Monday, December 21, 2009

Why Even Care?

When discussing issues about teaching and teaching evaluations, there are always comments along the lines of:

- Why would a tenured full professor care about these things?


- Why even read teaching evaluations if they are so flawed?

The first part is easy to explain. Many professors at major research universities care about teaching. I am by no means alone in this respect. Getting tenure is a huge relief, but it doesn't stop us from caring about being good teachers and caring about whether our students learn what we try to teach them.

But why care about teaching evaluations? That question has a less obvious answer, in part because there are many possible answers. Speaking only for myself, I suppose I am a bit of a perfectionist, and I mine teaching evaluations for whatever useful information they might give me about how a course went and I look for clues as to what worked and what didn't. Even for courses that I teach many times, I change things from year to year, and I am interested in new input each time.

Furthermore, although I am a full professor who has been teaching reasonably well for decades, my teaching evaluations are examined as part of a post-tenure review process. At many universities, every professor is evaluated every year or so for research-teaching-service activities. When there is money available and university/union policies permit, the evaluation is used to determine merit raises. These are primarily based on research, but not entirely. You can get a merit raise for being an outstanding researcher and a mediocre teacher, but the raises become smaller or non-existent if teaching performance is dismal.

The evaluation of my teaching evaluations may also be considered as one component of the Chair's decisions about what I will teach.

Furthermore, some of my committee work involves evaluating professors who have been nominated for awards. Some awards are entirely for research, some are entirely for teaching, and some are for 'scholar-teachers' (or 'teacher-scholars'). For any award involving teaching, we look at teaching evaluations as one component of our deliberations, no matter how senior the professor.

Teaching evaluations never go away. You can ignore your own if you want, but if there are going to be people scrutinizing mine and making decisions about me, I want to know what is in them. If I am going to revise a course in format or content, I want to have some indication of what the students thought about the course.

Even my colleagues who are more interested in research than in teaching and who would be content to teach only 1 course/year nevertheless care a lot about the quality of their teaching. I know there are uncaring professors out there who would just as soon not teach at all and spend as little time as possible on their classes, but, as I've said many times before, I have only encountered a few of these. They may loom large to the students who are unfortunate enough to encounter them in a classroom and they may be favorite characters for the media to skewer when writing about research universities, but I am convinced they are a small and dwindling population.


Anonymous said...

I don't know why you're convinced they are a "small and dwindling" number. I will reiterate from a previous comment: the only "bad" teachers I have had at university were senior faculty who don't put any time into their teaching. In addition, in two programs at different large research universities, I have had at least 6 of them. One loved to hear himself talk so much that he spent 40 mins of every 90 min class telling us some story from his life (in a 100 level physics class with 200+ students). Another two wander from topic to topic without any continuity or thoroughness, constantly interrupting during presentations, and having identical tests to previous decades on material not in the assigned textbook or ever covered in class because "you need to know it anyway". Not counted in this 6 are the many more who make no obvious effort to change their courses from one year to the next and never take into account their evaluations. I have talked with a new professor from my old institution who went to my current institution over a decade ago, who had the same professor for the same class that I did, and had the same problems - exact same problems!
Honestly, I just don't think the tenure system really works to provide the best opportunities and experiences for professors and students alike.

John Vidale said...

As usual, I agree with FSP almost completely.

Teaching takes time, and hearing what worked and what didn't can make preparation more efficient and effective, no matter whether anyone else ever sees the evaluations. I always study mine carefully.

Sorting out real praise and complaints from the frequent irrelevant and/or self-serving comments takes a thick skin, but usually is not difficult.

Two caveats - I suspect a large fraction of profs are too thin-skinned to take student evaluations seriously, and bad evaluations can serve to lighten one's teaching load - sometimes a desirable results - undermining the motivation to please the students. Some profs take a (perverse, to me) pride in student evaluations complaining about prof arrogance, inflexibility, and work overload.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Unfortunately, you have completely elided the question whether teaching evaluations reveal anyfuckingthing about the "quality" of teaching. Other than grossly egregious cases--like 90 out of 100 evaluations stating that the professor stinks of alcohol and exposes herself during class--students in a course are in absolutely no position whatsoever to discern whether they are being taught effectively.

Anonymous said...

Teaching evaluations are flawed, but over the years one can find valid recurring criticisms in there: "slides are too messy" or "speak louder" or "not enough examples in class".

