Based on the things I’ve been reading lately, the answer to the titular question is “mostly no.”
This is my ninth day of being sick. I think it was a flu. (Yes, I had this year’s flu shot.) It caught everybody in my home.
I’ve been back at work for a couple days, though I’m still coughing regularly, and my brain remains foggy. I’ve dropped so many balls. Fortunately, none of them are glass, though there are enough of them bouncing that I can’t quite keep up. There are a few things I am waaaaaay too late on.
Have you ever gotten student evaluations back after the semester is over, and had some surprises? Some of these surprises are avoidable.
Are you preparing for the new semester? Are you sitting in the position of academic freedom guaranteed by tenure?
Here’s what you might consider to be a radical suggestion, though it’s fully reasonable: Ditch exams this semester.
That’s right. Just don’t have exams. Assign grades using other methods.
I had some unanticipated teaching challenges last spring, when I was teaching a couple sections of an intro-level organismal biology lab. I was befuddled, because on the lab reports, students were getting some straightforward questions wrong. Remarkably wrong in an unexpected manner, nearly all with the same wrong answer.
People often ask me what they might to read to get started with teaching science at the college level — or they ask for concrete suggestions about how to do active learning efficiently.
So, here are some book suggestions.
Grading is a necessary evil.
Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*.
Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.
So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms?
Students learn better when their professors are demanding and have high standards.
People learn even better when these professors are supportive, encouraging, and have confidence in their students.
If you don’t ask hard questions about yourself, then you probably aren’t going to hear what you need to hear.
That’s what I learned* from the best fake turkey sandwich** in the world.
There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches.
In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?
On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.
I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety.
I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.
So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)
Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.
Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape.
I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question.
As we start up the new semester, this is an apt time to evaluate, and update or change, our grading schemes.
I don’t like giving grades. I wouldn’t assign grades if I didn’t have to, because grades typically are not a good measure of actual learning.
Over the least year, I’ve heard more about a new approach to assigning grades, that has a lot of appeal: “standards based grading,” in which students get grades based on how well they meet a detailed set of very clearly defined expectations. This is apparently a thing in K-12 education and now some university instructors are following suit.
I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches.
Distractions in the classroom are a problem.
Digital devices are often a huge distraction.
Therefore, to manage distractions in the classroom, we need to manage devices.
I am considering implementing a new policy this fall in the lab portion of my primary course. The short version is: students would need to read/watch certain things before coming to lab that would prepare them for the day’s activity. Before entering the lab classroom, they would be handed a (relatively easy) quiz on those materials. These practices are pretty standard in lab courses, in my experience. Here’s the twist: if a student didn’t get at least a 75% on the quiz, s/he would not be allowed to participate in the lab, and would forfeit all points associated with it.
If you’re like me, your first reaction to that is, “Wo. That’s pretty harsh.”
This post is by Leslie Curren.
I recently came across Amy’s post from last October about the ecological concepts people find the most difficult to teach, and knew my own answer immediately: multilevel selection. I was surprised no one else had mentioned it, although perhaps that’s because it is more evolution than ecology. But given the tight links between ecology and evolution, I still expected someone to bring it up—multilevel selection always finds its way into every course I teach, and that includes General Ecology (as well as Animal Behavior, Behavioral Ecology, Intro Bio, and others).
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.
Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning? Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?
Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.
It is entirely legitimate for a student to be told the basis of their evaluation. Students take a course, and earn a grade. They should be made aware, as specifically as possible, the foundation for this grade before they do what it takes to earn it. The less they know about the basis of their evaluation, the less fair we are to our students.
The more specific you are about what is on the exam, the happier the students will be. Moreover, specificity gives you control over the material that they will study. I have often heard colleagues frustrated that students aren’t focusing on studying the right material, or asking the right questions while studying. I seriously don’t get these questions from students, and I think that both they and myself are better off for it.
If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Whatever I think is important.” That just will help the students who are better mind readers. (Which are probably those with a social and cultural background most similar to yourself.)
If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Everything in the lectures and everything in the chapters.” This vague set of expectations will prevent students from focusing on facts and concepts which are most important, and may lead to some students wasting their time on minutia.
The more vague you are about what will be on the exam, the less control you have over what they study. The worry about the mysterious contents of the exam detracts from learning. Our value in the classroom isn’t our content knowledge itself, but our expertise that allows us to parse the useful, meaningful and relevant. Asking the students to master too much information will result in no mastery at all.
