Thursday, December 10, 2009

He Should Be Fired

'Tis the season for teaching evaluations (yet again, yet again), so in the spirit of this special time, I shall continue my intermittent evaluation of evaluations and teaching.

On quite a few occasions in my career, I have been a member of various sorts of evaluating committees that examine the research, teaching, and/or service activities of faculty within and beyond my department. In some cases these committees look at a single year of activity, and in some cases they consider a longer record. The latter cases can be quite fascinating, particularly with respect to an individual's teaching experience, because these multi-year records demonstrate in a dramatic way a very important but not surprising thing:

Most of us start out as not-great teachers.

I can't really defend my use of "most". Perhaps I should use "many", as I have not conducted a systematic study of this, but my impression from years of evaluating teaching evaluations is that "most" is probably correct.

To our students: We are sorry. Most of us don't mean to be lousy teachers when we first become professors.

But here's something cheering: Most of us figure out how to improve our teaching after just 1-2 classes within each level of course.

The worst evaluations I have seen for new professors have been for introductory level classes. Introductory level courses for non-majors at a university may be the most difficult kind of course to teach because of the (typically) large number of students, each with different priorities, interests, and learning styles, and because the physical environment (large lecture hall) may not be conducive to positive interaction between professor and student.

Some professors figure out how to improve their teaching with the aid of teaching development workshops; most figure it out just from experience. Student evaluations are important in the self-improvement effort because if something went really wrong in a course, many students comment on it. I always hope that among all the students writing comments along the lines of "You spent too much talking with your back to us while writing on the board", at least one, at some point during the term made a comment on this so that improvement could be made during the course. In many cases, logistical problems like that disappear from the teaching evaluation comments after 1 term.

In theory, some of us learn how to teach as graduate teaching assistants, but being a TA for a lab or a discussion section is very different from teaching a course, so, although TA experience does help, it's not enough. You have to teach a course to learn how to teach that course well.

So again, to the students: We are sorry, but unlike some other professions in which there is a training process for a major job component, many of us focus on research during our 'training' years and then are tossed in front of a class and expected to know how to deal with the complex logistics of teaching. You would think that, after spending many years sitting in classrooms, a person would know what to do and what not to do, but it doesn't work that way.

In some of my classes, students give presentations. These students are in the process of learning how to communicate clearly and effectively (in part by doing these presentations), but it always amazes me how common it is for them to do the very things that they no doubt hate in their professors: long text-filled slides (that they read), mumbling, lots of ummms, inability to answer questions on the spot, no (obvious) statement of the main point, or poor organization of complex information. Clearly, most of us need practice to learn how to convey information in an effective way to a particular audience.

And, unfortunately, we have a system in which professors practice on a class or two before eliminating some problems.

Years ago, I had a minor surgical procedure during which I noticed that the doctor was becoming agitated. He was also taking a very long time. I started getting nervous so I asked him if everything was going OK. He admitted to me then and there, while holding a knife that had already been used on me, that he had never done this procedure before by himself and it wasn't going as well as he had hoped. I asked, as calmly as I could, if it would be possible for him to get another doctor to help him, and he agreed that this was a good idea. A more senior doctor was sought and finished the procedure. I wasn't too happy about being the young doctor's first solo-surgery experience, but I figured: someone has to be the first patient.

I bet that now, years later, that doctor calmly does these procedures often and well. At least I hope that is the case. It is the case if the doctor analogy is at all applicable to professors whose first solo-teaching experience does not go very well. (The analogy does break down a bit after that, though, so go ahead and send your bitter anti-tenure rants and your "I had a professor who had been teaching for 47 years and was horrible" rants if you really must.)

I chose the description "not-so-great" above because, from what I've seen and read, most of the teaching problems are not course-destroyers. That is, most of us are not total disasters when we first start teaching as professors, and even among those who are, in all but rare cases there is improvement after a term or two.

I empathize with the students who are being practiced upon and who may have emotional scars (much like my little surgical scar that could have been avoided with a more experienced doctor), and I am always impressed by those who write evaluations such as "I know this is your first year teaching and [insert helpful suggestions]."

I even feel sorry for those who feel compelled to write, typically in all-caps: PROFESSOR X SHOULD BE FIRED. These students clearly spent months feeling angry, frustrated, and perhaps afraid of the effects of this awful course on their academic careers. I feel sorry for them, but I wish they could know that the professor needs advice (from both students and other professors) and experience, not firing. Advocating firing a new professor who is learning how to teach is not a very constructive suggestion, although perhaps in extreme cases such dire comments help signal the severity of the problems that need correcting.

That said, if someone has been teaching for many years and/or clearly doesn't care about teaching well and/or or has failed to learn how to communicate effectively and/or does not know how to deal well with student questions and course logistics, then such drastic comments are fair.

But in a professor's first year? No. Even though I appreciate how difficult it is for students who are in that first class of a new professor who is struggling to learn how to teach, I think we should all try to figure out a system that would minimize the painful disasters, try to be patient with annoying-but-not-too-terrible problems, and find constructive ways to make the teaching/learning experience better for faculty and students.


PlantHead said...

