Day: March 17, 2017

On Teaching, Yet Again (Part 1)

I cannot wait for this semester to end; it’s mostly because a couple of major service obligations will end with it, so I will no longer have to deal with some very difficult people. There are people who, once they’ve grabbed onto some power, develop — or perhaps just give themselves the permission to manifest? — disrespect towards their colleagues that is both staggering and frightening. And how easily some other people will roll over in the face of bullying by someone they perceive higher in the hierarchy is just nauseating. One reason we have tenure is so we wouldn’t have to tolerate being bullied by the administration, FFS.

But this was me having my tiny ranty vent. Or is it a venty rant?


I mostly wanted to talk about teaching, and what it means to teach well.

I am a very good teacher. How do I know? I get great student evaluations, I have very high attendance in all of my lectures, and even though I really challenge the students — trust me, I make them work really, really hard — they rise to the challenge. I have nearly twice the enrollment in my courses than the colleagues who teach the same class. I have also heard from multiple sources that students wait for when I teach a class to come and take it, and a number of students take 2-3 classes with me. (/brag over)

A few weeks ago I heard, yet again, the annoying assertion that high student evaluations don’t mean that you are a good teacher, and that it means that you are just entertaining your students and that you are an easy grader. I resent this implication, and honestly, that sounds like sour grapes: if it were that easy to get high student evaluations, everyone would get them. But it’s not easy, and students are not stupid. Maybe the following depends on the school, but I teach at a public school and the students in my classes are for the most part not spoiled, lazy, or entitled. Most are here to learn, and they appreciate being taught well. They also appreciate a professor who takes the time to get to know them, who has a clear schedule of assignments and exams, returns graded exams promptly, has enough contact hours, and who generally shows that he/she cares about student success.

There is a lot of research showing that student evaluations of teaching aren’t a very good predictor of teaching effectiveness. Student evaluation also tend to show bias against female instructors. (I believe these studies exist, but I don’t have links. If anyone has links, please leave them in the comments.) However, the last few times when this came up, whenever I asked the person who advocated for abolishing teaching evaluations for how we should measure teaching effectiveness instead, there was no definite answer. People said exit surveys, evaluations after follow-on classes, etc., but nothing really that would produce a quantitative metric. Student evaluations are not the only thing we submit for tenure here, there are also reviews of teaching by senior colleagues, and other documents in the tenure dossier that can put a candidate’s performance in context (e.g., compare to others teaching the same type of course). At least here, it’s not like the evaluations are the only piece of information we look at.

In the language of mathematical logic, we seem to want equivalence between teaching effectiveness and some quantitative metric, but we really just have an implication. (A–>B is true, but B–>A (the same as !A–>!B) is not necessarily true, and thus A<==>B is not true).

The relationship between evaluations and teaching is similar to the relationship between the h-index and research excellence. A person with a high h-index is probably making an impact on his or her research field; that doesn’t mean that the person with a lower h-index isn’t. Similarly, a person with high teaching evaluations is likely a good teacher; that doesn’t mean that one with lower evaluations isn’t. Also, there is such a thing as an h-index that is too low (for a given field and candidate seniority) and there is such a thing as teaching evaluations that are too low.

I don’t think quantitative metrics are evil. They don’t mean everything, but they do mean something.


There is a junior faculty member who is struggling with teaching some lower-level large-enrollment courses. His teaching evaluations are quite low. I visited his class a few times, as we require for tenure, and I am not surprised by evaluations at all. I could have predicted his scores for last semester based on just sitting in one of his classes. I gave him feedback after that class, but I don’t think I was blunt enough.

We all wish to be teaching only the students who are highly motivated and interested in the subject; this is your typical upper-level electives or graduate course demographic. However, the students who already come interested are easy to teach; you just have to know the material, and even if all you do is transmit the information passably, they will learn, they will feel great about learning, and your evaluations will be great, too.

However, that’s not how it works. You get whom you get. In large-enrollment, lower-level required courses, many students don’t want to be there. Many are unprepared. It is very easy to lose and never recover swaths of your audience. That’s where you see a difference between really good teachers and everyone else.

You don’t get to choose the students you get; you have to find a way to teach the students you actually have in your class.

In order to teach, you have to be able to connect with your students. This is paramount in getting them to come to class. And, for some faculty, at least among my colleagues, it is hard to connect with students because they cannot get over what really boils down to a level of disdain — that the people in the class are not bright enough or worthy enough, or else they would understand the teacher’s awesomeness or the supposedly inherent awesomeness of the course material.

Teaching well requires a level of empathy: to be able to put yourself in the students’ shoes, to try to see the material and yourself from their perspective. And their perspective may not be the perspective that you ever had yourself, because most students are neither as talented for nor as interested in the field in which you got your advanced degree as you are. The teachers who make jokes in class or bring props and demos are all trying to do that — connect with a novice learner who might be quite different from them.

You need to figure out what it is that they need from you. And the more abstract the concepts are, the more important it is to come up with good examples that hopefully translate to the real world. And you don’t have to give them the full mathematical artillery the first time around. At first exposure, lead with intuition and follow with the formalism.

*** to be continued (blogger got too sleepy) ***