Several years ago, I decided that the exam guesswork was a bad thing. Now, I administer three types of exams, all of which are designed to remove guesswork on the part of students:
- I give students a full list of potential exam questions in advance. I then select a subset of these questions for the exam itself, choosing at random, haphazardly, or with a specific rationale. Here is an example of one, from a non-majors Environmental Biology lecture course.
I give students a comprehensive exam preparation sheet, one or two weeks before the exam. I give them a solemn promise that everything on the exam will be covered by one or more items on the review sheet. Sometimes these items are very narrow but other times they could be rather open-ended. But they are never intended to be vague. I tell the students that if any question on the exam isn’t based on one of these review items, then I’ll drop it from the exam. I am also tempted to hand these out at the beginning of the semester, but I call too many audibles to make this a wise choice. Here is an example of one, from the first exam in a biostatistics course. You’ll note that there’s a lot of material on there. I can’t ask questions to cover every one of those items. But I can make sure that students study them all, but also make the scope narrow enough that it is do-able.
I can give a take-home exam. I only do this if I’m blessed with a small class. Because are a variety of problems associated with take-home exams, I typically only do this with a small graduate course.
One of the more annoying questions that a student can ask is, “What’s going to be on the exam?” I just have to answer that with a single piece of paper.
Sometimes some students will email me, “What’s the answer to number 8 on the exam prep sheet,” or they’ll write me an answer and ask me how it meets my expectations. I make a point to not evaluate their responses or give them any information, unless I do so for the entire class. I might clarify a question or an item, if a student doesn’t understand the words. Under all circumstances, I assiduously avoid evaluating providing privileged information for the students who feel more comfortable with approaching me for private studying advice, because that would be unfair to the students who don’t email me. I might send a reply to a question to the entire course.
I always schedule time during a class session prior to the exam so that students can ask me questions about any of the review items. Sometimes this lasts just a few minutes, and sometimes the bulk of the class period. (I do not hold separate reviews outside regular class hours, as I’ve mentioned before.) Usually when students email me a question, I ask them to save it for class, so that everyone can benefit from their question. But most of the review session is me saying, “I’m not going to reteach that entire lesson, but this is the nutshell version.”
The better I construct the exam prep information, the less time we spend in review during class, and the more time students spend studying with each other, which is where the real learning takes place.
Several times a year, students contact me to tell me that I was the worst professor ever.
To be precise, former biostatistics students contact me with the simplest, and often ignorant, statistics questions. These questions are so basic that it is clear that I have failed in my job as a stats professor.
With a basic dataset, a student might ask, “what test should I use?” Last month I had a student drop by my office with a result of p = 0.0071 to ask me to tell him whether or not his result is significant. Without a hint of irony.
If you taught comparative vertebrate anatomy, how would you feel if a recent student of yours came into your office and pointed at his biceps, and then asked, “What muscle is this?” This is how I feel when students come to me for statistical consulting.
My one-semester graduate biostatistics class doesn’t go into much depth and covers the standard, mostly univariate, frequentist statistical approaches that you find in similar courses. We spend a decent chunk of the course on probability, experimental design and why people do statistical tests and what the results mean. We spend a lot of time – and by a lot I mean a lot – on what p-values are, and the relationships among probability, null hypotheses, variance, distributions, and errors. (And when I say we spend time on it, I don’t mean that I lecture a lot about it. I mean students actively figure this stuff out. And their exams show that, at least at the time, they really understand it.) I am convinced that, at the end of the semester, that these students really understand the main concepts.
But then they don’t understand it after the course is over.
If a student came to me and said, “I realize that we didn’t learn how to do a GLM in class but from my reading I think that might be the best choice here, and I was wondering if you had the time to talk about it,” I’d ask her to pull up a chair. But when a student says, “I know I was in your class a couple years ago, but I’m looking at this dataset that I already collected and I don’t know where to start,” I’m not going to lift the paperwork that is probably occupying all three chairs in my office.
The hypothetical students-who-forgot-the-name-of-the-biceps-muscle are professional frustrations, and evidence of educational failure, for three reasons:
- They forgot something really simple. Though the name of muscle is a mere fact, is one thing you’d expect a student in a vertebrate anatomy course to remember, if not know before even starting the course.
- The students were intellectually lazy and didn’t decide to look up the answer, but instead just asked a former professor.
