Thursday, July 10, 2014

Room for Improvement

Student comments on my teaching of a particular course:

Great professor!
I have enjoyed this class!
I liked the readings.
This course required too much previous knowledge.
Professor very helpful with homework.
Homework very useful for class.
Well-constructed lectures.
Very organized lectures.
She speaks very clearly.
She answered my homework questions.
She provided images and charts to supplement the subject matter.
The in-class exercises were helpful.
I liked the practice exercises we did in groups during lecture.
I liked that she asked questions during class and this helped deepen my understanding of concepts.
Useful supplementary material to help us understand lecture material.
She explained the topics completely in class. Didn't use a textbook as a crutch.
It was great that lecture and lab material were well coordinated.
She was always ready to answer questions.
She was always willing to help with any questions.
She provided the subject matter very clearly.
The last project was too much work for this level of class.
Lecture presentations very clear.
I liked the in-class exercises.
You should improve your teaching methods.

Note that almost all of the comments are in the 3rd person (except for the last one), as if the students were writing to someone else about me, rather than writing to me with feedback. I don't know if it matters in terms of type and level of feedback whether the student is imaging an unknown audience or speaking directly to me (?). At evaluation time, I give a little talk to the class about the importance of this feedback and how it is used by instructors and the department/college/university, but I think there is still general confusion among students about what exactly the purpose of these evaluations is and who reads them and whether anyone cares what they think.

These are overall nice comments, and unfortunately also rather classic in that the criticisms are too vague to help me understand what the specific complaints are.

The last comment, despite being too vague to be useful in any specific way, is absolutely right. Despite being deep into my mid-career years, I don't want my teaching to fossilize. I want to improve. In recent years I have attended teaching workshops and gotten some ideas from those. When I team-teach, a faculty colleague is in the classroom with me, so I get some peer feedback. And last term, I jettisoned the too-long and too-detailed textbook and provided focused readings, including some that I wrote myself. That seems to have worked quite well (or at least no one said they missed having a textbook), so perhaps that counts as an improvement. I would also like to do some new things involving e-learning and have been to some workshops and meetings about that.

I am thinking about teaching because I was just looking at my evaluations, though mostly I am enjoying having lots of uninterrupted time for research. This week I even managed to submit a manuscript on which I am primary author. It's been about two years since I've been able to do that (and I don't mean to imply that I did it alone -- an excellent colleague was essential to the completion of this paper).

As I was finishing the paper (and a related grant proposal) recently, it occurred to me that I could create a new teaching module based on this work and incorporate it into the class for which I just received teaching evaluations (not, of course, as extra work but replacing some older material). Probably more than any major change in teaching style, a realistic way that I can improve my teaching is to find good ways to incorporate new material -- specifically, integrating New Science with Classic Science, so that students learn the fundamental stuff without which they are incomplete as scientists and people and yet are also exposed to new things that help them see where the field is at (including being exposed to unresolved questions that might inspire them).

Anyway, it's been a busy summer so far. My father recently asked me if my husband "also has the summer off" and I was actually quite calm about it this time. Have you had a similar conversation with anyone yet this summer? Parents? Neighbors? Friends? Students? Assuming that you do in fact work in the summer even if you are not teaching, did you (1) smile serenely and let them continue to exist in ignorance; (2) correct them (a) calmly, (b) not calmly; or (3) lapse into stony silence (if having a conversation) or send a glaring emoticon (if in e-contact)? (or other..).


nordic TT said...

I actually get the opposite kind of comments, some colleagues don't see teaching as much work as reasearch.

xykademiqz said...

I think the 3rd person comments have to do with how the questions in evaluations are posed,. They always say "Rate the instructor's preparation for class" or "How did the instructor help or hinder your learning?" or some such form. I always get comments in 3rd person, too.

Anonymous said...

You can say that somehow stay busy all summer long doing that things that you love the most about your job.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised the comments are in the 3rd person. Most students (at least at schools I've been affiliated with) see the evaluations as being important for helping their fellow students choose courses. Sadly, most don't expect them to affect what profs do at all. I know my son's uni had all the evaluations collated online and he'd check them when trying to decide between possible courses each semester.

