Saturday, July 16, 2011

Student Evaluations...and then some.

I recently received an e-mail from Liz Nutt who writes for another online blog on a web site entitled:  Online Universities.  Her article was about the 20 meanest teacher evaluations of all time.  Perhaps.  I'm interested in distance learning so I do read this site from time to time.  On line education I think will continue to grow, expand and stimulate our society.  It certainly can't hurt.  To read her article goto: (

But her article brought back many memories.  Let me digress a bit first, however.  When a person after several years of study receive their doctoral degree many then have to seek a job somewhere in this nation.  The department faculty talk to you for a couple of days, lots of walking about seeing the campus, then a day of talking to the Dean, then the Provost, and in some cases, then the President of the university. Stressful time.  Mine never worked out that way but as they say now-a-days that's another story.

Let's say my hypothetical new wet behind the ears professor at some point is offered a position which on the books is called a FTE (Full Time Equivalent).  Departments are measured by their FTEs, how many they have, how many on sabbatical,  how many FTEs are shared with another department--you get the picture.

What the new professor will find out during the first year is that she/he has three obligations, research, service and teaching--in that order.  Now let me translate that into understandable English.  A new professor has to write (books, articles, research reports) and these writings need to be evaluated by peers in academic organizations.  Then the new professor has to serve which means serving on committees.  Curricular committees, advising committees, graduation committees, textbook committees, technology committees. standards committee and when you are there long enough you can be elected to the grandaddy of them all, the TENURE AND PROMOTIONS committee.    If possible serving on a national association committee will get you off of some of these lesser committees and maybe a chance to visit other universities.  Maybe.

The last assignment is teaching.  Many newly appointed professors have never ever taught a college course.  Maybe they were a teaching assistant and taught a lab course or a study course aligned with the main course...But some folks have never taught a course.  Many universities that produce doctoral graduates have no requirements for their students to take a course on how to teach.  There is a saying in the Education department--You teach as you were taught.  Interesting thought.

However, another little known requirement is that as you teach your courses you have to be evaluated by the students.  Most universities have a form that fits all classes, labs, lectures, performance, which can be given at the end of the course.  The results of these questionnaires are given back to the instructor AFTER the grades are sent out.  The questionnaires include such items as: "Were his lectures understandable?"  Yes, No.  And somewheres near the end there is a place where the student can write down comments.  Hence, Ms. Nutt's article on the meanest teacher evaluations....of all times yet.  

I need to change hats at this moment from professor to philosopher.  Am I required to pour information into my students?  Or are they required to learn the material no matter what.  Should I teach them how to think?  Or just provide data in information?  My point being where is the power, on the professor or the student.

I know I've already told this story but it is worth telling once again to illustrate this point.  There was a well know nuclear physicist at the University of Chicago and as one version of the story goes, came to a graduate level class assigned to him one evening.  He went around the room getting the names of his eight students, checking them off his list.  Then he looked around the room and asked if there were any questions.  The students remained quiet and the prof said, "Good" and picked up his books and left the classroom.  The next week he sat down and asked if there were any questions and all hands went up.  Where is the responsibility--for the teacher or the learner.

I tend to think that the onus is on the learner at the university level.  I once had a professor that to this day was the very, very worst lecturer I have ever heard.  He was in school administration and his thoughts wandered and were completely disjointed.   He was terrible in the classroom.  But, and this is a very big but, in the hall or in his office he was a fountain of information.  He was the google of all administrative data that a student could ever want.  I remember that all of us in the class would endure his lecture only so we could quiz him in the hallway.  We even joked that the classroom ought to be in the hallway.  Famously informative professor who could not lecture but still could teach.

I use to get those student reviews from most of my classes.  I normally scored in the top decile of rankings and much of the comments were laudatory.  Those comments did not interest me--it was always the one or two who were very negative about the course that I was interested in.  First, you have to decide if the student doesn't like the course OR if the student doesn't like the instructor, in this case, me.  This give me a clue as to what i should be looking for.  

In the early days of computers it was not uncommon to find a student in class that was perhaps brilliant in knowing how to write computer code.  I'm sure a number of them found my computer code writing rather basic.  But I wasn't teaching writing code.  I still don't think teachers ought to have to write programs for their classes.  But still I would get one of these students who was totally upset with my coding skills.  I can assure you some of their comments stung.

On the other hand when I found someone who did not like my teaching skills, I was in seventh heaven.  Now I had something to work with.  What did they not like?  The lectures?  Why?  One student said that I cursed too much.  I don't remember cursing but I wonder what set him off?  I did put a TV camera at the back of the room several times to see if I could see what some of the negative comments might be about.  Watching myself teach is agony.  Pure agony.  But I did see several things I could improve on.  Out of thirty students I would get perhaps one negative review.  Those reviews were the most important to me.  I think the quickest way to improve your teaching is to video tape yourself.  

Lets change grade level on student evaluations.  I routinely would hand out a form in my fourth and fifth grade classrooms on "How is Mr. Blackwell Doing?" and I had a series of questions like, What is your favorite subject?  What subject does Mr. Blackwell teach the best?  Sometimes I find a correlation but sometimes it didn't work out that way.

One year it was pretty clear that I had been pushing social studies and neglecting science and health.  Almost all of the students commented on this and I immediately change objectives and brought things back to an even keel.  But i was not happy with my "teacher report card" in that I didn't get information about how the kids felt about the class and their classwork.  So I changed the formate.  I had the same questions but this time I had them write the answers to my dog, Stormy.  He was very popular in class and would come once or twice a year. The students loved to write to Stormy and many added information that was valuable to me as the teacher.  I remember one of those evaluations that went something like this, "Stormy, Mr. Blackwell says I'm a good student but he never calls on me or talks to me."  Whoa!  She was a pretty little girl in the front row and I realized she was right that I didn't call on her very often.  Big time change of tactics. I made sure she got my attention at least once a day.  And big time change in her face--much more smiling.  Kids want to learn but they want a pat on the back too.  I don't blame them.

Teacher evaluations by the students.  Important part of our teaching/learning process.  I know that John Dewey would have taken this all in with a smile on his face (I can't remember if I ever saw a film of him smiling) as he believed that students needed to be part of the teaching/learning process, not just a receptor for information.  The strange thing about all this is that in his later years, Dr. Dewey was not the best lecturer and in one case, actually walk out of the room thinking about something.  

To all teachers, K-12 and university who get student reviews may they at least thank you for your services.  You are important to our society.

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