- The students demonstrated a personal lack of regard for the professor’s effort in teaching the course, by showing unawareness of the fact that the professor expects students to remember basic facts after the course ends and also empowered them to look up basic information. Or to put it in fake-biblical terms: the students had the temerity to think that we are there to feed them fish sandwiches instead of showing them how to fish and how to bake bread. In my view, this extends beyond personal laziness, by showing that the students don’t bother to show that they respect our role as teachers.
On the bright side, there is one positive aspect of the fact that students come in to ask me dumb stats questions. They think positively enough about my course that they think that I’m useful for statistical advice. That’s not much of an upside, but hey, it’s all I’ve got as far as I can see.
I’m long past taking this personally. I don’t get insulted when students come to me asking me to reteach a very basic concept of probability that we studied for a whole semester. I see that this is their problem, and not mine. I don’t take it home with me. There’s a 0% probability that this issue will keep me from sleeping. However, if I’m trying to be more effective at my job, then I need to confront the issue raised by these interactions. It’s a form of teaching assessment, in which I’m doing poorly. (Some students do thank me quite generously for what they learned in the course, and I’m not forgetting that input either.)
How do I handle these outrageous questions? It varies, because I haven’t (yet) developed an a priori approach to the situation. In some cases, I might simply chimp grin a bit and say something like “you really don’t recall how to test a null hypothesis?” or “So you’re telling me that you haven’t been able to find anything about what to do when your independent variables are categorical and your response is continuous?”
The bulk of the class is biomedically-oriented Master’s students who have some need for statistics with their thesis but don’t think that they’ll need to practice stats for everyday use. So, each semester, I make a point of saying at the outset, “When you design your thesis experiments, you’re welcome to consult with me about the process. But if you don’t discuss your stats with me before collecting your data, then there won’t be much I can do to help you.” I’ve had to remind a couple students of this fact, one of whom had a horribly pseudoreplicated design. And another who failed to run a necessary control.
While I’m not the most amazing professor, I don’t genuinely think I’m the worst, either. I just think that some students think it’s acceptable to offload course material from their brain as soon as the course is over, and do not feel obligated to go back to the hardware store if they lost the tools that they picked up during the course. And among students who are stats-phobic and math-phobic, which is a sizable fraction of the population in the course, they’re just glad they survived. It’s particularly frustrating because my guiding principle in this course is to teach a small number of fundamental concepts in a way that they are supposed to stick with the students for a long time. At least in this class, I know it isn’t happening, with at least some of them. I honestly don’t know what I can do, if anything, to make sure that students really remember what a null hypothesis looks like and what a p-value means. But it is clear that some of them genuinely forget it, presumably because they think it’s not important.
So, when I teach this class again in the fall, I have to find a way to make biostats personally important, with students who don’t see the usefulness of stats in their professional future. Wish me luck.
I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.
I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.
Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.
My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!
Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.
With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.
I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.
Here’s an incident, or really just a conversation, that left a little scar on me.
Around the time I was finishing up my PhD, I was given the opportunity to give a seminar at my alma mater. I had sit-down conversations with some of my undergraduate professors. As I was somewhere in the process of starting a faculty position, this was a mind-bending role change, no longer a student but now a junior colleague of my former professors.
I took three excellent courses with one professor, whose courses were well designed, all with engaging and creative labs, and with lecture content well grounded in the primary literature. I worked somewhat hard and I learned a helluva lot, especially in Evolutionary Biology and Biogeography. He definitely had his theoretical biases (a la Gould & Lewontin), but this didn’t stop him from being an excellent instructor.
When we were chatting, he was interested in learning what I was up to, and how I ended up working on the ecology of ants. I told him that my interest started with the evolution of sociality, and that I was curious about the Hamiltonian predictions for colony structure. (When I started my dissertation, people had only just abandoned using allozymes to look at relatedness inside colonies). He tilted his head and said asked me a bit more. Before I realized what was happening, he let me know he wasn’t familiar with kin selection theory. He said that he hadn’t heard of any of the WD Hamilton papers from the 1960s. He didn’t seem think that this wasn’t a big deal, that this was just an inside baseball discussion among social insect experts. We moved on to new topic.
But it was a huge deal. If you’re not a biologist, you might not recognize this But if you are a biologist, you’ll recognize that my professor openly volunteered (to his credit?) that he was ignorant of something really foundational in his field. Frankly, nobody teaching evolutionary biology at the college level, at the time, should have been unfamiliar with the concept of kin selection.