The most frustrating aspects of 'not-so-great' teaching are these: verbose story-telling and lack of organization. The second, I think, can improve with time, but the first... In my experience this gets worse over time. Older professors seem to be the most likely to avoid all semblance of teaching in favor of telling non-relevant stories. Not an ideal situation if a student is actually trying to learn something. Does indicating this story-telling issue on a teaching evaluation have any impact? Or are tenured professors allowed to ignore evals?

Anonymous said...

As you said in your post, teaching IS a major job function for a professor. Therefore it is inexcusable to start off their job not knowing how to teach classes - a professor should have taken the trouble to obtain teaching experience prior to job application or at least taken courses in pedagogy. (and before people protest "how many professors actually took classes in pedagogy?" the answer would be - maybe not that many but wouldn't it be better for their first few classes of students if they had??) It's not fair for the students paying a lot of money in tuition, to end up with a crap teacher because they were given a job without having the skills for it.

Hope said...

A few comments in the interests of “figur[ing] out a system that would minimize the painful disasters”:

Introductory level courses for non-majors at a university may be the most difficult kind of course to teach ….

If this fact is well known, then why, oh why, assign new profs to teach these classes?!

I always hope that among all the students writing comments … at least one, at some point during the term made a comment on this so that improvement could be made during the course.

The only way that I can see this happening is if mid-course evaluations are done, or if a prof uses Blackboard or some sort of web page to collect anonymous feedback. I wouldn’t encourage a student to approach a prof in person, during or after the term, with unsolicited feedback on their teaching – especially when that feedback is of the “constructive criticism” kind.

In theory, some of us learn how to teach as graduate teaching assistants….

A graduate teaching assistant should be an apprentice, shadowing a prof as they organize a course, prepare lesson plans, assignments, and exams; running recitation sections and/or exam prep sessions; maybe giving one or two guest lectures (with the prof in the audience to offer constructive feedback later). This would make the grad TA experience a lot more valuable in terms of helping a future prof learn how to teach. But all too often, TA’s are simply homework grading machines; or worse, they are asked to run labs or sections without any regard to their teaching preparation and/or knowledge of the course material. Because everyone knows that *anyone* can teach the introductory stuff … even a first semester MS student.

In some of my classes, students give presentations….

Finally, considering the number of crummy job talks that I’ve seen from people who were later hired, it should come as no surprise to the dept. that certain people are not good teachers. Why not “invite” them to a mandatory teaching workshop a week or two before the semester starts? There’s no need to wait for their poor students to sound the alarm.

Principle Investigator said...

Thanks for this post! I had a lot of TA and guest lecturing experience as a student and postdoc and chose to apply exclusively to SLACs. In my first year as an assistant professor, I learned that 1) this did not actually prepare me for planning and teaching a semester-long course, and 2) while many students understood this, gave me positive ratings, and offered constructive criticism, others (at least two out of a class of fourteen) had no compunctions about informing me and my review committee in multiple pages that I knew nothing despite my fancy-ass education and should not be allowed to continue teaching here. And I thought that research was not for the faint of heart!

I realize that I could have taught more effectively (especially knowing what I do now), and I believe that I am improving with experience, but that feedback was incredibly hurtful and counterproductive. I wonder if it ever occurred to these students that 1) the human being in front of them was doing the best she could, all things considered, and 2) assuming that they do get into medical school, there will be first times for many things, and they'd probably prefer not to be told by their patients that they know nothing and should not be allowed to continue practicing medicine.

a physicist said...

I've always followed one of Hope's suggestions: implement a mid-semester survey, shortly after the first test. Not the day you hand it back, they're highly agitated then. But the next period after that. You learn all sorts of valuable things. Usually for me, whatever I'm most worried about is not at all what they comment on.

And then respond to the survey. Let them know you'll change something, if you can change it. Let them know why you're not going to change something, if it's something you don't want to change (something that you think is good for them, for exmaple).

Students are very happy that the teacher cares what they think. And it gives you a chance to explain why you're doing something unpleasant ("I know you dislike pop quizzes, but here's why I do them"). Better to explain in advance, before the end-of-semester class evaluations which are the ones that count!

Mid-semester evaluations: easy to implement, can be done your first time teaching, helps speed up your learning process as a new teacher.

A postdoc said...

Where I did my PhD (in England) we were not allowed to TA if we didn't sit through a mandatory training session; and the university also offered additional teacher training sessions over a period of weeks designed to give you some skills required before you got a 'real' job. I'm a little surprised this doesn't seem to be the norm in the US (meant non-snarkily - genuinely surprised).

Anonymous said...

I second Anonymous @3:33AM. As a grad student I took education courses, read ed lit, co-taught a course with a prof who was a good teacher (not selected for her lecturing skills but for her methods of approaching student learning - and by co-teaching I mean actually discussed and collaborated rather than you-teach-half-I-teach-half). I learned enough to know that educators should be trained, and that imitating the lecture method used by most profs is ineffective for students to learn to think critically or even just retain information. Students pay a lot for their education - why shouldn't they get something (at least knowledge and preferably the ability to analyze and think critically) for their money?

Anonymous said...

As someone who is still new to teaching, I can offer my perspective. I do not claim to be "good" at teaching and indeed, teaching is a both a learned skill and something that is hard to evaluate objectively, so "good teacher" is an ill defined concept anyway.

