The term "helicopter parent" and the supposed damage these over-involved parents are doing to college-age kids has become a familiar topic of conversation on campus. But what about helicopter professors, professors who just can't seem to get out of their students' way? Berlin Fang, director of instructional design at the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at Abilene Christian University, talks with Andrew Hibel about how some professors have developed habits and teaching methods that make their own lives harder and inhibit student learning.
AndrewHibel, HigherEdJobs: Please explain your role at theAdams Center for Teaching and Learning.
BerlinFang, Abilene Christian University: The Adams Center for Teaching and Learning is a center for faculty enrichment. We have various peer-based programs for faculty to sharpen teaching. For instance, we have the "Master Teacher Program" in which we bring expert professors and new professors together to learn, share, and implement evidence-based teaching practices. We have dedicated programs for practices in online teaching, flipped classroom, and fluid learning (teaching enhanced through the use of cloud-based, multiple-device enhancement).
All these programs have made Abilene Christian University a vibrant community of lifelong learners and innovators. Our professors are amazing people who truly testify to the wisdom in the statement that, "no matter how many years we have been teaching, we should feel a little bit like a rookie EVERY year by trying something new and not being afraid to fail." (Heidi Pauer.)
We also have reading groups every semester for faculty to come together around topics of interest. For instance, we have book groups for Make it Stick, Daring Greatly, Thousand Sisters, and Made to Stick. These reading groups that cover diverse topics help break departmental barriers and get professors together to discuss or debate topics in campus-wide or national dialogues.
As the director of instructional design I work with my colleagues on some of the programs described above. Specifically, the instructional designers work with professors in a group or a one-on-one setting to design, develop, implement, and evaluate instructional innovations.
Hibel: You recently wrote an article on "How to Avoid Being a Helicopter Professor." Define through examples the term "helicopter professor."
Fang: With the abundance of educational resources and the spread of constructivist approach to teaching, teachers leave the center stage as sages, but they do not always move to the side as guides. Rather they hover above students, provide excessive guidance, and rescue students at the slightest hint of a problem. Examples include:
making themselves available all the time, instead of setting clear office hours;
constantly reminding students what is due and when;
helping students troubleshoot common technical errors when they should be doing so themselves;
sending the same instruction to every student every time someone asks for it;
using multiple methods, including extra credit, till everyone is happy with their grades; and
providing too many sub-steps for students to complete a task, not trusting students to do the right thing.
Hibel: Are there any advantages to this sort of teaching?
Fang: For faculty members, this method is often intended to help students do the best in their learning. Guiding students when there is a difficulty helps bridge the gap between students who have "got it" and those who have not.
The main advantage of this teaching method for students is that they feel that they are not left alone in their learning. They feel that teachers care whether and how they learn. Students who truly struggle a lot may also get the attention and help they need.
Hibel: On the flip side, what are the disadvantages to being a helicopter professor?
First of all, hovering over students does not lead to good pedagogical practices. Debilitating difficulty (students lack the prerequisite skills) and undesirable difficulty (in technology use, course design) should be discouraged, but some difficulties are desirable and necessary for learning to happen.
With helicopter professors, students do not develop certain characteristics that mark a self-directed learner. For instance, time management skills to meet academic and personal goals, grit to struggle with challenging topics, and the resourcefulness in finding answers from various sources. Instead, they rely too much on professors to guide them toward answers.
Discovery is lost when professors come too soon to help. Part of the joy of learning is in the discovery process, sometimes with a group, and sometimes alone.
Students may feel entitled to inflated grades. Sometimes helicopter professors guide to make sure every one gets a good grade, through excessive use of "extra credit."
Hibel:Howdoprofessors know if they are being a "helicopter professor?"
Fang: Helicopter professors create a lot of busywork for themselves. Professors should be very reflective of their own practices on a daily basis. If the class is becoming increasingly dependent on a professor's guidance every step of the way, even for mundane tasks such as submitting an assignment before a deadline if professors find themselves repeating the same instructions over and over; if students ask them the same questions that they have already answered multiple times, I'd say these are signs that they are becoming helicopter professors.
Hibel: What suggestions do you have for professors on how to balance the line between lack of guidance and being over-involved and "hovering?"
Fang: I would ask professors to communicate clearly what they expect students to do in the first few classes. Make it fairly obvious what roles students will play in a course, and responsibilities they will need to have. Thinking about how to communicate these roles and responsibilities to students is also a good process for faculty to draw the line between being involved and hovering.