This blew my mind in three ways. First, it’s bizarre to think that the man who started me on the path to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology didn’t have an adequate map of the territory. Second, he was a top-notch instructor and it was clear to me that we didn’t suffer much (if at all) for his lapses of awareness in the field. Third, I suddenly realized why the supposed controversies that I learned in college were actually tired arguments among everybody in grad school. My professor was merely out of date.
In hindsight, I see he was a classic example of driftwood. But not deadwood. He was a dedicated teacher and engaged evolutionary biologist, but his research was not well engaged off campus.
The stereotype of the professor who teaches outdated material is one who is retired-on-the-job, uses the same powerpoints over and over, appears bored, and uses old textbooks because they can’t bother to update the course. That stereotype was not embodied by my Evolutionary Biology professor. But the content itself was not only stale, but it wasn’t even up to date at the outset. And he was an evolutionary biologist!
Ironically, I think the content of the course would have been more representative of introductory evolutionary biology if it was taught by someone who was not an evolutionary biologist. This instructor would have been relying more heavily on a textbook, and covered the major topics as decided by the textbook authors.
So, which one would have been better for me? Either the professor who was an amazing teacher and specialist who was aware of some topics, or one someone who was not a specialist who covered all of the bases? I think that’s an unfairly dichotomous question, so I won’t answer it. But it’s fuel for thought.
If I had to list three undergradaute-level course titles that would be in my field of expertise, they would be ecology, insect biology and tropical biology. I would clearly choose to amplify some topics over others, and these decisions would result in a course that would look very different than if it were structured by a non-specialist who was merely assigned these courses.
For example, I’m not a cracker-jack population biologist, and I don’t build life tables for my work. This is, however, bread and butter for introductory ecology courses. Since I don’t regularly work in population biology, I can’t honestly tell you whether this is an actual skill that every undergraduate biology majors needs to know. (I’m not sure it is, though some of the embedded concepts are very important.) Would I include in my class? You bet I would, because it’s in every textbook and it’s expected of everyone who finishes introductory ecology and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for underpreparing my students. Even though I’m an ecologist, I wouldn’t teach only the parts of the ecology that are my specialty. But I can see how some others can be tempted to leave life tables out of an ecology course. And, I wonder if they need to be within the 30 lessons we get to teach each semester.
Overall, I have no idea how the community collectively decides what concepts are truly important. I don’t think the K-12 approach of statewide standards is the way to go for higher education, and the culture of Assessment is still leaving us plenty of latitude, which is good. But why do we teach some things as canon, and overlook others?
I get that some topics are important. But what makes them important? What defines a field? is it the people actively doing research or the people looking at a distance? When we define the topics of lessons in our syllabi, what are the criteria we use when making our choices? I haven’t thought much about this other than “I think it’s important,” but I realize that’s not good enough.
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.]
Grades are a necessary evil. I record grades because it’s a required part of my job, even though the existence of grades makes my job harder.
Grades are primarily a measure of how good students are at getting good grades, not a measure of how much they learned.
My job is to foster curiosity and independent learning. I want students to grow by fulfilling a personally motivated need to understand. Grades inhibit that process. Grades make students focus on doing what it takes to get a good grade. That’s not a good thing.
People learn far more deeply when the information is discovered through a self-directed process of inquiry. When students are studying for an exam, what they are doing is the exact opposite of self-directed inquiry. They’re working to anticipate what others might expect of them and they’re working to fulfill the external expectations. When I have to give an exam to students, the last thing I would ever want is for them to study by trying to anticipate what is going to be on the exam. Because then they’ll be studying to just cover their bases.
In other words, when we make students jump through hoops, we get in the way of genuine learning. Students working towards a grade are not looking past the final exam. If none of my students are interested in the material after the exam is over, then I have earned an F for the semester.
Students can be prepared to answer a ton of questions, on a variety of topics. They then can do what it takes to get a good grade. And then, it’s possible to not really know a damn thing about the topic months later, after the exam, when the grade is in their transcript. That’s because their relationship with the curriculum was about learning stuff to get a grade. It might have been interesting or fascinating at the time, but if the motivator is the grade, then the motivation isn’t the pressing need to understand anything.
So, when we assign grades to students, what are we really measuring? Are we measuring effort? Are we measuring the ability to memorize stuff? Are we measuring the ability to explain things eloquently? Are we measuring the ability to anticipate what will be on an exam?