However, since I can ill afford to make things look bad on my record, I have adopted a somewhat defensive policy to keep my evaluations decent. I think students have two basic needs

1. They need to feel pampered (i.e. appreciated for attending)

2. They need the assurance that a good grade is in the offing.

As such, I start my classes by handing out to each student an "unofficial evaluation sheet" for each assignment and ask them to make copies of the blank form. Students have the option to turn one form in each Friday to the TA and they may or may not write their names. Students are advised to collect the forms by themselves BEFORE the TA comes in, so that they can stay as anonymous as they want.

It being a big class, I always get a handful of such forms each week. I have never bothered to read any of them carefully (except for amusement/procrastination) but just giving the student a sense of being pampered has helped with my evaluations.

The other ploy is to have the tests as easy as possible, which also helps. I understand that this leads to some ethical questions, but Untenured faculty do not have academic freedom and as such, it is wrong to expect them to act like they do, even at their own peril.

Anonymous said...

I understand that "teaching to the evaluations" raises the "problem" of grade inflation. But, I think this is bullshit.

Assume, for instance, that an undergrad takes about 30 courses by the middle of the senior year, when he/she goes on the job market. Assume EXTREME grade inflation, i.e., everyone gets one of only two grades: 'A' and 'B'

Then, counting scores in even the most crude fashion, there are 31 distinct groups of students from (A=30, B=0), (A=29, B=1) all the way upto (A=0,B=30). This data should really be enough for any recruiter/grad school to be able to separate students into classes such as excellent...above avg, avg and below avg..., say, for example...

1. Excellent: A>=26
2. Above avg: 20<=A<26
3. Avg: 10<=A<20
4. Below avg: 5<=A<10
5. Poor: A<5

Liz said...

I agree that mid-semester evaulations are the way to go. The vast majority of students are not going to approach the instructor and offer face to face constructive criticism and frankly I don't think that is the way to go.

I also strongly believe that professors need to be more formally trained to teach. We don't let folks teach our K-12 kids without formal training and it is mind-blogging that universities don't realize that this is still neccessary at the post-secondary level. Hell, I had to take two ~30h courses devoted solely to teaching (separate from technical skill courses) before I was certified to teach swimming lessons when I was 16.

Anonymous said...

I wish you had been on the committee that evaluated me after my first year of teaching. I will probably never recover from the committee's reaction to those teaching evaluations - not emotionally, and not career-wise.

Doctor Pion said...

"some of us learn how to teach as graduate teaching assistants ..."

That depends critically on the level of training and support that is given to your graduate students. I learned to teach as an undergrad TA, where we got lots of support. Quite a contrast to when I was a graduate student. But you also learn when doing research presentations. Problems like talking to the board should be addressed every time a student gives a seminar or even a journal club presentation.

"being a TA for a lab or a discussion section is very different from teaching a course"

Or is it? Active learning is like teaching in a lab, and I had to remind myself that what I did during discussion sessions (put key new results on the board and then show how to apply them) isn't a bad idea for "lecture".

Anonymous said...

Thanks - as a 1st year prof who just handed out evals, I nervously await the inevitable venom of a few students who didn't do well in the class and have already informed me to my face that I'm not doing this up to their standards.
To Anonymous at 3:33 - even with classes on teaching (I minored in 2ndary ed for awhile), extensive TA'ing, and co-teaching a class during grad school with a mentor.. nothing prepares you for the actual first class. Certainly all of those helped, but they just aren't the same. My mother is a teacher (6th grade level) and she would tell you the same thing - classes about teaching are no substitute for actually teaching, and that she certainly was a better teacher her 2nd and 3rd year than her first.

AtmosScientist said...

The fact is, at R-I institutions, professors are hired because of the research they do, not because they can teach. Those who care about education improve as the years tick by, while those who focus on their research improve less dramatically if at all.

I appreciate constructive criticism from the students as well...we should remind ourselves that some of our students are likely not practiced in giving constructive criticism. As the senior person in communication we should give them a bit more leeway.

Kevin said...

"(and before people protest "how many professors actually took classes in pedagogy?" the answer would be - maybe not that many but wouldn't it be better for their first few classes of students if they had??)"

I don't think that there is much evidence that classes on pedagogy improve teaching much. Experience teaching helps, caring about teaching helps, knowing the material helps, and being able to think clearly helps. I think that the only correlation with classes on pedagogy is that those who care about teaching sometimes take such courses---I don't think that there's any evidence that such courses help with teaching at the college level. (Some of the worst-taught classes I've had were ones intended for teacher training.)

I think that all grad students should be taught how to present a lecture, whether the students are expecting to go into research, teaching, or industry, as presentation skills are useful in almost all jobs. I'm amazed at the incredibly low standards that seem to prevail at most universities (judging by talks that I hear at conferences). We make a point of requiring every grad student to give at least one fairly public presentation each year, in addition to frequent presentations in grad courses and lab meetings. We also spend some time in our how-to-be-a-grad-student course on such topics as voice projection, preparation of good slides, facing the audience, and other mechanics of presentation. This year we started videotaping all lab rotation talks, and going over the videos afterwards to provide feedback. (We'd done some video feedback in the past, but the 10-minute lab rotation talks provide better opportunities for feedback.)

Anonymous said...

