Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Teaching Professors

It might seem kind of strange that I am still thinking so much about teaching, just as the semester has ended. However, I am still working with students who had medical/family emergencies and have to make up some assignments, labs, and exams, so the semester isn't completely over. In addition, grad/undergrad research advising doesn't end with the school year, and I am also working on some of the teaching modules that I help prepare as part of a group working on science education issues. I enjoy creating these teaching modules and sharing my ideas and knowledge about interesting science topics. It's the same stuff that I use in my own teaching, but knowing that these materials (text, images, exercises) will be available to the world can be daunting. Everything in these modules has to be absolutely clear and self-contained.

When I have participated in workshops in which I've presented my teaching materials to other professors, I am often aware that some teaching methods and materials aren't easily transferred to others. To teach well, you have to be very comfortable with the subject material, and ideally have deeper knowledge than what you are presenting in class. It's best if some of this knowledge comes from experience, though of course we can't have that type of knowledge about all the concepts we teach. Some of that kind of knowledge and experience takes time to acquire, but even for early-career teachers, being confident (but not over-confident..) and caring about what you teach can go a long way. I have one colleague who cares a lot about teaching but who lacks confidence; 'good' students appreciate her efforts and her caring, and 'struggling' students can be very savage about her lack of confidence, and that can undermine her confidence further, making it harder to acquire what she needs to progress as an effective teacher.

I know several professors in my field who are outstanding teachers now but who were really awful teachers when they first started, so there is hope. These professors knew they were awful and they didn't want to be, and they eventually figured out how to do better, and even to excel. Now it's hard to imagine that they were ever awful teachers. I know a few professors who teach a limited amount because they are terrible teachers. Is there nothing to be done to help them improve, or are the required changes in personality and teaching methods too drastic?

It's not easy to make dramatic changes, and it's not easy to know how to evaluate/define what makes an effective and excellent teacher. I've team-taught a class with someone who spent the semester providing erroneous and out-of-date information to students but who got high teaching evaluations. Is he a good teacher because he presents information clearly, or he is a bad teacher because of the problems with his course content? I've also team-taught the same class with someone who did an outstanding job presenting interesting and innovative course content, but the students found him intense and unapproachable; his evaluations were lousy. Is he a bad teacher?

I don't know -- I am good at providing ideas for teaching materials and some aspects of the logistics of teaching, but not good at giving useful advice to people about how to be better teachers. That's a job for the education experts, as long as they don't spend too much time trying to convince us to exchange course content for pedagogical games with cute nicknames.


Anonymous said...

Profound observations Ms. FSP.

I am working on a project to create a degree granting program out of opencourseware for my developing nation. The main challenges are in teaching staff (overlooking the fact of severely limited resources and a power-structure that is self-absorbed with its own half-baked plans).

Some of my nation's top scientists are in favor of the project, and their biggest reservation is indeed, teaching and the human resources to be effective educators (assuming all other issues are eventually resolved).

Not being in the academe, and being a practicing engineer (once upon a time) versed in problem solving, and wishing to construct a university in a region beset with only problems, this is an interesting problem solving exercise for me.

It would be interesting to compare notes offline (if you are interested).

Kind Regards

Ψ*Ψ said...

IME, the best profs are those who put considerable effort into teaching their classes and are fairly organized. The degree of organization seems to vary from person to person, though. One class I took recently had lecture notes prepared about half an hour beforehand, and another was on a very tight schedule all semester--we did manage to get in some exam review, since there were no lectures, but this had to be scheduled for Saturdays and spring break. Both courses were excellent, though. The only things that bother me are contradiction and extensive mistakes in lectures. If someone is guilty of two or three instances of either in a single class period, I stop taking notes.

Kelly said...

To go slightly on a tangent, I'm curious as to whether you think student evaluations give accurate and credible feedback.

I completed my undergraduate degree at a top tier university, and I'm still there as an administrator in the faculty personnel office. Part of what I do is read over the contents of promotion and reappointment dossiers for tenure-track faculty, which of course includes teaching evaluations.

I have been surprised to hear department chairs and tenured faculty repeatedly express, both directly and indirectly, the sentiment that students don't really know what they're talking about when they do evaluations. It seems like a bad review is never the professor's fault...it's because the students didn't put enough effort into learning the material, or just too stupid to appreciate the complexity of the material. The prevailing attitude among faculty I've worked with is that bad evaluations happen because students are lazy and malicious and "out to get" the faculty member personally.

Having been a former student at this same university, I was surprised at this attitude, since it didn't gibe with my experiences as an undergrad at all...my classmates tended to be blunt and outspoken about short-comings, especially when discussing classes on the school forums, but as a whole it's been my experience that students treat evaluations with a fair degree of objectivity.

