His response devolved into mime as he frantically fumbled with an imaginary steering wheel until some blurted it out: “he means car!”

We laughed awkwardly that day but things became a whole lot less cute when he informed us that our 20 per cent participation marks would comprise four pop quizzes worth five per cent each. It was a desperate attempt to stop us from skipping classes where he did nothing but read lecture notes.

I was reminded today of that disappointing class when I read about new research based on interviews with 100 students by sociologists Christopher G. Takacs and Daniel F. Chamblis. They found that undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring faculty member in an introductory course and more likely to change majors after experiencing a bad professor. The conclusion—that bad teachers send students running—may sound obvious, but it was quite a shock to my first-year self who expected all instructors to be inspiring and capable.

And it wasn’t just marketing. My economics professor spent each 90-minute lecture dizzyingly drawing out proofs on a chalkboard that I couldn’t for the life of me follow. My calculus teacher did the same. My conclusion, at age 18, was that I was just plain terrible at economics and calculus.

I was majorly disappointed until year two when I had to take economics again. Determined not to fail, I hired a tutor. She helped me catch up in about, oh, two or three hours. That woman knew how to teach. I still have a sound understanding of economics because that woman knew how to teach.

I also got lucky in year two when another good teacher got me excited about her discipline. I switched my major to history, signed up for more of her classes and got good grades ever after.

Since then, I spent several more years in school and three years as an education writer. My conclusion is that those bad early experiences happen because universities plop instructors into first-year courses with little or no training and then fail to check whether they do good jobs.

Things worked out for me, but a lot of people don’t even make it through first year. I suspect that just a couple of bad teachers may be all it takes to end many students’ university careers.

Another implication of bad first-year teachers was pointed out to me by Chris Martin, director of research at the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, who read today about the same study.

Policy makers are, “bending over backwards trying to figure how to get more students studying engineering,” he says. “What’s missing from that whole conversation is the link to the quality of the teacher.” In other words, if governments really want more engineers, they should focus on teaching.

The research didn’t surprise Martin. “I took theatre and film studies in university mostly because I had a really amazing first-year theatre professor,” he says. He had been heading for political science but changed course because his political science teachers weren’t nearly as engaging.

He doesn’t regret his choice of major but does sometimes wish that he hadn’t been too intimidated by math to take economics, something he blames on bad teachers well before university. Although he was able to go back and take it, he would have preferred to do it as an undergraduate.

Martin has some apt advice for students. Try out a variety of courses, he says, and if a professor doesn’t work, rather than dropping the course, make use of the extra help available on campus.

Extra help worked well for me. It’s too bad that my first-year teachers didn’t.