Most Professors Think They're Above-Average Teachers. And That’s a Problem.

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Most Professors Think They're Above-Average Teachers. And That’s a Problem.

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 24, 2018

Most Professors Think They're Above-Average Teachers. And That’s a Problem.

This article is part of the guide 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

Summer is traditionally a time for professors to refresh their courses, or take workshops to learn new teaching techniques. But some in higher education worry about a lack of motivation for such efforts, especially when the vast majority of professors think they’re great in the classroom already.

A classic study found that more than 90 percent of professors rate themselves as above-average teachers. And two-thirds believe they’re in the top quarter. It’s math that doesn’t add up, and the study’s author argues that unreasonably high esteem holds back efforts to improve college teaching.

The finding is part of a broader phenomenon in psychology often referred to as “inflated self-view.” Humans tend to think they’re better at lots of things than they really are. And that may be especially true in college teaching, argues Paul C. Price, a professor of psychology at California State University at Fresno.

“You’re not getting feedback as to how you actually stand relative to other people,” says Price of college professors. “With that black box, we have this built-in tendency to think we’re really good.”

Of course professors do get some feedback about their teaching. Students fill out evaluations at the end of each term, for instance. And some departments ask professors to evaluate each other’s teaching. But those tend to inflate egos beyond reality as well, says Price, pointing to a phenomenon called “person-positivity-bias,” documented by David Sears, a social psychologist, that shows that people tend to give high ratings to anyone they look at barring serious red flags.

“On my department’s five-point rating scale, receiving anything less than a five from a colleague is a rarity,” Price wrote in a 2006 article. “Thus, the better-than-average effect extends beyond judgments about the self to judgments about almost any individual. As a result, these kinds of student and peer evaluations tend to confirm our inflated views of our own abilities. A better interpretation of your rating of six on a seven-point scale, then, is that you have no extremely obvious shortcomings. That’s a long way from being a superstar.”

Professors can find some tough talk about their teaching on RateMyProfessors, a website where students can offer critiques anonymously. But most professors don’t take those reviews seriously, and they have their own well-documented flaws, including a kind of mob mentality, where highly negative reviews tend to encourage other haters to jump in.

These studies date back decades—Patricia C. Cross, now an emeritus professor at University of California at Berkeley, first wrote about it in 1977. In an email interview this week, she said that she has no reason to believe the situation has improved. “I do try to keep up with my reading on higher ed, and my impression from that is that today’s professors are more interested in ‘publication’ (and citation) than in classroom teaching—at least as far as advancement professional reputation is concerned.”

Of course there’s no shortage of chances for professors to better their teaching, says Price. “The challenge is getting people to participate in those,” he says. “If you already think you’re fine and you’re better than other people, then what’s your motivation to go to another meeting or conference?”

So does Price think he’s a better-than-average teacher?

“It depends on what dimension you’re talking about,” he says. “I think students like me more than the average professor. Whether I’m teaching them more stuff than the average professor, I doubt that.”

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