I'm curious as to if this attitude is limited to just my university, or if it's common among faculty elsewhere as well.

Female Science Professor said...

I think teaching give a general sense about a professor/course, but the evaluation scores need to be viewed in the context of class size, content, and other factors.

I've written about evaluations before (Jan. 2007) and about some of the random aspects to them. I think that over time, an effective and caring instructor will tend to get overall positive evaluations, and disorganized etc. instructors will tend to get more negative evaluations.

The people you work with might be responding to the fact that some evaluation questions are not well written. Evaluations commonly ask the students to rate the professor's knowledge about the course topic; many professors are offended by this question.

Other questions ask whether graded work is returned in a timely way. This is an important question and should be asked, but I am nevertheless annoyed when any student responds with anything but a positive score -- I return every homework, quiz, and exam in the very next class, yet students who aren't doing well in the class and so who aren't feeling positive about the class will check off a low score. BUT overall I get a high score for this question, so if I look at the big picture and don't fret the details, it's OK and I can all stay reasonably sane even after obsessing over my evaluations.

I've written before about how I hate evaluations that ask questions about the 'physical environment' of the class. I have zero control over which classroom I am assigned, yet this question is one of the Big Questions that determine my overall evaluation score. Why not have some primary questions about my teaching abilities and practices, and then some other questions that might be useful for administrators and others?

I don't know if I've explained anything useful or just become another example of a professor ranting about teaching evaluations. I was thinking about writing more on this topic anyway because I just got my evaluations back this afternoon, so I may write more in the near future. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I agree confidence goes a long way, but there are aspects of *appearing* confident that are not intuitive, or at least were not to me. One of the oddest pieces of advice I got at a teaching workshop was to name-drop. That was not the way it was called, it had something to do with using others to back-up our trustworthiness currency or something like that.

Being not only an unbearded female, but also having an uncool foreign accent and being rather brown, the name-dropping seemed to have a big impact in my evaluations. Trying to stay away from my natural self-deprecating humor also helped. I think I have found a balance that allows me to appear confident without having to get a personality transplant, but it took a few iterations of "acting."

Female Science Professor said...

Interesting comment. I don't know about the name-dropping part, but I'm glad you ceased the self-deprecating comments, even if they were done as an attempt at humor. I think some self-deprecating comments are OK as long as they are neutral and not in reference to your intellectual or professorial abilities.

Yvette said...

The one piece of advice I give to any professor who wants to teach well: respect your students! I have had classes where the professors consider students and classes as nothing more than distractions from research who never get good evaluations regardless of mastry of material; on the other hand I've had professors who cared about students who were cut lots of slack because we knew they were trying their best. Perhaps I'm naive, but I always thought a professor should care a little about the teaching aspect if they want to work at a university...

Of course one of the things that has always impressed me is how physics departments (and science ones in general) can often whine a lot about how "the public" should show more interest in their field... and then go appoint someone who doesn't even like teaching to intro-level courses. I've seen my own department do such things on several occasions, and no one seems to think that perhaps the intro class students should recieve more respect in the interest of the subject.

EcoGeoFemme said...

When I was an undergrad at a smallish university, I assumed that all the faculty had aspired to be teachers and got their PhDs so they could teach at the university level. I thought that the research they did was a carryover from the PhD and was done in large part to give students an opportunity to do research. I would think things like "why did this guy ever want to become a teacher?" Could I have been more naive or misguided?! The faculty at the school I attended had a higher teaching:research than at larger schools and some of the senior professors had pretty weak research programs. Also, it was not a PhD granting institution and my department had few masters students. But still. Frankly, some of them probably settled for such a position, i.e. would rather have had a job doing more research than teaching.

Anyway, I wonder if the course evaluations are influenced by students' perceptions of what the professor's job is or the 'career identity' of the professor. Maybe students at larger schools are savvy enough to know how this stuff works.

Anonymous said...

The self-deprecating comments were not about my teaching ability, but about my ignorance of basketball, inability to read maps, or about my age and the decline of memory. That sort of thing. I guess some of those could have been construed as being about my intellectual abilities. I have mostly stopped being modest about my research and its (and my) standing in the field, and for a while I purposefully played that up. I also changed the way I dress (after an unfortunate incident in which I had trouble convincing an HR person that I'm tenure track faculty, not cleaning staff). My evaluations went up from lower 10% to upper 30% from one semester to the next.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ebrahim,
I think you'll find that it's "Dr. FSP"
Really now. Have you been reading this blog at all?