There is always the possibility that super-negative evaluations are at least in part retaliatory and/or personal attacks. For example, I got great, good, or neutral reviews the first time I TA'd except for a single student who was insistent that I should never teach again. I don't even know who this person was, but I'm pretty confident based on the other evals that I was doing pretty well for my first time teaching ever!

Now, if an instructor received 10-20 "S/HE SHOULD BE FIRED" evals, that would be something to worry about. But one could just be a particularly cruel student.

Wanna Be Mother said...

We force high school teachers to do a teacher training program including student teacher under the advisement of an experienced teacher. Why not teach professors how to teach before we put them in front of undergrads who are paying lots of $ for the class? I know that we with PhD's think we are so smart we don't need help with anything, but there is so much going on in education that you will never learn from getting a higher education...which is why the lecturing just continues and continues, despite years of research that lecturing doesn't work very well. Professor training should be at an ever higher level of rigor as high school teacher training.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have been teaching for 44 years, including time as a TA. My student evaluations were good in the beginning, and began getting worse as I approached the age of 40 (19 years teaching.) I made a concerted effort at improving my communication skills and my methods of motivating students, and at 65 years of age, I am a better teacher than ever, but my evaluations are still not as good as they were in the 1960's. I don't know whether this is because I have become more demanding, or exactly what.

Thinkerbell said...

Anon. @ 8:50 - I'm glad it helps and I see where you're coming from. But these two things are exactly what's wrong with (not all!)students: They feel that by merely showing up in college/at university they have already earned the right to be pampered and get good grades. I think they should be kicked out of their protective little bubble and made to realize that that's not how the real world works. And that can still be done with love.

@AspringFSP: While content-wise telling stories may not give you knowledge directly, I have always found many of these professors inspiring (as long as the stories are somewhat of interest) as it gave me a glimpse into their lives and fields. It may not have taught me formula's and dry facts, but it may have opened my fascination for fied. To me, that's a big part of the output of any teaching.

Alex said...

FSP, I know that you as an individual care a great deal about teaching. However, can you say with a straight face that your institution cares enough about teaching that they would be willing to deny tenure to a bad classroom instructor with a very good (by whatever standard your institution uses) research record? Alternately, could a person with a research record that is near the borderline (by whatever standard your institution uses) but a superb record in the classroom (measured by student evaluations, peer reviews, demonstrated curricular innovation, or whatever else one considers significant) get tenure despite the low research performance?

This, to me, is where the true test is. If teaching cannot significantly sway a tenure or promotion decision one way or the other, it doesn't really matter.

To be honest, I'm not even sure that anything short of abysmal teaching could be a cause for tenure denial at my school, which is an undergraduate institution that claims to care about teaching. Tenure denials seem to be more about politics than anything else, and even bad teachers seem to find some silver lining to paint on their teaching record so they can clear the minimum hurdle.

HennaHonu said...

I have never had a 1st year professor that was that bad. All of my horrible professors have been senior faculty that were absolutely awful and ineffectual teachers... but nothing is ever done about it and even multiple years of very negative evaluations do not result in a class restructuring.

Siz said...

Organizational issues aside, learning those comes with experience, some people are naturally good teachers and some aren't. And for all you bitching about awful teachers I hate to break it to you but although we professors technically get paid for teaching it's not the portion of our responsibilities that'll get us fired. We get paid to teach but research keeps us our jobs. An excellent researcher that sucks as teaching gets tenure while an excellent teacher that sucks at teaching will get tenure.

If you need an excellent teacher to teach you things go to a small undergraduate institution where teaching is the main focus of a professors job. If you're more self-motivated and can figure out how to learn by yourself than a few bad teachers at a research intensive university won't mess up your life. But also, from experience, I've learned that some people need to blame somebody for the fact that they failed a course, other than themselves.

Alex said...

Let's make my question more concrete: Suppose that the research issue was more about quantity than quality. Say an untenured professor published good work in good journals (rather than more mediocre, unimaginative work in mediocre journals) and was successful in mentoring grad students, but mentored fewer students than most and published fewer papers than most. Suppose that this slower pace (relative to whatever standard your school uses) in research was accompanied by demonstrated accomplishments in the classroom: High evaluations from students and peers, and significant effort to redesign a course using newer, better pedagogical methods.

Does this person get tenure?

Goosey said...

I feel that, as a student, I've always been sensitive to the efforts of my new professors. However, there were a couple, one in particular, who did things that aren't excusable, and this is at major research U with awesome reputation.

For instance, this one in particular, taught the whole class using material that came with the text, so contributed NOTHING beyond what was already in the text (actually confused it quite a bit). Additionally, he wrote unforgivable test questions like "how many of the statements below are correct" with about eight statements. As a student hoping to get sense of good feedback between effort and grades, this was beyond frustrating. Everything he did was done half-assed and incompetently.

Now, I didn't do the all caps "he's an idiot" thing and actually made my case, but I know for a fact that nothing changed in the next few semesters.

My point, research universities have prioritized research above teaching so much that they lack an appropriate way to respond to such situations. Out of about 50 people I know who have had this person, every last one of them shared my sentiments, though many blamed themselves. I did well in the course precisely because I ignored the fellow, didn't go to lecture, and just worked out of the text. More disappointment in education I have never experienced. My current lab is only a few doors down from this fellow, and my PI has no idea that he's a terrible teacher. No one cares.