Anonymous said...

My reaction to the "summer off" questions and comments I get depends on who it is and what I can expect them to know. A lot of people just don't get it and that's fair, it's an odd job. There are people though who ask it to be jerks. They've had it explained and they do know how busy I am in summer but they like to imply that faculty are lazy, that we just make up stuff to do. They get the side-eye and stony silence.

Anonymous said...

I always explain that I do not have summers off. I've gotten several comments from students similar to: "you're only teaching one class? Must be nice" So, then I explain my teaching vs. research vs. service load and what my job actually is. I think a lot of students have no clue about how the university works other than what happens in their classes.

EliRabett said...

The problem is that you need to construct a teaching evaluation that asks the questions you want the answers to. For example

This semester I built the course around focused readings rather than a textbook.

Did this help you learn?

Would it help to have both a textbook and focused readings

and so on, usual 5 point scale.

Ben said...

I have a section in my evaluations that asks the students to list two things they liked about the course (things I should continue to do) and two things they did not like about the course (things I should change). Of course, I don't automatically eliminate the things they don't like (e.g. too much reading!), but at least it elicits specific critiques that I take into account when revising the course.

Anonymous said...

I get asked all the time about having time off, doing nothing in the summer. I am really frustrated and sick to death of this. ARGH!!!

There are so many people out there who don't care what my answer is, who think that teaching in general is horrible and that I'm obviously some lazy public employee and that they feel it is acceptable to just rip me apart based on their political bias.

Ironically, almost everyone who has done this to me is a total hypocrite - they used to work for the government, or live off social security or uses medicare, etc.

I think we need to do a better job of educating our students about what our career really is like so when they go out into the world they don't ask these questions.

My problem is that where I live, college educated people are rare. So I have to take a deep breath and be patient and explain to them that I actually bring in far more money to my university than they pay me in salary, and that the money I bring in is used to create jobs for other people. I have to explain that they are damn lucky to have me and that I'm making the world a better place for them and their families. Maybe I"m just wasting my breath….?

cookingwithsolvents said...

I just breeze past the 'summer off' comments with something like 'oh yeah, it's great to get a chance to submit some papers and work on some grants plus I have my trips to give xyz talks at conferences' or some such thing giving the first few things that are on my list. I won't rise to the bait (if that's what it is) or fault the ignorance (if it's that then it is the fault of us academics in some portion for not educating).

Anonymous said...

I also always explain that I have to work during the summer. I tell them that although technically I'm on a 9-month contract, if I don't work during the summer doing research, I won't get a raise and I won't get promoted. I'm at a PUI and even if we are not funded to do research in the summer, it's expected. The unwritten rule around here is that you only get the highest merit raise (wow! 2%) if you've published a paper in the last year. That would be extremely difficult to do without working in the summer. I don't know too many lines of work that base raises and promotions on activities that you do while not on contract.

Anonymous said...

I get the "you have summers off" thing all.the.time. In my mind, it's similar to the "You only teach one class at a time??" questions - they indicate a lack of awareness of how research universities work.

My response depends a lot on the context. I either say very little, or explain politely how these things actually work.

Anonymous said...

Cookingwithsolvents is right on about the ignorance. It's our own (i.e. Academia's) fault for not educating the public about our jobs. They complain that our salaries are outrageous for the teaching load we have, but they completely forget that we are supposed to be world-class researchers in our fields. If we don't clarify this for them, then who will?

Anonymous said...

Generally all it takes is an abbreviated list of all of the things I expect to get done - supervising students in lab, submitting grants and papers, going to conferences, assessment I didn't have time to do during the semester, etc - for the expressions to change from envy to sympathy.

Anonymous said...

I've had the "summer off" discussion with a few friends/family members. I usually ask them if they would be willing to take 3/4 of their yearly salary and not be "required" to go to work June-August, but still be "expected" (when it comes to evaluation, raises, etc) to work all 12 months. No one seems crazy about the idea.