Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Education Reform Now!

I was taking a look at my teaching evals (and no, I'm not revamping my stuff for the fall yet. God.) and got typically angry at the paragraph long rant by that surly kid who consistently shows up just just a minute late and won't avail himself of help no matter how far you go out of your way.

Idea: Why don't we rate students the same way they rate us, you know, with comments optional? So instead of 'B,' you can report 'B - lacks focus in papers, overly aggressive with other students...' Comments go at the end of the transcript for anyone who cares.

-- Second Suitor


Anonymous said...

Obligatory William C Dowling link: http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~wcd/ratestud.html

zombie said...

Some schools do that. I went to a (very) small SLAC where extensive comments were part of the grading (although they do not show up on the transcripts).

Do you want to do that much work on your student evals? What if you're teaching a class of 100? Obviously, you won't have anything to say about 95% of them (in my experience).

So, a plausible plan for SLACs, where it is already (sometimes) done. Not plausible in a large university setting.

But also strikes me as a good way to get sued and/or flamed to the point of cremation. Which may be another reason it is not widely done.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about student evaluations. I have been consistently getting low scores since I have started working as a tutorial leader (around 5.2 in a 1 to 7 scale, which is around 7 points lower than the average in my department) and I have never been an instructor in a full responsibility course yet. Could this be a problem the day I go to the job market? Does this mean that I have no chances of getting a good job?

Anonymous said...


Xenophon said...

It's one thing to put on a student's transcript something like "comes late to class then reads the paper." That would get you sued.

But why not be able, before you get final student evaluations, to input class attendance, degree of participation, etc. and then have these, and grades, regressed against student evaluations when the university sends its report to you evaluating your performance?

Wouldn't it be nice to know, and to document for the administration and for potential employers, that while you got a 3 out of 5 from students, you got a 4.3 from students who regularly came to class, and a 4.6 from students who got A's?

The big question is, why don't schools already do this? Must be because they don't really care about quality of instruction, because if they did then they'd want good data.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:44, I would think your primary question would be: how do I raise my scores/become a better teacher? To answer that question, read your evaluations to get a sense of where to improve, get advice from good teachers in your department, then implement next semester. Repeat the process over again with your next set of evaluations.

If your scores improve, note what you did that worked well, and use that story on the job market. Committees love that combination of reflection and improvement.

Of course, if you don't improve. Shit.

Anonymous said...

"raise my scores/become a better teacher"

Those aren't the same thing. If you want to raise your scores:

(1) Be very easy on your students (grading and otherwise).

(2) Make your classes short and entertaining.

(3) Tell your students that your future livelihood depends on the evaluations you get.

(4) Bribe them with cookies the day of the evaluations.

If you can also be (5) good looking and/or (6) funny / cool / hip / likable, so much the better.

Finally, you might try (7) being a good teacher (although preferably just knowledgeable and thought provoking)... just make sure that that doesn't come at the cost of (1) or (2).

Recently Tenure Tracked said...

Second Suitor,

I think Zombie's right. The chance for a backlash just seems too great for most schools to risk it. But something like the ratemyprofessors.com analogue that Dowling (what a crank!) mentions would be the way to go, if only for ranting purposes.

Anon 11:44,

My impression is that your teaching evaluations have a negligible impact compared to your recommendations, writing sample, and teaching demonstration. Don't sweat the scores for now. I would try to improve your teaching, not just your scores. That will get you a better teaching recommendation and prepare you better for your teaching demonstration. Buying scores with easy A's might help land you an APA interview, but it won't get you through an on-campus interview. Besides, using easy grades and cheap jokes to shirk your teaching duties strikes me as professional malpractice.

That said, Anon 3:23's techniques do boost scores, though you don't need to be easy on them to get good evaluations.

There are sites out there with teaching advice, some of it aimed directly at philosophy. Try the blog In Socrates' Wake and teachphilosophy101.org.

Anonymous said...

Some other ways to avoid bad scores (beyond the obvious):

1. Don't teach early in the morning. I once taught a 7:30 am section and an 11:30 am section of the same course. My 7:30 scores were considerably worse than my 11:30 scores, even though I taught exactly the same material, in exactly the same way. To a lesser extent, the same is true of classes around/after dinner time.

2. Use examples that relate to stuff students actually like - football, Nascar, realty shows, binge drinking, Twilight, et cetera. Whatever you do, don't use examples from classical history - I learnt that lesson the hard way!

