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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Filed under Classroom Management, Evaluation

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