To ban or not to ban laptops?

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Some folks want to ban laptops from their classrooms, and others are okay with laptops.

This is a perennially annoying discussion in higher ed today.  But I think it’s an important issue because it has the potential to really affect learning.

What do I do? Here’s the language in my syllabus for this semester: Continue reading

Learning from a kindergarten teacher

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Teaching has some perennial questions: How do you engage students? How do you make a classroom run smoothly? How does mutual respect make a better working environment? How does curiosity lead to learning? How do you get groups of students to work together effectively? How do you design a lesson that flows conceptually and addresses key ideas?

To figure out some of these answers, in all sincerity, I suggest hanging out in the classroom of a high quality kindergarten teacher at work. My kid has had some remarkable teachers. Just interacting with them over the years on an infrequent basis, I think I’ve picked up as many tips and ideas as I have from my university-level colleagues.

Now that my sole heir is heading off to middle school, I haven’t visited kindergartens too often of late. Last week, though, was our last Open House at his elementary school, and we always make a point to cruise by our kid’s former teachers, see what’s going on in their classrooms, and to say Hi and Thanks.

Every time I have a short chat with his former Kindergarten teacher, I get a pick-me-up and often pick up ideas. She has couple decades more experience then myself — and unimaginably more contact hours. On our last visit, she was explaining the changes that she’s making as the state is shifting to new standards.

She explained to me that the students are now reading more nonfiction in her class. She is doing some of the assignments that she used from previous years, but in addition she is requiring the students to do non-fiction reading and assignments prior to their fictional projects. For example, before writing a fictional story about a particular animal, they would read non-fiction about that animal and do a report on what they learned. Then they’d do a fictional story about these animals.

She told me that she’s always learning something new. In this case, she learned that the quality of the fictional projects was improved by the prior experience with the nonfictional projects. More knowledge led to more creativity. That’s pretty cool.

What I liked about this little story even more is that it comes from the most-experienced amazingly perfect-as-far-as-I-can-tell teacher, who tells me new things that she’s learning about teaching.

I imagine that the reason she is such a a good teacher, is because she always has been working to improve, and no matter how good she is, she still is both open to and working at learning new ways to do things better. At the end of what has felt like a long semester, that’s inspirational.

I’m at a different place on the improvement curve, as I’m well aware of far too many things that I need to improve in my teaching. But I’ve been thinking, well, maybe I have the routine down solid enough for now. Watching great teachers at work puts me on notice: I should be wary whenever I feel that equilibrium can emerge from stasis. This is another sign I should take that overdue sabbatical.

Avoiding bad teaching evaluations: Tricks of the trade

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Student evaluations are the main method used to evaluate our teaching. These evaluations are, at best, an imperfect measuring tool.

Lots of irrelevant stuff affects evaluation scores. If you’re attractive or well dressed, this helps your scores. If you are a younger woman, you have to reckon with a distinct set of challenges and biases. If the weather is better out, you might get better evaluations, too. So, don’t feel bad about doing things to help your scores, even if they aren’t connected to teaching quality.

My university aptly calls these forms by their acronym, “PTE”: Perceived Teaching Effectiveness. Note the word: “perceived.” Actual effectiveness is moot.

People are aware whether or not they learned. However, superficial things can really affect perception. What our students think about the classroom experience is important. But evaluation forms are not really measuring teaching effectiveness. These evaluations measure student satisfaction more than learning outcomes. Since we are being held accountable for classroom performance based on student satisfaction, it is in our interest to pay attention to the things that can improve satisfaction.

Here are some ways I’ve approached evaluations with an effort to avoid getting bad ones.

