Teaching in Higher Education

While the setting may be different and the audience older, the overall goal of every higher education professional remains the same as educators at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels: providing the best education possible for diverse groups of learners.

Higher education offers teachers expansive opportunities to flex their educational muscles. Teachers at the college and university level must demonstrate a mastery of their content areas, backed with strong research skills, curriculum development abilities, and knowledge of instructional practices.

If you’ve considered a career in teaching elementary, middle, or secondary school, but became frustrated by the lack of personalization and freedom in the classroom, working in higher education might be a good choice. Professors are given more room to design their own curriculum, lesson plans, and course work. Additionally, many universities and colleges require these professors to engage in research outside of the classroom, allowing for multiple professional development experiences they use to guide their students in positive directions.

Higher education is a very broad category, providing multiple career options for interested teachers. While some professors concentrate educating their students in the liberal arts, others fixate on more specific career-oriented subject areas, such as nursing or engineering. Read on to discover some of the different skills and requirements needed of higher education teachers.

What’s it like to teach in higher education?

A career in higher education blends effective research practices with a strong teaching ability. While they lead classrooms of college students in exploring subject matter, these teachers often publish original research and analysis in books and journals related to their specific fields.

The research requirement of higher education professors is sometimes criticized as taking too much emphasis away from actual teaching. However, many instructors focus their research activities on improving learning outcomes for students by exploring new teaching methods and areas in their fields. Depending on your particular specialization, you may spend more time conducting research and publishing articles than teaching, though this varies greatly. For example, a teacher in a liberal arts field typically spends less time researching than science-intensive instructors.

Staying Organized and Designing Effective Curricula

Because of the dual nature of the profession, higher education teachers are, above all, extremely organized and strategic with their time. Higher education teachers have more responsibilities compared to elementary, middle, or secondary-level instructors, requiring greater effort spent budgeting their time.

Higher Education Statistics

  • The number of students at degree-granting institutions increased by 37% between 2000 and 2010
  • Business degrees were the top degrees granted of the 1,650,000 bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2009-10.
  • In 2007-08, 20% of all undergraduate students took at least one distance education course.
  • In 2009, 54% of 2007-08 bachelor’s degree recipients were working.
  • The median time to graduate for 2998 bachelor’s degrees recipients was 52 months.

Source:National Center for Education Statistics

Professors and other higher education instructors plan out schedules and course requirements before the beginning of each semester. The greater amount of freedom afforded to professors means they’re also responsible for planning and designing the curricula for their specific courses.

When designing their curricula, higher education teachers take a number of factors into account. For one, a curriculum must match the philosophies and requirements of a university or department. While teachers certainly have more say over what and how they teach their students, they still must adhere to an institution’s educational standards.

During curriculum development, a teacher typically works backward. They start with the end product – what do they want their students to learn? What are the intended learning outcomes – and continue backward until their first planned class. By painting a clear picture of the end goals, teachers can develop a sequence of educational activities that will allow students to reach those goals – activities backed by empirical research in education.

Assessing and Adjusting

Much like teachers in lower-grades, higher education instructors must also assess and monitor the effectiveness of their curriculum choices and teaching practices. If students don’t seem to be reaching the learning goals established in the planning phase, teachers will adjust either their instructional strategies or the curriculum used.

To help their students better understand the curriculum and desired learning outcomes, higher education teachers must develop a thorough understanding of learning patterns. While many college-aged students have already developed critical thinking and analytical skills needed for success, there are still many students needing guidance in these areas.

However, since most students enter the classroom with preexisting learning styles, higher education teachers must approach these students from multiple teaching angles, providing lecture for auditory learners and hands-on assignments for tactile learners. Unfortunately, the class structure of many institutions makes this job all the harder.

Higher education teachers might teach large classes of up to (and sometimes far beyond) 100 students, while others teach smaller, more personal classes. Given the challenges teachers in even smaller-sized classes encounter when assessing student learning patterns, teachers of larger classes must develop effective methods of assessment and review. One method that’s proven effective for addressing this challenge is requiring students to complete learning style inventory surveys – surveys that then allow teachers to create charts to easily organize student needs.

Facilitating the Transfer of Knowledge

Higher education teachers are expected to keep up-to-date on new breakthroughs in the understanding of teaching and learning.

With an expanded understanding of how their students learn, higher education teachers adjust teaching methods or curriculum development to fit those styles. In higher education, students are expected to develop higher-level learning processes in the classroom, facilitated by effective instruction from the teacher.

Teachers help students engage in active learning by stressing the importance of in-class participation. While students may have participated in discussion in high school classes, professors at the college level expect a greater degree of interaction.

As a higher education teacher, you must help students develop advanced learning processes, form opinions and theories, and absorb knowledge about subject matter through in-class discussion. This means interjecting prompts in lecture time that drive in-class discussion, motivating students to understand the material on a deeper level.

Principles of Effective Higher Education

According to “Ethical Principles in University Teaching,” by H. Murry and others, there are nine principles identified as effective characteristics of effective college and university teachers. These characteristics include:

  1. Content Competence
  2. Pedagogical Competence
  3. Valid Assessment of Students
  4. Dealing with Sensitive Topics
  5. Student Development
  6. Avoids Favoritism
  7. Honors Confidentiality
  8. Respect for Colleagues
  9. Respect for Institution

Source: Ethical Principles in University Teaching published by The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

Can I get a Job?

In today’s work environment, more professionals than ever need the expertise gained at institutions of higher education. Colleges provide the next generation of workers with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to meet career goals – a need that has caused college attendance to skyrocket throughout the country.

While this brings a higher level of competitiveness to students wishing to enter good colleges, demand for effective professors has increased as well. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth for higher education teachers is expected to increase by 17% through 2020.

Teachers looking to explore careers in higher education typically first enter the field as an assistant professor. An assistant professor undergoes a probationary period, allowing a university to monitor the effectiveness of that professor. If the professor performs in a satisfactory way, they are granted tenure and a more permanent position in the university.

What salary can I expect?

Depending on state resources and the type of college or university a teacher works at, higher education teachers can expect to earn competitive salaries. The median annual wage in 2010 for post-secondary teachers was $62,050, though this fluctuates depending on a teacher’s standing within the university. Assistant professors may make under $40,000, while department chairs sometimes earn over $130,000.

Teachers who earn tenure and commit to a university typically receive promotions that push their salaries higher. In addition to high salaries, these professionals gain access to numerous benefits, such as health care and retirement options.

How do I become a higher education teacher?

Higher education institutions demand that their teachers gain expansive subject knowledge in their fields. Teachers in four-year universities and college often must earn at least master’s degrees in their subject areas, with many earning doctoral degrees.

Most states don’t require higher education teachers to earn teacher certification, and leave hiring decisions up to the universities. Earning specialization in adult education or higher education allows potential teachers to stand out from the crowd, potentially increasing their chances of employment.

If you’re interested in learning more about a career teaching students in higher education institutions, research and contact schools offering advanced degrees in education.

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