I don’t like any of the preceding options. What I’d like my grades to measure is how well the students have mastered the central concepts in the course. The problem, however, is that all of the ways of measuring that – the mastery of the central concepts – get biased by the ability of students to do all of that other stuff in the preceding paragraph. When students are assigned grades, the outcome is determined more by their academic gamesmanship than how much they actually learned.
Academic gamesmanship, caused by grades, gets in the way of genuine curiosity. Far too often, students get good grades only because they know how to earn good grades in the system; just as often, students who learn earn poor grades because of poor gamesmanship. The last thing I want is for the grades in my course to reflect a student’s savvy rather than learning.
I don’t know how universal this is, but my university requires that all syllabi have clearly stated “Expected Learning Outcomes.” Grades need to reflect how well students fulfill the expected outcomes. If designed right, these outcomes can allow students the intellectual breathing room to develop their own critical thinking process about a course.
In my opinion, the best way to liberate students from academic gamesmanship is to remove every bit of mystery from the grading process. Nothing on an exam should ever come as a surprise, nor should students be in a position in which they feel like they need to interpret what you think is important about the subject. Nor should students have to worry about cramming for a laundry list of concepts.
Our grades can’t really measure genuine learning. But the less our grades reflect gamesmanship, the greater the chance our students will be genuinely engaged in the content.
People learn when they are engaged. So, then, what is engagement? Don’t hold me to this definition, but I think it’s when students are actively thinking about a topic. Engagement is not just paying attention. It happens when concepts are evaluated, synthesized, compared, and all that. Engagement is when the mind is actively churning on the topic at hand.
Effective teaching happens when we do things that promote engagement, and ineffective teaching is when we do things that allow students to disengage.
Whenever I’ve had any kind of professional development about engagement, one of the first topics that gets mentioned is raising hands in class. And the message is always the same:
No raise hands good. Raise hands bad.
And I agree with this.
It’s what K-12 teachers are taught when they’re being trained as teachers, and the concept is just as relevant for university faculty as well.
When we ask a question to a class, we shouldn’t do it in a way that requires only a small number of students to volunteer. This allows the entire class an opportunity to put their brains into cruise control. Some students, regardless of engagement, will never raise their hands. Over time, they’ll know that they aren’t required to engage, and they might not.
Good teaching keeps everybody on their toes and requires everyone to think. Calling out questions and asking people to raise their hands with the answer is the opposite of requiring everybody to think.
I want my students to emerge from the classroom thinking that they’ve had an exhausting mental workout. A gym for the brain. Zumba instructors don’t call on certain members of class participate. Likewise, in my classroom, everybody has to dance.
There is a variety of ways to ask questions and make sure that everybody is engaged. One great way is a think-pair-share. I know some people who use set of index cards and draw student names randomly for every question. If I don’t want to make a big deal about a question, sometimes I just call on a student arbitrarily. Sometimes I make a point of calling on a student who doesn’t appear to be engaged, though if this happens too often then some students might (correctly) think that they’re being singled out unfairly.
And, of course, the entire rationale behind clickers is that they prevent the disengagement that happens when only asking a small number of students raise their hands. But you can engage students just as well without clickers, but you don’t get the data in a digital format. In a very large lecture, using clickers could be an effective strategy if classroom management of group work is difficult to manage.
Another reason to not ask students to raise hands is that there is a clear gender bias at work. Men are far more likely to raise hands, and with many instructors, men are more likely to be called. So, by asking students to raise hands, men are more likely to be engaged by the instructor than women. This, obviously, is no good.
Do you have other ways of asking questions to the class that keep everyone engaged?
Like many grad students in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I my made a living through grad school as a TA.
One semester, there were open positions in the Human Anatomy cadaver lab. I was foolish enough to allow myself to be assigned to this course. What were my qualifications for teaching an upper-division human anatomy laboratory? I took comparative vertebrate anatomy in college four years earlier. We dissected cats. I barely got a C.
You can imagine what a cadaver lab might be like. The point of the lab was to memorize lots of parts, as well as the parts to which those parts were connected. More happened in lecture, I guess, but in lab nearly the entire grade for students was generated from practical quizzes and exams. These assessments consisted of a series of labeled pins in cadavers.
My job was to work with the students so that they knew all the parts for quizzes and exams. (You might think that memorizing the names of parts is dumb, when you could just look them up in a book. But if you’re getting trained for a career in the health sciences, knowing exactly the names of all these parts and what they are connected to is actually a fundamental part of the job, and not too different from knowing vocabulary as a part of a foreign language.)
