Monthly Archives: May 2013

And When She Was Bad

Scott Jaschik reported an incident of a biology instructor being removed from teaching a class because of students not meeting her standards.

Dominique Homberger was deemed a bad instructor by Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge’s Dean of the College of Basic Sciences Kevin Carman because too many students were not getting high grades in her class. The students complained and Dean Carman felt that “there was an issue with this particular class that we felt needed to be addressed”. The issue was addressed by removing Professor Homberger as the instructor of the course in the middle of the semester.

In this case, the administrator’s definition of a good instructor was equated with high grades. I wish I could be shocked by this, but that has been my experience of how administrator’s define good teaching as well. I’ve also faced similar consequences as Prof. Homberger. In their commentary after the report, Maiuri and Leon mention that “professors feel compelled to ensure that every student receives passing grades because of fears of sanctions and penalties, risk of losing their course, having to address students complaints, and having fewer students chose to take their course”.  Oh absolutely.

But are instructors with the students that achieve the highest grades really the best teachers despite their popularity with administrators and students? When I read this case, I would say no. The administrator at LSU taught students that complaining instead of hard work is the best way to reach your academic goals and taught the faculty that measuring what students have learned isn’t a priority. The goals of the academic institution is no longer about learning but about customer satisfaction.

In all fairness, given the financial pressures administrations face, I really can’t blame them for wanting to focus on student retention. After all, students pay the bills and the administrator will long be retired when a poor reputation damages the institution’s ability to attract future students. While I can sympathize with the predicament faced by the administrators, I don’t condone this behaviour. It is too easy to blame the instructor instead of supporting the instructor to obtain high standards of academic excellence and student satisfaction.

Here is what I would do if I was Prof. Homberger and could turn back time to the beginning of  her course. First, I would make my expectations clear from day 1 of the course. The “quizzes at the beginning of every class to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading” are an excellent way to motivate students and let them know what my expectations are like. I could also use the results of these quizzes to direct my teaching to concepts students have learned poorly from the required reading.  A program like Socrative, would be excellent for constructing and giving the tests. These quizzes could form part of the calculation for grades or just part of classroom assessment. As part of the grade, I think it would be wise to give students one or two “free passes” where the lowest grade is dropped. This would account for students that have to miss the odd class due to illness or family obligations and allow time to adjust to an unusual test format. The immediate feedback provided by Socrative would allow adaptation of the day’s lessons to concepts that students were weak on. If students did not do their homework and there are more concepts to cover than time available, the students could note what areas they need to go back and learn better.

For tests, I would offer a practice test before the real test. I have done this for my courses and have the practice test represent a typical test. From student feedback, students would prefer a practice test that is harder than the typical test. An acceptable score on the practice test gave them a false sense of achievement. They would also like the practice test to be more comprehensive than a typical test so that they can use the test as an indicator of where they need to study more.

Prof. Homberger scheduled 4 tests for her non-majors introductory biology course. If this was my course, I would consider introducing some other forms of assessment that might appeal more to non-majors than the recitation of tidbits of information. The article mentioned that Prof. Homberger was criticized by her colleagues for including “too many facts” on her tests. Prof. Homberger included more learner-centered questions on her second test when she asked students to describe “the biggest ‘AHA’ reaction” they had had during the course” as a bonus question. The inclusion of this question suggests that the validity of her evaluation needs to be examined as this question seems out of place compared to her other assessments. I suspect that Prof. Homberger may have realized this and thus used the question as a bonus rather than part of the test.

I hope to go back through the references cited in the commentary that accompanies this report to dig for more articles about student evaluations of teaching.

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When She was Good…

image by Marie Rayner

she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid! This a line from a nursery rhyme I like to say to my daughter and it always pops into my mind when talking about what it means to be a good instructor.

The purpose of evaluation of teaching is to identify good teaching practices and weaknesses to be improved on. This raises the question of “what are good teaching practices?” and “what makes an instructor good?”

The definition of good is going to be subjective, which makes evaluation more challenging. My definition of a good instructor is going to be different from a student which is going to be different between students which is going to be different from an administrator.

This is no small problem when it comes to evaluating our teaching, especially if we are asking for feedback from students. In order for the evaluation to be valid, the assessment tool must measure what we want to measure. If I want to measure my effectiveness as an instructor based on my definition of a good instructor, then I first have to determine what is good and then determine if the assessment tool gives me the information needed to reach a conclusion on how good I am. This would all go out the window if the students who are doing the evaluation do not share my vision on what makes a good instructor.

In 2005, Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour has published a paper in “The Quality of Higher Education” called “Validity and evaluations of teaching in higher education institutions under positivistic paradigm“. In this paper, Cisneros-Cohernour applies the aspects of construct validity proposed by Messick to student evaluation of teaching. I found this application very insightful in thinking about the research surrounding student evaluation of teaching. The second part of the paper explores the limitations of using student evaluations to make decision about the effectiveness of teaching. This paper provides fodder for all kinds of blog posts, but let’s start at the first step. What is my definition of a good instructor?

I’m doing this one first because it is what I can control. The definition of good held by my students and administrators would just be speculation. I’m also not sure if I should care about what others think of my teaching if I am happy with my teaching. I suspect that is naive, and I should consider the other stakeholders point of view sooner or later, but for now, this is my blog so I’m starting with me.

If my goal is to learn how to be a good instructor, I think I should apply the same principles I use for designing a course of study for my students. I have a goal, so what are the desired outcomes?How would I know if I’m a good instructor? The measurable characteristics of a good instructor for me would include:

  • empathize with the difficulties of student learning.
  • design learning activities that help students overcome these difficulties.
  • evaluate the effectiveness of supplied learning activities.
  • modify learning activities as needed.

In his book, “The Skillful Teacher”, Brookfield explains 3 core assumptions of skillful teaching that I think match my outlook. I would equate skillful teaching with good teaching. All 3 core assumptions are interrelated with each other. Brookfield’s first assumption is that “skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn.” The challenge here is for the instructor to give up any preconceived ideas of what is helpful and be open to anything that helps students learn, even if these methods seem counter-intuitive or fly in the face of tradition. The second assumption is that “skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance towards their practice”. The critically reflective process strives to use informed pedagogic actions that are based on research. Skilled teachers should be able to explain why they do what they do and provide evidence to support that process. The second part of the critical reflective process is to view our practice from different perspectives or the “4 complementary lenses”: students’ eyes, colleagues’ perceptions, literature, and our own autobiography. The third assumption is “the most important knowledge skillful teachers need to do good work is a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teachers’ actions”. Brookfield also highlights the difficulty of evaluating how students are perceiving their learning experience. He suggests classroom assessment techniques like the one minute paper or the muddiest point to reveal student difficulties in learning the course concepts. He also uses an instrument he calls “critical incident questionnaires” to become aware of how students feel about his course.

So as I explore student evaluation I’m finding all kinds of tangents that are related to this concept. So many paths to take such as:

  • student definition of a good instructor
  • administrator definition of a good instructor
  • methods to evaluate teaching such as critical incident questionnaires
  • additional reflection on the content of Brookfield’s book

I like how inspiring this type of exploration can be, but I also feel like I’m running around like a chicken with her head cut off. I’m constructing a mental map of each area where I’ve been to see if at the end of the journey, a coherent picture starts to emerge.

 

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Meaning-Centered Education

The evolution of teaching philosophy intrigues me. I started with the traditional “sage on the stage” philosophy where the professor shares his/her great knowledge and the student is left to make sense of this knowledge outside the classroom. As a student, I found this authoritative approach frustrating because of the lack of direction. As instructor, I improved how I was taught by adding more direction, but I still predominantly use this approach to teaching.

Learning-centered teaching puts the teaching onto the students. The instructor acts more as coach or guide, rather than dictating the subject matter to students. The goal is one of engagement and active learning activities form the basis of classroom activity. This is a handy chart to compare teacher-centered vs. learner-centered teaching. Learner-centered teaching is considered more advanced that the traditional method. Maryellen Weimer describes 5 characteristics of learner-centered instruction. I have been trying to be more learner-centered in my classroom, but found that a very careful balance needs to be maintained. Students resent being thrown into the deep-end and expect some level of instruction. At the same time, students acknowledge that they learn more if they are the responsible for their learning.

Meaning-centered education and meaning-centered learning appears to be a recent progression beyond learner-centered instruction. In this educational philosophy the goal is to have students place the new knowledge in a context that means something to them. This approach appeals to me as the motivation for student-learning is built into this philosophy. Integration of new ideas into our current knowledge is how the brain deals with new knowledge, thus meaning-centered learning will be intuitive to students. Finally, the approach emphasizes learning for life. The goal is not just to master course content, but to integrate this learning into who the student is as a person now and who the student wants to be in the future. Since I teach students that want to be nurses, I can see this approach having an impact on their lives long after they leave my classroom. This is important because the course material forms a foundation for their professional practice.

The Institute for Meaning-Centered Education appears to be in its infancy. I’m looking forward to seeing how this educational philosophy develops and how I may incorporate it into my classroom.

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Dream Anatomy

porta_p21Teaching anatomy is a recent addition to my workload. I used to wonder how an instructor could make such a topic fun and exciting to learn as my own experience was a  boring list of objectives and self-directed learning. As I was looking for illustrations to spice up my lectures, I stumbled across historical drawings that are in the public domain. The US National Library of Medicine has an online exhibit called “Dream Anatomy”.

I found this exhibit fascinating. I enjoyed the history of anatomical drawings as the science and art intermingled. The background on printing technology gave me a new appreciation for the creation and distribution of these images. The comments on the illustrations in the gallery were informative and gave me new insight on the goals and cultural background of the artists.

I’m not sure what to do with this exhibit beyond sharing with the students at this point. I liked how the exhibit put anatomical illustrations into context and gave anatomy a more interesting aspect that just the memorization of structures and their functions.

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Educational Research Paradigms

Flying Fishes by Jorbasa on Flickr

One thing I like about learning new things is that as I investigate one problem, I discover whole areas of knowledge that I was previously oblivious too. Yesterday I was exploring the idea of student feedback and my concern about the validity of this feedback. So this morning I set out to read some of the papers I discovered yesterday. The first paper mentioned the positivisitic paradigm which I had never heard of before. Google led me to “Educational Research Paradigms: From Positivism to Multiparadigmatic” by Taylor and Medina. This work was published in a brand new journal from the Institute for Meaning-Centered Education in February, 2013. The authors use analogy of a fisherman studying fish to illustrate the different paradigms.

Continuing with the aquatic theme, as I wade into the paper, I am amused that my whole career is based on the positivist paradigm and I didn’t even know what it was called. The positivist paradigm or positivism refers to the scientific method that I am used to. In addition to now having a label for the paradigm I’m used to using, I also learned about other paradigms:

  • The post-positivism paradigm refers to the modified scientific method used by the social sciences. This modification allows for the researcher to interact more with his/her object of study than what is acceptable in the positivism paradigm.
  • The interpretative paradigm involves the researcher immersing herself into the environment of the object of study and attempt to experience that environment from the study object’s perspective by trying to be like the object.
  • The critical paradigm strives to identify social injustices and helps the object of study overcome these inequalities.
  • The postmodern paradigm uses various artistic means to represent thoughts and feelings which are unseeable to the outside world.

The end of this article emphasizes multi-paradigmatic approaches to educational research. I suppose that this blog represents my multi-paradigmatic approach to educational research. I’m interested in exploring all the different ways of thinking about education and using the best of each to improve my teaching.

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Feedback from Students

The evaluation process not only includes evaluation of the student learning but also evaluation of instructor teaching. My institution has a form that is given towards the end of the course called “Student Report on Teaching” (SRT). SRTs are given to students during the probationary period and then periodically after that. I haven’t seen an SRT since my probationary period over a decade ago. The infrequency of evaluation on the institutional level has left me interested in doing my own SRT.

My experience with the SRTs during my probationary period has left me with some concerns which suggests changes to the current form. My major concern involves what to ask on the SRT in order to gain useful feedback. Our institutional questions include questions like “Were tests and assignments graded and returned promptly”, which lead me to stay up all night grading exams so that I could return them during the next lecture. I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question! How could I possibly get exam results back any quicker than the very next class which was sometimes less than 24 hours after they wrote the test? Another question asks about whether course objectives were clear. I included the course objectives in the course outline and at the beginning of each lecture. I specifically asked at the end of the lecture if the course objectives were clear. Again, I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question on the SRT. If the course objectives were not clear, why didn’t students speak up during the course? I did not get the results until after the course was over and without student names so I could not follow-up on the concerns raised by the SRT. What is the point of doing evaluations if the information is untimely and of such poor quality, improvements cannot be made?

I found unsolicited student evaluations on a site called “Rate My Professor”.  While it was nice to receive positive feedback in such a public place, I found the negative feedback frustrating. Students leaving negative feedback often had the course number wrong which made it hard to take their comments about the course seriously. The students would also express dissatisfaction with my personal attributes without explanation as to why they felt I was rude or mean or evil or whatever else they didn’t like about me. One student even accused me of being a racist which I consider to be quite a serious charge and absolutely something I do not want to be. However, the student never said anything to me or filed a formal complaint. I have no idea what I did to deserve such a comment, and thus, I have no idea how to rectify the situation or even verify if a situation actually exists to rectify.

Despite this bad taste in my mouth, I still believe there is a need to gather student feedback. Thus I was interested in the Faculty Focus newsletter in my email this morning. In her article, “How to Get Better Feedback from Students“, Maryellen Weimer offers some tips:

  • Ask questions “about the impact of a policy, practice, behavior, technique, assignment, or instructional approach on students’ efforts to learn” rather than what students liked/disliked about the course and/or instructor.
  • Ask these questions immediately after the activity was experienced by the student during the course rather than a global survey at the end of the course when it is too late to do anything.
  • Teach students how to give constructive feedback. This instruction would include what is relevant and appropriate feedback by explaining what can be changed and what can’t as well as modeling the desired behaviour when giving feedback to students.
  • Show students that you take their feedback seriously by discussing the feedback with them. If feedback cannot be incorporated, explain why and invite other solutions to identified problems. I would even go farther and suggest not asking for feedback on anything you have no desire to change.

The most difficult tip to incorporate is asking the right questions and this needs to be explored further in future blog posts. I have several tabs open, so stay tuned.

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