  • I try to teach effectively. The best foundation of perception is reality. I put some trust in my students’ ability to assess performance. If I’m doing a good job, my students should know it.
  • I work hard to demonstrate that I respect my students. It’s easy to give in to the conceit that my time is more valuable than the time of my students. When I see myself going down that dark pathway, I try to follow the golden rule, and treat the time of my students with as much concern as I would like my own time to be treated. For example, I make sure class always ends on time.
  • I emphasize fairness. On the first day of class, I let students know that life isn’t fair, but I try hard to make sure that my class done as fairly as possible. Students often volunteer gripes about their other classes, and unfairness is always the common thread in these discussions. Even if students perform poorly in a class, if they think that it was conducted fairly, then they are still usually satisfied.
  • I recall Hanlon’s Razor: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” None of my students are out to get me. Ideally, they’re out for themselves. Sometimes, I’m not clear enough about expectations. When a student needs something, I approach the interaction with the default assumption that it’s my fault. And if it’s not my fault, it’s not an intentional flaw, so I can’t give students a bad time about the shortcoming.
  • I don’t engage in debates about graded assignments. I tell my students that if there is a very simple mathematical error or something I missed, they can bring it to me immediately after class. Any other errors need to be addressed with a written request by the start of the next class meeting. I’ve only gotten a few of these, and in all cases, the students were correct.
  • When a student is persistent about points, I avoid the argument whenever possible. I don’t concede unearned credit, but I don’t dismiss the concern either. Nearly all requests for grade changes are so tiny, they have a negligible on the final grade. I show, numberwise, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I tell them that if they are right on the borderline at the end of the semester, I’ll make a note of it and we could talk about it at that time. This prevents the student from waging a futile argument, and keeps me out of the business of catering to minutia.
  • I run a tight ship. I can get annoyed by inappropriate behavior, but the students are usually even more annoyed. When someone is facebooking in the front row or monopolizes discussion, the rest of the class is usually super-pleased that I shut it down, as long I do it with respect. Classroom management is a fine art that we are rarely taught. (I’ve learned some education faculty and K-12 teachers.) I think establishing the classroom environment in the first few days is critical. I don’t enforce rules, but I develop accepted norms of behavior collaboratively on the first day of class. When things happen outside the norm, I address them promptly and, I hope, gently. When anybody (including myself) is found to be outside the norm, we adjust quickly because we agreed to the guidelines on the first day of class. I’ve botched this and have been seen as too severe on occasion, but I’d prefer to err on that side then having an overly permissive environment in which students don’t give one another the respect of their attention.
  • A classic strategy is to start out the term with extreme rigor, and lessen up as time goes on. I don’t do this, at least not intentionally, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea as long as you finish with high expectations. In any circumstance, I imagine it would be disaster to increase the perceived level of difficulty during the term.
  • I use midterm evaluations, using the university form partway through the semester, for my own use. This gives me early evidence about perceptions with the opportunity to change course, if necessary. I am open and transparent about changes I make.
  • I often use a supplemental evaluation form at the end of the term. There are two competing functions of the evaluation. The first is to give you feedback for course improvement, and the second is to assess performance. What the students might think is constructive feedback might be seen as a negative critique by those not in the classroom. It’s in our interest to separate those two functions onto separate pieces of paper. Before we went digital, I used to hold up the university form and say: “This form [holding up the scantron] is being used by the school as a referendum on my continued employment. I won’t be able to access these forms until after the next semester already starts, so they won’t help me out that much.” Then I held up another piece of paper [an evaluation I wrote with specific questions about the course] and said, “This one is constructive feedback about what you liked and didn’t like about the course. If you have criticisms of the course that you want me to see, but don’t think that my bosses need to see them, then this is the place to do it. Note that this form has specific questions about our readings, homework, tests and lessons. I’m just collecting these for myself, and I’d prefer if you don’t put your names on them.” I find that students are far more likely to evaluate my teaching in broad strokes in the university form when I use this approach, and there are fewer little nitpicky negative comments.
  • I try to avoid doing evaluations when students are more anxious about their grade, like on the cusp of an exam or when I return graded assignments. When I hand out the very helpful final exam review sheet, which causes relief, then I might do evaluations.
  • I don’t bring in special treats on the day I administer evaluations. At least with my style, my students would find it cloying, and they wouldn’t appreciate a cheap bribe attempt. Once in a long while, I may bring in donuts or something else like that, but never on evaluation day.
  • I’ve had some sections in with chronic attendance problems, in which some students would skip or show up late. On those occasions, I made a point to administer evaluations at the start of class on a day that had low attendance. I imagined that the students who weren’t bothering to attend class were less likely to give a stellar rating. Moreover, the absent students weren’t as well qualified to evaluate my performance as those sitting in class. (Of course, those attendance problems indicated that I had a bigger problem on my hands.)
  • Being likable and approachable. Among all the things that influence evaluations, I think this is the biggest one. There are many ways to be liked by your students, as a human being, but I think being liked is prerequisite to really good scores. Especially with our students who face a lot of structural disadvantages, approachability is important for the ability to do the job well. I’m not successful enough on this front. It hasn’t tanked me in evaluations, because by the end of the semester the students are comfortable with me, but that doesn’t emerge as quickly as I’d like. This is the area I need to work on the most. I am to do all the professorly things with students with the greatest needs, they need to be able to talk to me.

Of course, some of these tips don’t apply if the evaluations are being administered online. This is a growing trend, and my university made the switch a couple years ago. (Thoughts and experiences with paper vs. online evaluations are in the ever-growing queue for future posts.)

Are there different or additional approaches that you use for the non-teaching-performance related aspects of student evaluations?

[update: be sure to read this comment. I think everything in this post is relevant to professors of both genders, but there are additional issues involving student biases that female professors need to deal with that I haven’t addressed. Professors need to be approachable to do their jobs. If students can’t talk to us, then that puts a low ceiling on what we can help our students achieve. However, what it means to be professional and “approachable” for a younger female professor might look really different than for an older guy. As I don’t have experience being a younger female professor, I’m not as well qualified to address this as some others. Another good reason to cruise over to Tenure, She Wrote.]