The hard part about teaching this class is: once you look inside a human being, we’ve got a helluva lotta parts, all of which have names. I was studying the biogeography of ants. Some of the other grad student TAs spent a huge amount of time prepping, to learn the content that we were teaching each week. Either I didn’t have the time, or didn’t choose to make the time. I also discovered that the odors of the preservatives gave me headaches, even when everything was ventilated properly. Regardless of the excuse that I can invent a posteriori, the bottom line is that I knew far less course material than was expected of the students.
Boy howdy, did I blow it that semester! At the end, my evaluation scores were in the basement. Most of the students thought I sucked. The reason that they thought I sucked is because I sucked. What would you think if you asked your instructor a basic question, like “Is this the Palmaris Longus or the Flexor Carpi Ulnaris?” and your instructor says:
I don’t know? Maybe you should look it up? Let’s figure out what page it is in the book?
The whole point of the lab was for students to learn where all the parts were and what they were called. And I didn’t know how to find the parts and didn’t know the names. I lacked confidence, and my students were far more interested in the subject. It was clear to the students that I didn’t invest the time in doing what was necessary to teach well. They could tell, correctly, that I had higher priorities.
Even though students were in separate lab sections, a big chunk of the grade was based on a single comprehensive practical exam that was administered to all lab sections by the lecture instructor. Even though I taught them all semester – or didn’t teach them at all – their total performance was measured against all other students, including those who were lucky enough to be in other lab sections taught by anatomy groupies. Even I at the time realized that my students drew the short straw.
One of my sections did okay, and was just above the average lab section. The other section – the first of the two – had the best score among all of the lab sections! My students, with the poor excuse of an ignoramus instructor, kicked the butts of all other sections. These are the very same students that gave me the most pathetic evaluation scores of all time. They aced the frickin’ final exam.
What the hell happened?
I inadvertently was using a so-called “best practice” called inquiry-based instruction. That semester, I taught the students nothing, and that’s why they learned.
Now, I know even less human anatomy than I did back then. (I remember the Palmaris Longus, though, because mine is missing.) I bet my students would learn even more now than mine did then, and I also bet that I’d get pretty good evals, to boot. Why is that?
I’d teach the same way I taught back then, but this time around, I’d do it with confidence. If a student asked me to tell the difference between the location of muscle A and muscle B, I’d say:
I don’t know. You should look it up. Find it in the book and let me know when you’ve figured it out.
The only difference between the hypothetical now, and the actual then, is confidence. Of course, there’s no way in heck that I’ll ever be assigned to teach human anatomy again, because the instructors really should have far greater mastery than the students. In this particular lab, I don’t think mastery by the instructor really mattered, as the instructor only needed to tell the students what they needed to know, and the memorization required very little guidance. (For Bloom’s taxonomy people this was all straight-up basic “knowledge.”)
I do not recommend having an ignorant professor teach a course. If a class requires anything more than memorizing a bunch of stuff, then, obviously, the instructor needs to know a lot more than the students. Aside from a laboratory in anatomy, few if any other labs require (or should require) only straight-up memorization of knowledge. Creating the most effective paths for discovery requires an intimate knowledge of the material, especially when working with underprepared students.
For contrasting example, when I’ve taught about the diversity, morphology and evolutionary history of animals, I tell my students the same amount of detail that I told my anatomy students back then: nothing. I provide a framework for learning, and it’s their job to sort it out. If a students asks about the differences between an annelid and a nemadote, I refrain from busting into hours of lecture. But I don’t just lead them to specimens and a book. I need to provide additional lines of inquiry that put their question into context. It’s not just memorizing a muscle. In this case, it’s about learning bigger concepts about evolutionary history and how we study attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary trees of life. I ask them to make specific comparisons and I ask leading questions to make sure that they’re considering certain concepts as they conduct their inquiry. That takes expertise and content knowledge on my part.
To answer the non-rhetorical question that is the title of this post, then I guess the answer is: It will be a disaster.
But if you act with confidence and don’t misrepresent your mastery, then it might be possible to get by with not knowing so much and still have your students learn. Then again, if you’re teaching anything other than an anatomy lab that involves only strict memorization, I’d guess that both you and your students are probably up a creek if you don’t know your stuff.
The semester after was the TA for human anatomy, I taught Insect Biology lab. That was better for everybody.