3. Tell a funny joke right before you hand out the evaluations. I'm not a funny person, but I somehow managed to tell a remarkably funny joke before handing out evaluations once. Even better, the joke followed on from a racist made by a student - it released the tension, and it also suggested the flaw in the student's reasoning. That quarter, I got wonderful evaluations and almost half of my students commented on my sense of humor. Short term memories.

zombie said...

Anon 11:44,

I don't know how much SCs care about teaching evals. A small percentage of them want to see them in your dossier, but the majority do not. Presumably, as teachers themselves, they all understand that the data is minimally useful, particularly when there are outliers who rate you badly when you are at least OK to the majority of students. If I had to guess, I'd say they're looking at your overalls more than the details. If they care a lot of about teaching, and ask for your evals, then it might hurt you some. I've always scored somewhat higher than average for my dept in evals, but there were always a few students who rated me low, and had nasty comments. There's at least one in every class.

Anonymous said...

Others have given good advice here. I want to add a couple things.

1) Education (in its original sense- check the Latin "educere") carries with it the sense of drawing something out of a student. So, in thinking through your material and how you teach it, you'll want to ask yourself, What originally drew you to philosophy? What's so interesting and important about the subject(s) you're teaching? Whatever it is, that's what you need to build your introductory courses around.

2) In organizing our courses we tend to teach philosophical theories first (normative ethical theories, for example) and then apply them to particular situations (e.g., how might a utilitarian argue for the moral permissibility of abortion?) This may be the exact wrong way to go in an introductory course. Why? Because most of us, perhaps all of us, originally got interested in philosophy because we were curious about some specific philosophical question (e.g., Does God exist? Would it be right for me to do X? What if this is all a dream?). Interest in the ways philosophers have answered these questions came only after we were interested in the questions themselves. Most of our students will be less naturally curious about philosophy, so it is all the more important that we teach philosophy in a way that will make it come more naturally to students.

3) Your attitude toward your students is crucial. Check out how this professor sets up his introductory physics course:


You'll really only need to see about the first minute and 45 seconds to see what I'm getting at, but what he says from about 4:30-6:30 is also illustrative. What's his attitude toward students who may not see the relevance of physics for their careers? How does he set up the course to appeal to as broad an audience as possible? How does he approach grading requirements, assignment deadlines, and so forth? What does he do to help students do well in the course? (begins @ 8:05 in the clip) You might adopt a similar approach to how you set up your courses, if you don't already do so.

Anonymous said...

Watch the movie "Tenure" and you'll see how much teaching evaluations matter, even at teaching schools....not at all!

Anonymous said...

zombie makes a good point. Very few schools ask for your teaching evaluations or data with your applications. What they don't know can't hurt you.

Anonymous said...

One thing I do that I have always felt helps with eval scores is having a talk with the students about my future plans for the course right before they fill out the evals. I tell them about stuff I'm thinking about adding/subtracting from the syllabus and other types of assignments I plan to integrate. It has generated a few really helpful written comments and I think it helps the students feel as though they're having more input into the education process.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much SCs care about teaching evals. A small percentage of them want to see them in your dossier, but the majority do not.

This has not been my experience. At least half of the jobs for which I applied this past year asked either explicitly for copies of teaching evaluations or for "evidence of teaching effectiveness."

For what it's worth, I do think teaching evaluations can be informative in certain contexts. The undergrads at my university are pretty bright, and I find that my own intuitions about the pedagogical effectiveness of faculty in my department are often corroborated by undergrad evaluations.

Lastly, in response to some of the comments here:

1) It is possible to be a tough grader and get good course evaluations.

2) This should go without saying, but, whatever you do, don't hand back papers on the day you do course evaluations.

3) I second the comment by Anon@4:50pm (regarding discussing future plans for the course before passing out course evaluations). I do something similar and have received some very useful feedback.


"Why don't we rate students the same way they rate us"

'Cause they's payin' yo,
yo ain't payin' them
and that's what it ALL boils down to; well, that or flyin' planes into buildings.

Perhaps 00.00000000000000000000001% other, at times.....perhaps.

Anonymous said...

It would sure be nice to be able to let other professors know that one of their would-be students does this:


I don't know whose conduct is worse: the student who buys the essay or the person who writes and sells it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the person above who recommends the Dowling link. I disagree with the person who calls him a crank -- he's a visionary, as far as I can tell. He teaches at Rutgers. Here's another link from that page that gets at another whole side of teaching evaluations: