Monday, October 03, 2011

Complaining Early & Often

While serving on a particular review committee at my university, I have seen many examples of negative comments in teaching evaluations for problems that seem like they could easily have been fixed during the course if only the professor knew there was a problem (and was willing to recognize it as such and change something about their teaching style).

Sometimes we professors can sense that something is wrong or that students are unhappy or confused. Some students will tell you directly, but most try to express their unhappiness and/or frustration in unspoken ways. Unless you ask them what the problem is, perhaps even by doing a mid-term evaluation to get anonymous comments, it can be hard to know what the problem is in some cases. Of course, if you just handed back a test and the average score was 17%, you might have some clues as to why students are unhappy.

The situations I am thinking about don't have to do with difficult tests, but more with teaching style. I have talked about some of these issues before, such as pacing vs. being stationary, having an accent and/or speaking too fast, using various formats and devices for writing, projecting etc.

Whenever I see a file with very negative teaching evaluations, I always wonder if any students complained somehow, to someone, during the course. Some of the problems seem entirely fixable during the term, when there is time for the students to benefit.

I tend to assume that no one complained because I seldom see a comment like "Although we told Professor X that we could never see his writing when he used the red marker, he kept using it." Instead, it's more common to see the complaint "I could never see the writing on the board when he used the red pen."

I can certainly understand why some students would not want to complain directly to or about a professor during a class. What if the professor gets angry and punishes them by giving impossible exams and low grades? There is surely some anxiety about the consequences of complaining.

Of course, there is a difference (or can be, anyway) between complaining and making a request. That is, instead of "I hate it when you use the red pen", something along the lines of "It would help us all see your writing on the board better if you only used the black and blue pens."

Other problems, of course, are more serious and more difficult to fix during a course; for example: comments about a professor's disorganization, inconsistency, perceptions of unfair tests or rude comments, refusal or inability to provide clear explanations or answers to questions. In those cases, what can a student do?

Don't wait for the teaching evaluation and don't be satisfied with writing negative comments on some professor-rating website. Get organized: talk to other students, find out what the issues are, get examples, and write it all down. Then ask an undergrad advisor, respected senior professor, or relevant administrator what to do. If the complaints/requests are reasonable, perhaps there are faculty or administrators who can pass along suggestions aimed at fixing problems in time to help the students. In some cases and at some places, these concerns will be dismissed or ignored, but I think it's worth a try.

In some cases (but probably not the extreme ones), there might even be a reasonable explanation for what seems like bad teaching. I one case I can think of, a professor used a lot of text-heavy slides in a class. The students complained about it in the teaching evaluations, but not one of them had mentioned during the course that they hated this. It turns out that there was a hearing-impaired student in the class, and the professor had been asked to put a lot of text on slides, and had spent considerable time doing so, out of concern for the hearing-impaired student.

There are ways that this particular situation could have been dealt with better by the professor and the students. For example, the professor could have explained what was going on, and could have found a way to present the course material without making the students feel bludgeoned by text-laden slides.

Of course I wish the major teaching problems could be fixed, but it is these easily fixable problems that I am focusing on today because they are fixable with a bit of two-way communication between professors and students.

So, student-readers: Are there any possibly-fixable issues in the classes you are taking now that you wish could be fixed during this term? If you give us some examples, the professor-readers can comment and say "Yes, you should definitely tell your professor about that" or "No, don't do it" (but here's a suggestion for dealing with it). More likely, you will get both answers for any particular example, but the results could be interesting anyway.


David Eisenberg said...

When I was a TA, we decided to ask the students to evaluate us (the TA staff), near the middle of the semester. We asked for anonymous, constructive criticism. However, the result was disappointing, in a sense: less than half the students filled the forms, and those that did were mostly happy about the teaching. We got maybe one or two constructive criticisms back. Those that didn't like us just didn't bother to reply, I guess.

yse said...

This is why I'm a big fan of the midterm evaluation. Right around the time of the first midterm (or right after) -- say about a month into the class -- I ask the students to write (type) a little anonymous evaluation of what they like and dislike about the course as well as what the find helpful (if I put up added material online, for example) vs. overwhelming. I think the students really appreciate this exactly for the reasons you're mentioning - they can't benefit from the complaints at the end of the term. When teaching smaller classes, every term is different so things that seemed to work one year fall flat for the next so I try not to assume what has worked in the past will necessarily work again for these new students. Therefore, their (early) input is invaluable.

Anonymous said...

The only "danger" of the midterm evals is that you have to be sure to talk about the results with the class. Otherwise if there are comments that you ignore (perhaps for good reasons) and don't explain, it makes the students even more mad at the end.

Anonymous said...

Is it OK to ask a professor not to pace around quite so much or is that too whiny and weird to ask?

Miss MSE said...

I think most students worry about how to say it without offending the professor. Phrasing constructive criticisms effectively takes practice, and the perceived risk to reward ratio may not seem worth it. I've never been in a class where students were afraid to ask the instructor to switch colors on the board, though.