Anonymous said...

I think this is going to be controversial:
1) I am reminded of the joke from the movie 'School of Rock' with Jack Black. "Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym." I would revise this by saying "Those who can't teach, teach at large research institutions."
2) Fact: Students are lazy.
Fact: The new 'average' grade in a class is a B. NOT a C!!!! Grade inflation is alive and well, and it is driven by the aforementioned lazy students and careless teachers at large research institutions.
Fact: People do not go to college to learn, people go to college to 'buy' a degree with a minimal amount of work.
3) Is there a correlation between bad teachers and bad speakers (giving research talks)?. In my experience...YES.

Finally, as a female post-doc at a large research university, I would like to say I really do not care if my teachers/mentors/supervisors are good or bad. To be successful you need to be self motivated and learn for yourself. Never blame a teacher for not learning!

"I never let my schooling get in the way of my education." - Mark Twain

Anonymous said...

I repeatedly asked for a chance to get teaching experience while I was a graduate student at the Univ. of Pennsylvania and was finally allowed to be an assistant to a TA for lab section for one semester.

I have repeatedly asked for opportunities to get teaching experience as a post-doc at UC and I have been rebuffed. In both cases I have been told some version of "we pay you to do science, not to teach, your teaching doesn't benefit me".

The problem isn't with graduate students or post-doc it is with an employment system that gives one person way too much control over the lives of individuals. And if this person is self-serving, which most people are, then there is no reason for them to let you take valuable time away from producing data to get experience teaching.

Hope said...

@Anon 8:50 am – You think that giving students tests that you know are too easy so that they’ll give you a good evaluation leads to some “ethical questions”? There’s no “question” here – what you’re doing is wrong, plain and simple. It’s called bribery. At least have the guts to admit it – you’re anonymous, for pete’s sake!

Have you ever considered that your inflated teaching evals make life harder on your honest colleagues? But it’s every man for himself, right?

@Anon 8:59 am – What is bullshit is your pathetic excuse for forgetting your principles: “it doesn’t hurt anyone, so how could it be wrong?”

Honestly, these are the things that make me question if I want to go into academia – the thought that I might have to resort to this kind of crap just to survive. How depressing! OTOH, maybe Alex is right and the ones in charge really don’t give a damn. And yet … that doesn’t make me feel any better!

Anonymous said...

Having spent the last two years of my life trying to be a better teacher, I have realized that what I believe to be good teaching and how students (atleast where I taught) perceive good teaching are two different things.

I have been on the receiving end of the "She should be fired evaluation and also letters from students saying they were sad that I left the institution. This was an institution were I was told by two female co-chairs of the department that I have to be more nurturing to my students as they expect that from female faculty! So, the evaluation from students in such an environment needs to be taken with a lot of salt, unfortunately.

Erin said...

As a hopeful future professor who completed an undergraduate degree heavy on pedagogy, I wish to exceed students' expectations that a first-year professor will be a poor teacher. I also applaud institutions like Michigan State University who offer a Certification in College Teaching program that allow Teaching Assistants to get pedagogical training.

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of the others in that I do not think it is OK to be a bad teacher your first year. I had some very horrible teachers early on in undergrad, and I didn't know that some teachers were horrible. At that point I trusted the major university I attended to ensure that I was being educated properly. It is those fundamental early classes that pave the way for learning subjects more in depth later on, and if a student has a bad learning experience early on they may drop the subject (or out of college) or worse they may think something is wrong with them.

Later on when I realized some professors ARE really bad teachers, I decided that I wanted to teach and improve science education. I wish more scientists realized how important education is. I think something should change and that professors should undergo adequate training before being completely responsible for that many young people's futures. It is old school thinking that keeps these bad habits. I know teaching is difficult and that your first year is usually hardest, but if professors put more energy into teaching they could be better. What will make them put more energy into it? Well unless they have a desire to teach well, they need to be held accountable for bad teaching. I think it is funny how many scientist think that their research will save someone when it is unlikely. What is more likely is that they will either enlighten a young mind or destroy it, which seems WAY more important to me. But that is me. Ok, getting off soap box now :).

Female Science Professor said...

I asked several of my colleagues this question: Would (insert the name of Colleague X, a research superstar but irredeemable lousy teacher) get tenure today? The unanimous reply was a pause and then "I'm not sure". For those who think lousy teachers should be fired no matter how many grants they have and not matter how many Nobel Laureates wrote glowing letters for their promotion, this might be seen as a sign of progress. 10+ years ago, the answer was clearly "Of course".

LiZG said...

The comments here are making me appreciate the way my first few semesters as a new teacher were handled. I never read the comments in the evaluations (I didn't need to - I knew my lectures were just okay) but rather than rake me over the coals, my mentor pulled out a few positive ones for me and then gave me my overall scores (1-5). Over the next few semesters, my lectures got better as I grew more comfortable with the material and my scores increased. It was hard being a new professor and I relish the fact that I am confident and enjoy lecturing now.

Anne said...

