When boiling down the college experience to its essence, students usually best remember getting to know one or two professors who were pivotal in sparking their curiosity and jumpstarting their motivation.
Richard Light of Harvard School of Education in his Making the Most of College, Students Speak Their Minds, describes the factors that define faculty who ‘make a difference.’ Professor Light interviewed over 1400 students to isolate his list of important factors
- Teaching precision in the use of language
- Sharing intellectual responsibility: expectations are that both teacher and student will learn through their encounters
- Connecting academic ideas with student’s lives
- Engaging students in large classes
- Teaching students to think like professionals
- Encouraging students to disagree with the professor
- Teaching the use of evidence: how to use evidence to make decisions and resolve issues
- Not being predictable: in class anything is fair game
- Integrating ideas from other disciplines
Undoubtedly, such a detailed list can help ferret out top professors. Princeton Review, though, in its Best 378 Colleges, boils faculty appraisal down to two key qualities: is the teacher interesting (a broad and subjective quality) and accessible. The review surveyed over 30,000 students across campuses and Lynn O’Shaughnessy, in her blog ‘The College Solution’ summarized the results noting professors in liberal arts colleges received higher scores than those in many private research universities (including the Ivy League), professors at private universities scored higher than those at state universities, and professors at ‘flagship’ state universities (e.g. UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, and University of Michigan) ranked the lowest of all.
Obviously these findings throw into question the importance of brand name, or rankings, when selecting where the best educational value might be had.
Another Princeton Review (PR) publication, The Best 300 Professors, seeks to uncover who these paragons of professorial talent are. To create the book PR teamed up with Rate My Professor.com and between the two identified more than 42,000 professors, of whom they then culled down to the final 300. The top five schools with the most top professors are not what one might expect. In ()’s is the number of top 300 teachers on the school’s faculty. Leading the list is Mount Holyoke, MA (14), James Madison, VA (11), Colgate, NY (10), William & Mary, VA (9), and Kenyon College (9).
One of the 300 is Joe Biel, CSU Fullerton, associate Professor of Studio Arts, who has taught at CSUF for over 8 years, and whose work is exhibited internationally. His capabilities can be gleaned from his students’ comments: “Joe is the man. He makes students want to learn, and he is extremely passionate about his work,” “If you don’t take his class it’s your loss. He’s that good,” and, “One of the best professors I’ve ever had.”
Another is Robert Winsor, PhD., a professor of marketing at Loyola Marymount University, who has published over 120 peer reviewed articles, many frequently cited in foundational research. He connects with his students: “He's hilarious, treats you like an adult, and really wants you to learn,” “There is no limit to what will happen in class,” and, “He makes you want to go into the marketing field!”
There are a lot of great teachers in America’s universities, and some very fine ones right here in your own backyard. During your undergraduate years it’s absolutely critical you connect with one or two of them, do some research with one or both, and learn the excitement of mutual discovery and exploration. It will make your undergraduate years unforgettable and your future more brilliant.