I'm not currently taking any courses as a student, but I am teaching for the first (formal) time, so it's interesting to read some of these issues. I hope that as a TA, students are more willing to approach me with concerns because I'm less intimidating than VerySeniorProf, but we'll see when evaluations come out...

AScienceUndergrad said...

My complaint: one of my professors has overloaded the syllabus. We're reading two or so papers per 50 minute class, which means we spend about 20 minutes on each (interesting! Deep! Insightful!) paper.

The class is ostensibly a discussion-based class. Students are assigned to lead discussion each week -- they're supposed to read the paper in more depth and pick out a few points for discussion. When I lead discussion, the 20 minutes we spent on the paper broke down to maybe 8 of the professor talking, 8 of us talking in response to her direct questions, and 4 of the class actually discussing. While I spent a lot of time and effort reading the paper closely, it felt like a waste -- my participation was indistinguishable from if I'd skimmed it.

The class isn't in my department, and so I don't get a lot out of just reading the papers -- I want to discuss them so I can hear what my classmates think and learn from that. If my professor halved the reading, we could spend more time on it and be more engaged with it, and ultimately, I think, learn more.

But I'm not sure if this is a reasonable complaint, and *especially* not in the middle of the semester. I'm not complaining that there's too much work -- I'm complaining that we don't have enough time to give everything the attention it deserves.

Anonymous said...

I am taking an online course this semester and it appears that the powerpoints posted are powerpoints that are typically used in class WITH a lecture. I am unsure if that is the case or if I'm just one of the daft ones so I feel self conscious about bringing it up.

Anonymous said...

"Is it OK to ask a professor not to pace around quite so much or is that too whiny and weird to ask?'

It depends. Are they doing it incessantly? Or oddly? Are they in a small room where it's unnecessary?

I teach in a huge room and I have to walk about a bit in order to interact with students in different parts of the room. Also, studies have shown that many students find it easier to pay attention to a "moving target" and easily tune out someone who stands in one spot the whole time. Instructor movement in the classroom is a pretty standard thing - though I can imagine situations in which it was overdone.

If you are going to raise the issue, presenting it in a "I would find it easier if you..." format would likely be the most productive.

GMP said...

Is it OK to ask a professor not to pace around quite so much or is that too whiny and weird to ask?

I don't think it's whiny, If it bothers you, it bothers you. But be prepared to hear that the instructor may not be able or willing to do much about it.

For instance, I often get comments that I speak too fast. I tried speaking slower, but focusing on the pace really disturbs my focus on the content and hurts the delivery. So now whenever such an issue comes up on midsemester evals, I tell the students I am aware of it but that I cannot do much about it, tried in the past and it did not work. And I apologize to those for whom it's too fast, but it is what it is.

Btw, I always do midsemester evals, look at them and then address the concerns with the class next time. I highly recommend doing so.

Anonymous said...

What about if a professor uses examples from sports and thinks we can all relate to this, but I don't know anything about sports? Most of the time I can understand a main point without the sports example, so it doesn't matter and I figure the sports example is just extra. But sometimes the only real explanation involves knowing sports and I don't get it. I could ask for a nonsport explanation on a case by case basis? or just tell the professor that not everyone knows the rules of football or golf so he shouldn't assume this???????????????? I don't think he would get mad either way but I am just wondering whether to say something. It's really annoying but not a huge problem. Maybe the course listing should say Sports Knowledge as a prereq for this class.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:44 - If you feel comfortable doing so, I think it would be totally okay to politely say, "Excuse me, but I know nothing about golf/football/othersport rules, so I didn't follow that analogy. Would you mind running over that again without the sports?" Or take advantage of office hours, if you feel that you'd be taking up valuable lecture time having something re-explained that everyone else understood. Mind you, in my experience, if someone asks a question, there is a least one other (shyer) person in the class who is very grateful to them!

This is very timely for me, I just did an anonymous mid-term evaluation. I'd just reviewed a pretty heavy chapter, approaching the material more holistically, and was curious A) if it was a useful exercise, and B) what they were still confused about. I got really helpful responses (they liked the approach), and will incorporate the stuff that was confusing them into the review prior to the midterm exam. It's a little scary facing that pile of index cards, but in the end, I'm always really, really glad I did it.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that students should speak up if a fixable problem arises in class, I think many students feel that professors (particularly ones who have taught a course many times) aren't interested in comments students make. For example, in a graduate class I took last year, many people complained about the pace of a particular professor (too slow at the beginning, too fast at the end). Yet, I am TA'ing the course this semester and the pace was the same, and the students' comments are the same. Would it have helped to tell him this during the lectures? I am not so sure.

Anonymous said...

I read this and decided to ask a prof to write more neatly in an email. I spent a long time writing the email and was very polite. He said OK I'll try (without any sense of appreciation or disapproval of me asking). He didn't really get any better and now I just wonder if he thinks of me as bratty.