Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student Evaluations

Just this morning, while clearing off my desk, I leafed through my teaching evaluations before filing them away. As I do with declined proposals, I usually let some time pass after the end of the semester before reading them.

Our department very reasonably allows each instructor to use a unique format that each of us feels most appropriate. My large introductory class evaluations are designed like a product survey, where I ask the students to rank various aspects of my teaching, followed by an area where they are free to make comments. I take the numerical rankings with a grain of salt, but read the comments carefully. They can be inane, but sometimes I get useful comments. For example, one student pointed out that color blind individuals had trouble seeing the red markers that I sometimes used. I wish that someone had pointed this out earlier.

In the most advanced classes, I solicit an essay rather than have graduate students check boxes. Being conditioned to fill out surveys, even some of the most sophisticated students are compelled to rate me numerically.

Our university is moving in the direction of a standardized forms. Some colleges at my university already have done so. When I complain that it makes no sense to have freshman students who are taking a general education requirement, and graduate students who are taking advanced quantum mechanics to answer the same survey questions, I am condescendingly reminded that I can add additional questions or leave room for an essay.

Contrary to firm denials by administrators, teaching quality is often quantified by one number. I was once a member of a tenure and promotion committee in a college that uses standardized forms. Faculty X, who had an average evaluation of 3.2/4, was deemed a better instructor than Faculty Y, who had an average score of 3.1/4. The fact that courses taught by these two faculty members were at different levels and had students of differing demographics was not taken into account. It is not unexpected that a major taking an advanced course will rate an instructor differently than an introductory student who is in a crowded lecture hall with hundreds of other students.

Hiding behind numbers are a convenient way to excuse oneself from the responsibility of making a judgment. When I did annual reviews for our faculty, I read every comment - even in classes with 200 students. One particular faculty member had a low numerical score for his teaching. A small majority of comments said that the course was too hard. Another set of responses stated that the course was challenging but very interesting, and that this particular professor took extra time in class to explain difficult concepts. Also, he was available in his office whenever the students wanted to talk. The comments as a whole painted a much more positive picture than his scores alone. In contrast, a high-scoring faculty member had comments to the effect that "this class was fun." There were few comments that mentioned anything about learning or being challenged. I fear that focusing on a single number generated by students on a standardized form will encourage superficial teaching. We are already sending a message that if the material is hard, there is something wrong with the teacher.

My teaching style has changed over the years, especially in the advanced graduate classes. I used to prepare my notes very carefully and tried to be very precise in my delivery. Given the complexity of the subject matter, I was effectively copying from my notes to the blackboard to avoid errors: I was not thinking, but rather reciting. Though I had very good teaching evaluations, I felt that the students were simply creating a transcript of my lecture. They were not thinking in real time.

As I got older, and felt less obligated to please the students, I changed my style. Rather than read from my notes, I prepare very carefully for each lecture, making sure that I understand the ideas that I am trying to convey as well as the critical parts of derivations. Since the mathematics is quite complex, it is often difficult to remember the logic when on my feet. For this, I use the students to help me.

Because I am thinking as I am teaching, the pace is just right for the students to think along with me. When I get stuck or make a mistake, the students are always more than happy to point out my error or to help me out. This approach is difficult on me, because when I screw up, sometimes it may take a while for the students or me to notice. The longer it takes to find the error, the more painful is the process of getting back on course.

I believe that the students are learning far more than in the days when I meticulously followed my notes. However, I invariably get a sprinkling of comments that I tended to make mistakes or that I was sloppy (or that I was unprepared!). In the past, I would have cringed at this criticism, but I am now confident enough in my methods to discount them.

Recently, a colleague passed along an interesting essay about class evaluations that appeared in his opinion piece in the New York Times titled Deep in the Heart of Texas, by Stanly Fish. The author writes:

"But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result..."

I was intrigued by this analysis, not only because I was coincidentally musing about the same topic, but it got me thinking more about the corporatization of academia. How does one balance the need to assess teaching with the reality that the seeds of our labor do not take root until many years after graduation?

In a perfect world, the academic would be an expert teacher who understands how teaching techniques today lead to the desired outcomes years or decades later. Since the benefits of a good education appreciate over time, no single teacher can live to fully observe the fruits of their labor. Such information is necessarily accumulated over the generations.

Societies with highly-educated individuals tend to have the highest quality of life characterized by low crime rates, material comforts, good health, vigorous economies and functional institutions. As such, how does one ensure great teaching and efficient learning when it is so difficult to judge a teacher based on direct observation of the results?

Students who enjoy learning will find ways to succeed even when the mode of instruction is sub-optimal. If prosperity is to flourish in the general population, we must think of ways to educate the large number of students who see education solely as a route to increasing earning potential. In my perhaps biased sample, I find this large cohort's approach to education as would a patient undergoing an unpleasant medical procedure, thinking "I want to get through this process with the minimum pain."

Such a student views the diploma as a membership card entitling the holder to a well-paying job. From the perspective of the employer, the diploma is evidence of an education, whose quality is commensurate with the reputation of the granting institution. As educators, it is our responsibility to stand behind our product.

To understand good teaching, it is important to view it in light of the mission of the institution. The goal of a university is to produce individuals who have demonstrated the ability to think when confronted with novelty, being able to analyze and assess complex issues, and devise thoughtful long-term solutions without rigidly adhering to preconceived notions. These traits are necessarily learned within some context, which is provided by the student's major program of study.

I would thus associate good teaching with an atmosphere of continual challenge. Learning should be uncomfortable. Challenging problems do not have cook-book solutions. One must try new approaches that often lead to dead ends. Students often complain when they are not given recipes for getting from point A to point B. Some yearn for facts and feel that any amount of confusion, however small, is an indicator of bad teaching.

I will not attempt to answer the difficult question regarding ways of insuring good teaching. It is far easier to identify a perverse reward system, such as the mean numerical score of student evaluations as the basis of faculty compensation. If we want our students to think outside of the box, we are sending the wrong message by taking seriously the results of simple-minded surveys whose design is the antithesis of the skills that we endeavor to teach. It is reasonable for Starbucks to take seriously my displeasure with getting a cold cup of coffee; but, if ensuring the long-term efficacy of our educationally system is the goal, longer-term metrics based on thoughtful study need to be developed and implemented.

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