Traits and Skills of Effective Professors

Thoughts on common characteristics at people who are really good at this job.

Introduction

I just reviewed my evaluations from last semester and updated the interactive data visualization here. It’s obvious to me that I’ve made quite a bit of progress as a professor over the past two years. This begs the question: Why?

In this post, I’ll describe some traits and skills of effective professors. In this walk down memory lane, I’ll cite a few anecdotes from my own days as a student.

Public Speaking

To be sure, being an effective professor entails more than just speaking good well. Students who can’t understand their professors can’t very well learn them. I can remember a few clearly intelligent professors at Carnegie Mellow who routinely confused their students.

When I accepted my position more than two years ago, I knew that my history of speaking in front of large groups of people would translate well in academia.

I wasn’t wrong.

The ability to speak well in public as a quintessential hygiene factor. That is, its presence doesn’t guarantee anything but its absence certainly does. In the publishing world, analogues such as book endorsements or covers come to mind. Put differently, speaking well is necessary but not sufficient for doing the job well.

Availability

Why not make yourself as available as possible to your students?

Rarely as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon did I get any one-on-one time with my professors. Most of them taught hundreds of students each semester and I relied upon Friday sections to ask my teaching assistants questions.

As a junior and senior (and as a grad student), that changed. I can remember having questions about assignments and walking into their offices for a quick conversation. Sure, they were busy with preparation, research, and committee work. That didn’t stop them from indulging me and offering their input on projects when I asked.

This isn’t just about showing up during office hours. I frequently arrive at least fifteen minutes before class to set up and answer any questions that my students may have. Dr. Norman Eng recommends as much in Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students (affiliate link). Why not make yourself as available as possible to your students?

Real-World Experience

My favorite professor as an undergraduate was Paul Whitehead, then an attorney at the United Steelworkers and now a professor of practice at Penn State. I absolutely loved his three-hour class Business and Labor. Rather than relying solely upon the theory of collective bargaining, he brought riveting examples to the table that a Ph.D. simply could not.

I never forgot that lesson.

Referencing Past Courses

Whether students major in analytics, information systems (IS), or marketing, all programs ideally build upon previous coursework. In my case, I know that the students in my capstone courses are seniors. As such, they all took classes in finance, statistics, database development, etc.

Tying in prior classes reinforces both the method to the program’s madness as well as my class’s real-world application to prior coursework. For instance, I’ll ask questions about finance-related matters such as SOX. I do the same with statistics, databases, and other core courses that they have taken. Some students invariably blew off those courses. Perhaps they’ll realize that they should revisit the material because it was, you know, important.

Sense of Humor

Some of my professors sometimes poked fun at themselves in class. Sure, they took what they did seriously but they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Peter Stearns taught World History at Carnegie Mellon to 300 freshman students every semester.  His intellect and knowledge blew me away, but he would sprinkle in an occasional joke in the midst of a lecture on the Middle Ages.

I labor to do the same. It’s not uncommon for me to quote Homer Simpson in a lecture about why systems fail. For a deeper look at my sense of humor, check out my teaching philosophy.

Humility

My favorite professors were not afraid to say “I don’t know” when that was the case. I do the same thing during the Q&A session after my keynote talks. I can’t imagine having an opinion on everything and some student questions come from left field.

Finally, they would freely cop to mistakes—something that I do. If I get a date or fact wrong, I’ll admit as much. A few times, I’ve misstated something but no one caught me. I then posted the correction in Slack. Facts matter more than ever.

Tact

Academia in general can be a fickle place and ASU is no exception to this rule. Agency Theory is alive and well, a lesson that I learned on a separate project that I managed for my department. The question isn’t if conflict or disagreements will occur. It’s when.

If my students can’t understand me, then how can they learn from me?

I can think of a few dicey situations in grad school in which my professors handled with aplomb. I like to think that my background of navigating tricky waters as a consultant helps me in this regard.

Fresh out of grad school, few of my friends and colleagues would have given me high marks on the tact scale. Over the last twenty years, though, I have significantly improved in this regard. I look back at a few prickly situations over the past few two years. I know that my tact helped achieve the outcome that I desired—or at least averted a disaster.

Willingness to Change

Sometimes our best ideas don’t work out so well in practice.

Although most of my in-class exercises achieve their desired outcomes, some did not. Case in point: an early effort in my analytics class to predict Twitter’s acquisition price when takeover rumors were scorching.

My exercise turned out to work far better in my head than it did in front of 30 students. In that case, I decided to junk the exercise altogether and replace it with a better one. In another instance, I listened to student feedback and routinely granted five minutes at the end of my capstone courses for brief group meetings once they had made their choices.

Simon Says: Effective professors are self-aware.

By no means are effective professors perfect but they are certainly self-aware. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

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