I would also ask professors to use technology to increase flexibility without having to be overly involved. Students at different learning paces may find some online components extremely helpful. For instance, if part of the learning takes place online, students struggling with lectures can rewatch a video for clarity.
Also, use data to tell the difference between students who are truly struggling and students who are mostly slacking. Most learning management systems nowadays have statistics that can tell professors quite a bit about student behavior.
Hibel: What are some of your top suggestions or techniques to pass along to faculty to enhance their effective teaching skills?
Fang: Below are a few suggestions I have given to professors in my Faculty Focus article, How to Avoid Being a Helicopter Professor.
First, allow some "chaos" and let students know that "figuring it out" is part of the learning process. Communicate to students that learning to learn in your discipline is part of the course expectation. Setting the expectation right will help students a lot.
Embrace "desirable difficulty." Do not step in too quickly to help the moment a student starts to complain. Reflect first whether your task is indeed prohibitively difficult, in which case you would need to add some prerequisite training. If it is simply at the desirable difficulty, communicate that to students and expect them to persist in seeking answers.
Increase accountability. There are things students have to learn to do. For instance, if technology is heavily used in class, students should learn to perform some tasks, such as clearing cache of their browsers and installing necessary apps.
Reduce redundancy. Do NOT repeat an instruction twenty times in a course. Doing so creates work for yourself and creates clutter and distraction for students. You can post certain instructions (how to participate in discussions, for instance) once, quiz them if needed, and be done with it. Do not repeat the instructions every time they are supposed to participate in a discussion.
Gradually remove crutches. Professors should help students to learn the process of finishing a product, but only to a point. Let such instructions stay on the side (in a course module to refer back to, for instance), but do not let them follow students wherever they are.
Mix "pull" and "push." There is certain information you want to "push" to students, but it is also legitimate to expect them to "pull" other information. Have a space where they can find information they need, rather than staying alongside them and giving them the answer every time they ask for it.
Hibel: What suggestions do you have for other professionals working in the instructional design area that may be working with reluctant faculty regarding this topic?
Fang: For my fellow instructional designers, I would encourage you not to be judgmental about professors who show signs of being "helicopter professors." More often than not, it is not an attitude problem. As a matter of fact, being a helicopter professor is much better than being an hiding professor, a professor who goes into hiding after class, a professor who does not even care about student learning. Have empathy with professors who are overly involved. Often these are professors who will turn into master teachers when they enlist instructional design help or when they have received proper faculty training in specific areas.
Try to communicate to professors that it is a matter of perception and learning effectiveness not to get too involved.
Make sure not to become a "helicopter instructional designer," waiting by your phone for the call of panicked professors. Doing so changes our roles into call center representatives. Anticipate or identify common issues students or faculty have and provide tutorials or training beforehand. It has always been my principle to teach people to fish rather than give them a fish. As instructional designers we would be doing a better job by equipping and empowering professors rather than rescuing them. I am sure this is true in many other professions as well.
Hibel: What advice do you have for others working in faculty development?
Fang: I am a literature major-turned instructional designer and faculty developer. As someone who loves literature (I have translated over 15 books into Chinese), I am fascinated by human nature at work. Human understanding is equally, if not more, important as our expertise in content design and educational technology.
Part of our human understanding has to be grounded in the fact that not all "faculty" can be lumped together and treated with some generic intervention. In our profession as faculty developers, we have to appreciate people as individuals. We ought to appreciate the richness of their individuality. In this light, I tend to avoid terms such as "innovators," "early adopters," and "late adopters," terms which have become cliche anyway. If we tend to see professors in monolithic blocks, rather than discerning the unique challenges they have and strengths they bring, we easily fail as faculty developers.
I confess I am being a little self-conflicting here, as I use the term "helicopter professor." Please understand that this generalization is simply a necessary evil to make the term "stick." Even helicopter professors hover in unique ways. It is a term I use only in a general sense to describe a phenomenon. I would never call a particular professor a "helicopter professor." And I hope the term eventually serves its purpose and fades away.
You also need to develop individual relationships and friendships with faculty and appreciate their expertise and creativity.
Hibel: What drives you to continue to be engaged in the field of instructional design and faculty development?
Fang: I simply love to work with professors who, generally speaking, are intelligent, reasonable, and highly interesting people to work with. Even their quirks make me smile. Friendship with them is very enriching for me.
Hibel: What is the most rewarding part of your position?
Fang: You never get bored for long. Working in a college setting provides endless intellectual stimulation and challenges.