This is a very timely post for me. I have been blessed with a long series of excellent teachers and professors in my life, and very rarely have I had anything truly negative to say on an evaluation. However, I have had the misfortune of being saddled with a professor for the past month (he was the 4th teacher in a grad course, thank god - I could not have handled him all semester) whose methods rubbed me wrong in every possible way. He is an old and experienced professor, though this is only his second year at this school and therefore teaching this particular course (a first year graduate course). His motives are great - he wants to teach students and get them involved in their own learning.

However, his methods are *terrible*. He used truly ludicrous and convoluted "strategies" that only served to distract and frustrate me from the interesting subject matter. I confronted him a week into his section, because I knew I could not suffer in silence. My major complaint was that having two problem sets due every week, AND requiring us to turn in a draft AND a final copy of both (that's four assignments a week!) was a ludicrous idea that could not be supported by the rest of our schedules. His reply was "Well, adults need to manage their time, so you have to suck it up and do it too. Oh and by the way I once had a student who hated me at the beginning of a class - he loved me at the end!"

Then a week later he changed it to only one copy of each problem set, and later admitted that it was my comments that made him change his mind. While this is somewhat gratifying, I am *so pissed* that he dismissed me to my face, only to later admit that I was right. Also the intimation that I was only being childish and difficult was incredibly insulting. I know how good classes go - this was not it.

That was only the first issue, and every day he gave me a new reason to be angry or irritated. He lost my respect bit by bit every day, until I was simply longing to be out that door. I finally took his exam today (itself annoying in a number of ways) and I am DONE.

I've been thinking a lot about what I'm going to put on his evaluation. I'm obviously not going to submit a vitriol-filled rant, but there are a lot of very concrete things he can change in his teaching. I don't think my suggestions will change his infuriating absent-mindedness or arrogance, but he seems to completely change the format of the class every year so maybe I can help spare the next year at least some of my pain.

Anonymous said...

Midcourse evaluations are excellent. As an undergrad, I was in a course in which the professor requested evaluations after an exam that didn't go as well as he'd hoped. Hearing the professor say, "I evaluated you, now I want you to evaluate me, and I'll take your suggestions seriously," had a pretty positive impact on my perception of the course. I think the class as a whole tried harder and respected the professor more after realizing that he was genuinely concerned with teaching us--students forget those kind of things.

As a wet-behind-the-ears grad student, I'm really concerned with getting teaching experience...having had new professors as instructors, I've realized how difficult the task is and I want to be prepared so the first year goes as smoothly as possible for me and for my students. So far as I can tell, the only real chance for practice I'll get is being a TA and maybe outreach (which I also think isn't encouraged nearly enough in grad school).

amy said...

My dept. told me straight out: "we don't care about your teaching evaluations. As long as you're not an embarrassment, that's sufficient." They've never sat in on one of my classes or even looked over my syllabi and assignments. But on the research side, they're maddeningly vague about how many papers I need. The only answer I ever get is that I need more than I have now. So what the hell am I supposed to do? End result: I'm teaching a humanities course with multiple choice exams, short essay questions, no papers, and little reading. My evaluations are great, but I know in my heart that I'm a lousy teacher. I keep telling myself that if I can just get tenure, I'll put more time into my teaching. But I wonder if I will? Bad teaching becomes a habit, and it's not as though my employer will ever care about my teaching. Furthermore, the students at my school prefer dumbed-down classes. So my only motivation to do better is internal.

Kevin said...

The R1 institution I'm at does, in fact, weight teaching quite heavily at tenure time (and at all merit reviews).

My own teaching reviews are mixed (I've had classes that hated me and others that nominated me for teaching awards). At least once my promotion was delayed by a couple of years because of two classes with bad evals.

When we were recruiting, we turned away some superb researchers, because it was clear from their presentations that they would need a lot more practice before they were competent to teach.

Would a superb teacher but mediocre researcher get tenure---probably, if they actually had adequate research output. Would a super researcher but mediocre teacher get tenure--probably. Would someone mediocre at both get tenure---probably not. Would someone absolutely awful at teaching get tenure---it depends on the department (unfortunately).

Curt F. said...

I like the mid-semester evaluation idea, but I'd also urge another fix to the end-of-course evaluation system most universities have now:

Having evaluations not at the end of a course, but at one or two semesters AFTER the completion of a course.

The reason: students will have time to reflect on their experience in your course, and understand how it has helped them in their present courses or new jobs. They will be less likely to evaluate you on the basis of the grade you gave them, because the pleasures of their A (or the pain of their B-) will be further from their minds. Thus you will have less of a chance to "teach to the evaluation". I bet the extra time to cool off after I class ended would even keep down the number of "he should be fired"s that show up on the evaluations.

Why on Earth do student evaluations of teachers happen before their final exam and before they have had a chance to reflect on or apply what a course has taught them? I can't see a rational argument why end-of-semester is a logical time to do course evaluations.

Anonymous said...

"I understand that "teaching to the evaluations" raises the "problem" of grade inflation. But, I think this is bullshit.

Assume, for instance, that an undergrad takes about 30 courses by the middle of the senior year, when he/she goes on the job market. Assume EXTREME grade inflation, i.e., everyone gets one of only two grades: 'A' and 'B'

Then, counting scores in even the most crude fashion, there are 31 distinct groups of students from (A=30, B=0), (A=29, B=1) all the way upto (A=0,B=30)."