If, as FSP, you care about doing a good job, one can act on those comments and ignore the remaining randomly generated student ratings.

Anon 1: "prof spent 40 mins of every 90 min class telling us some story from his life".

Not knowing the specifics is hard to comment, but has it occured to you that he maybe sharing something particularly insightful inside stories at the expense of the material which you can always read from the book?

Female Science Professor said...

CPP - I've discussed that issue before. I have found evaluations to be useful as a general guide to what works or doesn't in a class, especially the big intro classes.

Doctor Pion said...

I think we need to distinguish between what Anonymous1 thinks you were saying and what you said: "uncaring professors out there who would just as soon not teach at all and spend as little time as possible on their classes".

Based on second hand feedback (students from my CC taking a class from someone I know), I think Dr. FSP's observation is probably accurate. Just because a professor is bad does not me ze doesn't care about teaching. Ze might care a lot about teaching but just be really bad at it.

A typical problem for many teachers is that they don't separate their way of knowing the subject matter (which might have been intuitive from day 1 and never actually learned in class) and their experience with lectures (if any, since they might have attended a very different undergrad school) from what their students bring to the classroom.

Typical evaluations only identify that there is a problem, not what the problem is or, more importantly, what to do about it. A fair to good teacher can learn a lot from one out-of-line point in the typical evaluation and might already be aware of what caused it. A poor one just sees straight F grades and gets nothing from that information. Only something like peer evaluation (and not just a one-day visit) can provide what is needed to truly improve teaching. That boring digression Anonymous1 mentioned might have been a serious, but misguided, attempt to "relate" to the students.

Like FSP, I have gleaned some wonderful morsels from evaluations over the years. My favorite is one that most would blow off or send to "Rate Your Students": this engineering major stated that ze hated physics and couldn't understand why ze had to take it. What did I learn? That one thing I need to teach real early in the course is why it is required for engineering majors! Turns out lots of them don't know why because they don't know what engineers actually do.

EliRabett said...

A large part of the problem are the motherhood questions. Yes, motherhood is a good thing. About five years ago I started to put my evaluations on line (Blackboard) and inserting specific questions about things that I had tried that year.

Of course giving credit for filling out the evaluation helped an awful lot. It also helped to put the say anything you want question FIRST not at the end of some inane survey.

Hope said...

FSP may be right that most profs care about their teaching and want to improve, but a lot of people also want to take better care of themselves, to eat right, lose weight, and yet … these things are easy to say and to desire, but not so easy to bring about – especially after years of bad habits. I agree with Anon1 that the current system does not provide enough incentives for profs to significantly improve their teaching.

Also, student evals of profs have their flaws, but so do peer evals. Ever been to a restaurant that has received a great review from a critic and wondered, WTF? It’s one thing to prepare a great meal one night, but another to do this day in and day out. The best information about what is going on in the classroom comes from considering several sources.

Ms.PhD said...

Anon said: I don't know why you're convinced they are a "small and dwindling" number. I will reiterate from a previous comment: the only "bad" teachers I have had at university were senior faculty who don't put any time into their teaching.

For better or worse, they're being replaced with "instructors" or "lecturers" - who are younger, cheaper, and perhaps more interested in teaching. But it's also just creating yet another slave class of PhD-holders with no health insurance.

CPP said: students in a course are in absolutely no position whatsoever to discern whether they are being taught effectively.

I totally disagree. You can argue about whether they won't know whether they learned anything until much later in life. Maybe. But students usually know when they are lost and when they are getting those rare, precious lightbulb moments. Maybe they shouldn't be doing evaluations until AFTER they get their final grade, as a way of evaluating how much they actually learned vs. how much they thought they learned?

But I get why teaching scientists are at least morbidly curious. Because we're always starved for data. It might be the only data you get besides grades, and it's a different kind of data. Perceived learning/intellectual satisfaction is different from performance on an exam.

And it's true that most scientists are perfectionists. I can understand the reflex to keep striving for improvement, even when it's illogical and you can't tell if you're actually making any progress. That's basically the research mindset in a (no pun intended) nutshell.

Anonymous said...

Teaching evaluations are grades. We received grades thru elementary-midle-high school, college, graduate programs, twice a year for roughly 20 years of our lives. And most of the time they were good. And we cared, studious little nerds that we were. We are addicted. I'd be jonesing without my teaching evaluations twice a year. And while mine are generally very good, even the bad ones are far kinder than some of the reviews that still cause me to shudder when I think of them.