(Some Of) My Teaching Philosophy

Over the course of my time at various public schools and universities I have encountered a great many teachers. Some of my teachers were quite good. I would credit my interest in evolutionary psychology to one particularly excellent teacher – Gordon Gallup. Not only was the material itself unlike anything I had previously been presented with in other psychology courses, but the way Gordon taught his classes was unparalleled. Each day he would show up and, without the aid of any PowerPoints or any apparent notes, just lecture. On occasion we would get some graphs or charts drawn on the board, but that was about it. What struck me about this teaching style is what it communicated about the speaker: this is someone who knows what he’s talking about. His command of the material was so impressive I actually sat through his course again for no credit in the follow years to transcribe them (and the similarity from year-to-year was remarkable, given that lack of notes). It was just a pleasure listening to him do what we did best.

A feat I was recently recognized for

That I say Gordon was outstanding is to say he was exceptional, relative to his peers (even if many of those peers, mistakenly, believe they are exceptional as well). The converse to that praise, then, is that I have encountered many more professors who were either not particularly good at what they did or downright awful at it (subjectively speaking, of course). I’ve had some professors who act, more or less, as an audio guide to the textbook that, when questioned, didn’t seem to really understand the material they were teaching; I’ve had another tell his class “now, we know this isn’t true, but maybe it’s useful” as he reviewed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for what must have been the tenth time in my psychology education – a statement which promptly turned off my attention for the day. The number of examples I could provide likely outnumber my fingers and toes, so there’s no need to detail each one. In fact, just about everyone who has attended school has had experiences like this. Are these subjective evaluations of teachers that we have all made accurate representations of their teaching ability, though?

According to some research by Braga et al (2011), that answer is “yes”, but in a rather perverse sense: teacher evaluations tend to be negatively predictive of actual teaching effectiveness. In other words, at the end of a semester when a teacher receives evaluations from their students, the better these evaluations, the less effective the teacher tends to be. As someone who received fairly high evaluations from my own students, this should either be cause for some reflection as to my methods (since I am interested in my students learning; not just their being satisfied with my course) or a hunt for why the research in question must be wrong to make me feel better about my good reviews. In the interests of prioritizing my self-esteem, let’s start by considering the research and seeing if any holes can be poked in it.

“Don’t worry; I’m sure those good reviews will still reflect well on you”

Braga et al (2011) analyzed data from a private Italian university offering programs in economics, business, and law in 1998/9. The students in these programs had to take a fixed course of classes with fixed sets of materials and the same examinations. Additionally, students were randomly assigned to professors, making this one of the most controlled academic settings for this kind of research I could imagine. At the end of the terms, students provided evaluations of their instructors, allowing their ratings of instructors to be correlated – at the classroom level, as the evaluations were anonymous – with their performance in being effective teachers.

Teaching effectiveness was measured by examining how students did in subsequent courses, (controlling for a variety of non-teacher factors, like class size) the assumption being that students with better professors in the first course would do better in future courses, owing to their more proficient grasping of the material. These non-teacher factors accounted for about 57% of the variance in future course grades, leaving plenty of room for teacher effects. The effect of teachers was appreciable, with an increase of one standard deviation in effectiveness led to gain of about 0.17 standard deviations of grade in future classes (about a 2.3% bump up). Given the standardized materials and the gulf which could exist between the best and worst teachers, it seems there’s plenty of room for teacher effectiveness to matter. Certainly no students want to end up at a disadvantage because of a poor teacher; I know I wouldn’t.

When it came to the main research question, the results showed that teachers who were the least effective in providing future success for their students tended to receive the highest evaluations. This effect was sizable as well: for each standard deviation increase in teaching effectiveness, student evaluation ratings dropped by about 40% of a standard deviation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, grades were correlated with teaching evaluations as well: the better grades the students received, the better the evaluations they tended to give the professors. Interestingly, this effect did not exist in classes comprised of 25% or more of the top students (as measured by their cognitive entrance exams); the evaluations of those classes were simply not predictive of effectiveness.

That last section is the part of the paper that most everyone will cite: the negative relationship between teacher evaluations and future performance. What fewer people seem to do when referencing that finding is consider why this relationship exists and then use that answer to inform their teaching styles (as I get the sense this information will quite often be cited to excuse otherwise lackluster evaluations, rather than to change anything). The authors of the paper posit two main possibilities for explaining this effect: (1) that some teachers make class time more entertaining at the expense of learning, and/or (2) that some teachers might “teach for the test”, even if they do so at the expense of “true learning”. While neither possibility is directly tested in the paper, the latter possibility strikes me as most plausible: students in the “teaching for the test” classes might simply focus on the particular chunks of information relevant for them at the moment, rather than engaging it as a whole and understanding the subject more broadly.

In other words, vague expectations encourage cramming with a greater scope

With that research in mind, I would like to present a section of my philosophy when it came to teaching and assessment. A question of interest that I have given much thought to is what, precisely, are grades aimed at achieving? For many professors – indeed, I’d say the bulk of them – grades serve the ends of assessment. The grades are used to tell people – students and others – how well the students did at understanding the material come test time. My answer to this question is a bit different, however: as an instructor, I had no particular interest in the assessment of students per se; my interest was in their learning. I only wanted to assess my students as a means of pushing them to the end of learning. As a word of caution, my method of assessment demands substantially more effort from those doing the assessing, be it a teacher or assistant, than is typical. It’s an investment of time many might be unwilling to make.

My assessments were all short-essay style questions, asking students to apply theories they have learned about to novel questions we did not cover directly in class; there were no multiple choice questions. According to the speculations of Braga et al (2011), this would put me firmly in the “real teaching” camp, instead of the “teaching to the test” one. There are a few reasons for my decision: first, multiple choice questions don’t allow you to see what the students were thinking when answering the question. Just because someone gets an answer correct on a multiple choice exam, it doesn’t mean they got the correct answer for the right reasons. For my method to be effective, however, it does mean someone needs to read the exams in depth instead of just feeding them through a scantron machine, and that reading takes time. Second, essay exams force students to confront what they do and do not know. Having spent many years as a writer (and even more as a student), I’ve found that many ideas that seem crystal clear in my head do not always translate readily to text. The feeling of understanding can exist in lack of actual understanding. If students find they cannot explain an idea as readily as felt they understood it, that feeling might be effectively challenged, yielding a new round of engagement with the material.

After seeing where the students were going wrong, the essay format allowed me to make notes on their work and hand it back to them for revisions; something you can’t do very well with multiple choice questions either. Once the students had my comments on their work, they were free to revise it and hand it back into me. The grade they got on their revisions would be their new grade: no averaging of the two or anything of the sort. The process would then begin again, with revisions being made on revisions, until the students were happy with their grade or stopped trying. In order for assessment to serve the end of learning, assessment needs to be ongoing if you expect learning to be. If assessment is not ongoing, students have little need to fix their mistakes; they’ll simply look at their grade and then toss their test in the trash as many of them do. After all, why would they bother putting in the effort to figure out where they went wrong and how to go right if doing so successfully would have no impact whatsoever on the one thing they get from the class that people will see?

Make no mistake: they’re here for a grade. Educations are much cheaper than college.

I should also add that my students were allowed to use any resource they wanted for the exams, be that their notes, the textbook, outside sources, or even other students. I wanted them to engage with the material and think about it while they worked, and I didn’t expect them to have it all memorized already. In many ways, this format mirrors the way academics function in the world outside the classroom: when writing our papers, we are allowed to access our notes and references whenever we want; we are allowed to collaborate with others; we are allowed – and in many cases, required – to make revisions to our work. If academics were forced to do their job without access to these resources, I suspect the quality of it would drop precipitously. If these things all improve the quality of our work and help us learn and retain material, asking students to discard all of them come test time seems like a poor idea. It does require test questions to have some thought put into their construction, though, and that means another investment of time.

Some might worry that my method makes things too easy on the students. All that access to different materials means they could just get an easy “A”, and that’s why my evaluations were good. Perhaps that’s true, but just as my interest is not on assessment, my interest is also not on making a course “easy” or “challenging”; it’s on learning, and tests should be as easy or hard as that requires. As I recall, the class average for each test started at about a 75; by the end of the revisions, the average for each test had risen to about a 90. You can decide from those numbers whether or not that means my exams were too easy.

Now I don’t have the outcome measures that Braga et al (2011) did for my own teaching success. Perhaps my methods were a rousing failure when it came to getting students to learn, despite the high evaluations they earned me (in the Braga et al sample, the average teacher rating was 7 out of 10 with a standard deviation of 0.9; my average rating would be around a 9 on that scale, placing my evaluations about two standard deviations above the mean); perhaps this entire post reflects a defensiveness on my part when it comes to, ironically, having to justify my positive evaluations, just as I suspect people who cite this paper might use the results to justify relatively poor evaluations. In regards to the current results, I think both myself and others have room to be concerned: just because I received good evaluations, it does not mean my teaching method was effective; however, just because you received poor evaluations, it does not mean your teaching method is effective either. Just as students can get the right answer for the wrong reason, they can also give a teacher a good or bad evaluation for the right or wrong reasons. Good reviews should not make teachers complacent, just as poor reviews should not be brushed aside. The important point is that we both think about how to improve on our effectiveness as teachers.

References: Braga, M., Paccagnella, M., & Pellizzari, M. (2011). Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors. Economics of Education Review, 41, 71-88.  

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