Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Let's get cynical

Last night I told a friend/colleague about her reputation at a place where we both work. The secretary there, who is new and young and hasn't yet developed the primary requirements of a 'good' secretary ('good' according to the school, that is) is friendly and talkative and actually tells me things. (Our old secretary there strenuously resisted telling us anything.1) The new secretary told me that my friend has a reputation for being really strict, and students dread her classes but also admit they learn more from her than they do from any other teacher there.

I envy her this reputation. My student evaluations are a little higher than average, and this makes me nervous. I have always suspected that when students evaluate us they give us higher marks for being soft and having easy classes.

Today I was sent a link to confirmation of this theory.

Although student-generated numerical evaluation forms (or SNEFs) are often used to determine whether an instructor is a bad, good, or excellent teacher, these forms, many experts contend, rarely, if ever, provide accurate assessments of instruction.
This does not surprise me. But it gets worse:

Ironically, some experimental studies revealed an inverse relationship between evaluation ratings and student learning.
All teachers should read this article. There is advice for how you can go about improving your evaluations without increasing your workload, and quite a few other interesting tidbits in there. One particularly scary tidbit is the information that the first impression a teacher makes is extremely important.

According to Drew Weston, who summarizes these studies in Psychology: Mind, Brain & Culture (1996), "the correlations between initial nonverbal ratings [the videotapes of instructors that students had seen were silent] and eventual student evaluations are as near perfect as one finds in psychology"
How about that, eh? Walk into the classroom and whoops! your student evaluation scores are pretty well settled before you even open your mouth.

To improve your evaluation scores, you are going to have to accept the fact that college 'teaching' has less to do with knowledge and information and more with convincing students you are one hell of a lecturer, even when spouting nonsense. It's not what you communicate, but how.
All this makes me wonder: WHY DO WE EVEN BOTHER?

(Classes start next week. Evaluations from last semester arrived a couple of weeks ago. I'm feeling cynical.)

1 I once had a struggle with the old secretary trying to find out where the information was about the timetable of the new semester, which she had apparently hidden. She denied all knowledge at first, but finally relented and told me the date classes started. I noted it in my diary, turned up on the prescribed date and found I was a week early. She thought this was a hilarious 'mistake' on my part. We had a good laugh and I complimented her ambiguously on her new hairstyle. Then I told her how wonderful it was to have an unexpected day off, thanked her for her help, and left her looking rather confused. I NOW KNOW WHERE TO LOOK FOR THE INFORMATION MYSELF.


E.P. said...

>>>WHY DO WE EVEN BOTHER?<<< Precisely why I retired from it in '90, GoodAunt. If you'll pardon my French, for years I kept busting my a... to do a good job, starting each new class with tremendous dedication and verve.

HA! A waste of time! What mattered most on evaluations was not that "she is a good teacher" (I got that even from students who hated me bec. I didn't let them loaf), but the fact that I was not a schmoozer. (The dean would always yellow-highlite the negative comments, but never the positive ones.) It was exhausting and exasperating----and it cost me my health.

Gordon said...

I think it's the same in a lot of professions. I don't schmooze at my place of work and I now accept that I won't be moving any higher (I've been demoted once already during a 'reshuffle').

How people view you is largely down to how you conduct yourself rather than what you say, making even the most unbelievable things believable if delivered in the right way.

My parents are/were school teachers and constantly railed against these kind of assessments stating that is should be their peers who assess them, not the students (especially so at school level - ages 5-18)

Anonymous said...

I would always get very, very nervous if students told me they liked me. I knew that was code for "this class is a breeze." The kids never understood the joy I took from their complaints that I was mean and the class was too hard. Now that I'm working primiarily in elementary schools I'm having a hard time getting over that mentality and cringe when teachers call me and tell me the kids loved me and want me to come back. I guess it's good when 6 year olds love you.

Carrie (queenoframbles)

sky said...

as a 3-time university grad who filled out her share of course evaluations, I feel fit to reply. I was usually pretty honest in my course evaluations. If a professor was easy to understand, listened to your questions, knew what the hell he was talking about, marked fairly, and tested you on what he taught - he got good marks. If he was a total dick and drew questions from obscure places just to trick you, ignored your questions or better yet - was condescending to students, blathered on endlessly about the same thing everyday instead of following the course syllabus, well then of course he got a very low rating. There were many inbetween, and they got their due rating. A professor who overloaded students with ridiculous amounts of readings only to ignore them when compiling an exam would definitely score low. If I came away feeling inspired, like I wanted to change my major, the prof usually got a really good mark.

I wish that students had access to the course evaluations in order to help them pick a sure would have helped me avoid some real stupid courses.

LuvTruth said...

>>>I wish that students had access to the course evaluations in order to help them pick a class<<< Scuttlebutt doesn't necessarily amount to anything: when I was in college, there was this rumor that Dr. H., the history prof., was reallllly mean and a hard grader. I was TERRIFIED of having that guy as an instructor, but I **had** to take a history course.

Well, guess what? He was one of my favorite teachers of all time: fascinating, fair, and we had a friendly rivalry bec. the only thing we agreed on was the heinousness of abortion (he was a Leftist Catholic, I am a slightly right-of-center conservative). I actually wished that I had discovered him earlier, in time to alter my triple major to a double major and a minor in history. Unfortunately, the best I could do was take only one more course with him before I graduated.