No, there aren't. In practical terms, there are three groups of students. There is a large group of students with (A=30, B=0). There is a large group of students with (A=0, B=30) and there is a handful of students who straddle the middle with some combination of As and Bs. A recruiter will therefore immediately discard all but the top group and have no way of distinguishing between them if there are too many to interview them all.

Sorry, but your cosy little scheme may make you feel better about your grade inflation, but it doesn't change the fact that it's a real problem.

Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate, I had a number of professors that were absolutely wonderful. Their class was truly a learning environment. However, I had one professor that was new and she was terrible. I could have handled her disorganization and the fact that she didn't really teach (I am capable of learning from a textbook), but she was very cruel to her students. I went to her office hours once only to have her insult my intelligence. Her arbitrary rules and useless assignments which were unrelated to class/exam material (I later learned that she didn't actually review the problems she was assigning, but picked them at random) were maddening on their own, but the belittlement students faced was too much. First year teacher or not, there is simply no excuse for this behavior.

Anonymous said...

To those who don't believe a professor needs to have teaching experience before being given a job where they have to teach classes: how do you explain to those first batch of students you teach why it's OK for them to be receiving an inferior education? Unless you refund them their money to offset the bad teaching they're getting from you, I doubt the excuse of "but I will get better with experience so next years' students will benefit!" will go down well.

If you are teaching a core class, being unprepared and doing a crappy job because it's your first time is still unacceptable. Bad teaching puts students at a disadvantage, it could leave them grossly unprepared to take the higher level courses in their degree programs. It could turn them off to fields of study that might otherwise have inspired them.

To say this is all OK because it's your first year, is incomprehensible to me. As has been mentioned already, high school teachers are given more formal training in the art of teaching as well as apprenticeship programs before they "fly solo". Professors should have at least that much as well. Professors who can't teach worth crap, should change their classification to research faculty then you won't have to do any teaching and everyone will be happier (you and the students). But I doubt they will do that since they want tenure.

Anonymous said...

I developed and taught labs for several courses as a Master's student, as well as developing and teaching two full courses.

The labs which I taught were medium sized (35-40 students) and met once a week for 10 weeks, so it was difficult to learn the students names.

In support of your class size/lecture hall theory, the quarters when I spent the time to learn each student's name, I got significantly better reviews. I think that they felt that I really cared about them and it truly wasn't very difficult.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

My father in law, a humanities professor for 30+ years, gave me a copy of The New Professors Handbook ( ) when I first landed an adjunct job (teaching one of the introductory courses for non majors, I should add...during the summer session.).

No controlled experiment was possible of course, but I thought it helped.

Anonymous said...

I'm a first year prof. now and have been told that being a good teacher and getting good evaluations aren't necessarily the same things. You may be doing things to benefit the students (good teaching), but I understand that the students will never know it unless you are good at PR (or, at least, communicating to them why it's in their best interest to take difficult exams or work lots of homework problems, etc). Also, it's been suggested to me that evals administered after 10 minutes of a course are about the same as those administered at the end of the course - it's all about first impressions. I know some profs. who load their first 10 minutes with jokes, and then they feel it's smooth sailing. Maybe it means the students perceive a friendly learning environment, and that goes a long way to helping keep their interest in class. I'm not yet at a point where I can blithely joke for the first 10 min of class, but I do know that I need to develop a comfortable (comforting?) style, and I'm working on that...

Advice for New Faculty Teaching Undergraduate Science said...

A friend and I collected every bit that we learned about teaching in our first few years as faculty and published it in an article titled "Advice for New Faculty Teaching Undergraduate Science", which you can find here: Check out also the "NIFP Workshop Resources" here:

For those of you aspiring to become faculty, or for those of you who are new faculty, please have a look. We wrote it for you to make your lives less painful. It certainly didn't help us in any way (other than catharsis and the hope of doing good).


scicurious said...

I know that it might be a good idea to gain as much teaching experience as you can before you become a young professor, but you also have to realize that many big MRUs actively discourage their grad students and post-docs from teaching. They will be doing research, and "teaching" is only one or two class periods per semester, if that. Unfortunately, this "preparation" only renders you capable of continuing in a similar MRU environment, which is becoming more and more rare.

I am not aware (and I have looked) of any classes even OFFERED to biomed grad students at my MRU on "teaching pedagogy". Even if there were, they are offered on a separate campus, and we are tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) discouraged from attending. And while it's very admirable to be studying teaching in your "free time", when you are expected to work 80 hour weeks in the interest of becoming a killer researcher, that often falls by the wayside.

We need to start preparing students to teach, as MRU jobs become harder to get. This is going to have to involve a change in the culture of many biomed MRUs.

Lori said...

Teaching evaluations = "customer satisfaction surveys"

Read the teaching evaluations that your institution uses. Do those questions accurately measure "good" teaching? Do students know what a "reasonable" time is for the return of graded assignments? How well can they evaluate the quality of the textbook? If you aren't on email at midnight on the night before an assignment is due, have you made enough effort to be "available to answer questions"?

Students naturally have a prejudiced view of how we do our jobs. It's like the parent-offspring conflict in theories of parental investment: the students will ALWAYS try to extract more investment than the professor is willing to give. And this will affect their satisfaction with the course.

