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Jul 8, 2009

The fine art of teaching


What you see here is distribution of mean student evaluations for our School faculty in the Spring of 2009. Each line is one faculty member, so if she or he taught more than one courses, those are averaged. Not a perfect indicator, but it shows we can really be proud. The waited mean for the whole School is 4.35 on a 5-point scale. We do have some awesome teachers, and students really appreciate what we do. The more student evaluations I read the clearer it becomes; it is not about being nice or amusing anymore. Some of the nicest people get the lowest scores sometimes, although being angry with students usually tends to lower the scores. But our students learn to appreciate those instructors who teach them something.

Naturally, my eye is wondering to the outliers at the bottom of the list. What went wrong, and what can I do to help? My biggest concern is about people who have done it for a while, and still cannot get decent evaluations from students. I believe, this is an issue with just the level of effort. When students see a poorly prepared syllabus, no rubrics, a grading system that seem to change every week, or a professor reading a textbook aloud in class – they have little respect for the instructor. Not putting enough time into thinking through one's class is probably the biggest contributors to the low scores. And it does not matter how much experience you have, and how much you can improvise – homework is essential. In fact, I believe people who are more improvisational in their teaching, have more difficulties relating to our students as time progresses. This is because we all compete against each other in the eyes of our students. Once they see a well-designed course, which is well-paced, relevant, and engaging, going back to a long lecture with questionable relevance is very hard.

A variety and density of instructional methods also seems to be important. Our students are future teachers, so they are not impressed by the same activity repeated again and again. Nor are they convinced by endless small group discussions without a clear focus. Long stories about one's life and teaching experience are clearly irritating. Time needs to be compressed, and used wisely.

I am less concerned about one-time low scores; we all have classes that don't go well, one in a while. Nor am I worried about new people getting lower scores. It does take time to adjust and to find your own teaching voice and style – this is true even for those who already had successful college teaching experience elsewhere. This is a different university with its unique culture, and we are dealing with some very sophisticated students. We talk about teaching, and there is always an opportunity to learn more. My real worry is about people who seem to be stuck in one place and cannot get out of it.

Sometimes it is simply laziness. To be honest, I don't know how some people I know and used to know fill their days. Anything they do seems to be done on the fly, without much thought and preparation. And it is not like they are preoccupied with grants or research or service. Producing evidence of a 40-hour work week is a challenge for them. For these people, working at home seems to be difficult. I recommend coming to the office 5 days a week, and spending 8 hours there – you'd be amazed how much can be accomplished.

Sometimes it is anger. Once you get angry at students who are not smart enough or honest enough for you, it is very-very difficult to improve as a teacher. Every failure will serve as an evidence of how spoiled, stupid, unfair, and dishonest your students are. This is a dead-end, because think of it: if all students were bright, capable, prepared, and proficient, why would they need us? A teacher who is angry with his students is like a doctor, complaining how sick his patients are, and how nice it would be to treat healthy people!

Anyway, I just wanted to say how well we really do overall, and how proud I am to be among such wonderful teachers. Also wanted to tell everyone, I pay close attention to the evals, understand the problems, and am here to help should you ask for it. Heaven knows I have had my own share of teaching problems, and - my students will probably say - I still have them. If there was a good way to rank, I would probably be somewhere in the middle among my colleagues, and certainly not at the top. I can help by facilitating conversations, by putting people in touch with each other, and of course, by sharing the few tricks of my own.




































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