What is it like to be a professor right now? How has the end of COVID-era restrictions changed how faculty spend their time and how happy they are in their jobs? And what can institutions do to support faculty in being their best for students?
The second annual Faces of Faculty survey, designed and fielded by Cengage, provides answers to these questions. Last year’s survey uncovered massive change in faculty roles over the past 3-5 years, much but not all of it caused by the pandemic. What has changed one year later?
Students are looking for more individualized support
It’s well known at this point that mental health challenges are at never-before-seen levels among teens and young adults. What is new is that college students are expecting faculty to serve as mental health counselors when needed and provide a level of emotional support not historically provided by faculty. In fact, this year, 40% of faculty told us the need to provide counseling assistance for students dealing with mental health and stress concerns was an issue, compared to 34% last year.
We also heard that the current cohort of students expect that deadlines, standards and attendance policies will be flexible, or even optional and may be lifted entirely to accommodate students’ circumstances and needs.
Well over half (58%) of this year’s faculty respondents told us that the need to adapt to student norms, like flexible deadlines, is posing a challenge.
On a related note, faculty told us they are struggling with underprepared students coming out of high school who are simply unaware of what it means to attend college-level courses. One professor explained, “It often seems as though I must back up and teach the students basic skills they should have gained in middle or high school.” . Our future research will monitor whether this is a long-tail effect of COVID that will subside or a lasting trend.
Plagiarism and cheating are on the rise, accelerated by generative AI
With the rapid rise of generative AI tools in the past year, it’s no surprise that this challenge is making its way into college classrooms. Plagiarism and cheating were a concern for nearly half (49%) of our faculty respondents. A year ago? Just 37% ranked it as a concern. One lecturer told us, “Due to the creation of ChatGPT, the university is accepting that this type of cheating is going to happen and cannot be fully stopped due to lack of available software for catching it. It is more or less based on an honor system now.”
Students want to be entertained
In a culture of unlimited, on demand entertainment at their fingertips, today’s college students expect that courses will be not just academically effective, but also engaging and entertaining. Over half (56%) of faculty told us that the need to produce creative content, lectures and topics to entertain students was a concern. One professor told us, “I am constantly searching for ways to introduce ideas and concepts. Whether that be videos, case studies, chapter materials…The need for quick instruction is real. Students do not read anymore. They expect to be entertained by the material.”
Faculty satisfaction — surprisingly — is on the rise
Faculty say they’re adapting to new expectations so they can focus on what brings them the greatest satisfaction – interacting with students. The overwhelming majority are satisfied in their roles, despite so much change around them. In 2023, 84% of faculty said they were satisfied in their roles, compared to 64% in 2022 – a significant change in a single year. While it would be tempting to attribute this increase to the rollback of pandemic-era upheavals, we actually saw many of the changes to the faculty workday held; instructors just found better strategies for managing them.
Faculty are working smarter
If we know anything about faculty, it’s that they are a strong and resilient bunch. However, their strength in the face of so much change is commendable. Many say they are taking proactive measures to ensure a healthy work-life balance and to combat burnout. Others are “working smarter, not harder” with how they produce creative content for their courses – 79% say they are borrowing material that already exists instead of creating new material for every course, whereas last year only 49% were doing so. And whereas a year ago, 42% were creating original videos, this year only 16% are doing so.
What’s more, they’re demonstrating leniency with students, when necessary, around deadlines, while being extra clear about expectations in their courses and ensuring students have the information they need to thrive. And they’re carving out time for themselves to learn, sharpen their professional skills and adapt their methods to new generative AI tools like ChatGPT. And based on other recent research from Cengage, they’re looking to understand the technology and the increasingly important role it will play in higher education.
What does the future hold?
We’re witnessing a seismic shift in higher education that will require faculty to stay two steps ahead, but one that will require institutions to stay at least five steps ahead. And it will require all of us to keep an eye on the horizon as higher education hones and refines its purpose for a new era and for a new generation of students.