Any evaluation committee who doesn't take this into account when looking at teaching evaluations isn't doing its job. Students certainly know if a professor has communicated well in the classroom, lab, or office hours. But why would anyone rely solely on the opinion of students when the scope of "good" teaching often lies outside their realm of expertise?

Anonymous said...

I am still a grad. I am so glad I was offered the chance to set up and give a class... to the grand audience of one professor!

I wrote the syllabus, decided upon the readings, chose the weekly topics, all of this in preparation for my writing two big papers (which I have to write after the term). To put it differently, I was to give weekly 2-hours presentation to a professor, whose task was to nod approvingly and take notes (as the topics fell within his area of research), on topics chosen to make a logical sequence research-wise.

So, yes, I was both on the receiving end and the giving end of the class. And it's a lot of work.

The goal is, openly, to get two very solid papers out of it and get them published. A fortunate side-effect is that I got quite a of experience preparing and giving lectures. Oh, and a very neat-looking syllabus to tout around.

FrauTech said...

Grade inflation: Most of my classes are averaged to a B- or C+, I wouldn't say that's psychotic inflation, a little yes. Also it's worth keeping in mind that students today will drop/retake classes if they aren't getting the grade they want. While this is lame, this means they might actually have a better understanding of the material the second time around and so would account for higher class averages in general, and might be responsible for SOME grade inflation.

A good teacher: teaches more than just the text, cares about students understanding concepts and applying them after the class and in the real world (not just on tests), cares about more than just memorization, aims tests and homework to test concepts as well as formulas, doesn't try overly hard to seek "revenge" on the "self-centered, spoiled, naive" students of every later generation.

Anonymous said...

FrauTech, a C+ average isn't severe grade inflation, no. There are certain introductory courses at my university (in non-science departments) that consistently average A- though. I dare anyone to deny that that is grade inflation! And the students who are used to courses graded on that level get very very cranky when they hit science courses with class averages that are actually reasonable.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting a license to teach high school now after some time as a asst. prof. I can't count the number of stunned looks I've received when I tell people that while teaching high school requires a year of education + student teaching, teaching college requires nothing at all. To the layperson, that seems completely backwards. As others have said, that speaks to the low rank teaching has in determining tenure decisions. My school talked up teaching during the interview process, but offered no support or training at all. Just don't suck too bad is really the standard-it was really up to one's own conscience how much effort you wanted to put in. When I started, someone gave me a CD with powerpoints on it from several different terms the class had been taught by various people. It was evident that someone had cranked them out 5 or so years earlier when our textbook was adopted, and everyone kept using them, changing the dates on them as necessary. The same typos or botched animations were maintained throughout-no one wanted to take the time to do a thorough updating.

I always enjoyed teaching, and got good evals as well, but I found the big lecture format to be remarkably inefficient from a student learning perspective, although it was certainly more economically efficient for the University to have me teach 150 students by myself than to have the number of instructors you'd need to have manageable classes where you could do something other than blab at them for 50 minutes three times/week.

LadyScientist said...

But don't you think the doc got to practice the procedure on a cadaver first?

Hmmm...what would be the teaching equivalent for practicing on a cadaver?

Anonymous said...

I am frankly surprised by how many comments there are about bad teaching, how it needs to be improved, and how helpful student evaluations can be. What about bad students, how they need to change, and how UNHELPFUL their evaluations can be? I have been teaching organic chemistry (a known weeder course) for a few years, first at a major research institution with excellent undergraduate students (judging by a variety of objective metrics), and am now teaching it at a major research institution with far-less-motivated undergraduate students. I have not significantly changed how I teach the material, other than to offer more review sessions and office hours. However, there have been incredible changes in my evaluations. At the first institution, the students gave very positive scores and offered constructive remarks that I quickly acted upon. At the second institution, the scores were very negative, with comments that ranged from gender-specific pejoratives, comments about sexual orientation, and personal attacks (along with variations on "the professor ruined my life because I got a bad grade"). (I have found that the evaluations for other faculty members at the two institutions teaching the same courses track with my own.) I would suggest that there is nothing constructive about such comments, and the idea that these students' evaluations have an impact on faculty careers is extremely frustrating. In considering student evaluations, we should realize that the qualification of the students to judge is NOT something that can be assumed. There are variations in the quality and personalities of students from institution to institution, geographical differences, cultural differences, and changes from generation to generation (these students of helicopter parents seem far less willing to take responsibility for themselves than students from even a decade ago). Individual classes can develop problems due to a few students with strong personalities who dominate the class. And some classes (often the hard ones that are required for something like med school!) have surprisingly unmotivated students who are looking for someone to blame for their poor performance. I think my experience only reflects the difference between the students at the two institutions, as the course material, class average grade, and instructor are the same.

Natalie said...

I had one professor who was extremely unpopular with the students, his classes were hard to follow and he seemed to have no interest in teaching or the subject matter. A senior member of staff he appeared to intensely dislike students. It was only when I was close to graduating I discovered that he had previously been a very popular teacher, but his wife had died of cancer a few years before after a long illness and he was having problems dealing with it.
It isn't fair on the students having such a disengaged professor, but on the other hand it would be really harsh if he were sacked!