Advice

Resolving to Be Better (Rated)

A professor takes in his students’ critiques, barbs and all, for insights on how to improve his teaching

January 17, 2016

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The whole concept of New Year’s resolutions has never appealed to me — perhaps because, as a teacher, I’m more inclined to think of the "new year" as beginning in August rather than January. Over the holiday break, however, I spent a fair amount of time pondering how I can improve my classroom performance, spurred to some degree by my student reviews on RateMyProfessors.com.

I know many faculty members don’t place much credence in such informal, online evaluations. But I find them to be remarkably honest, as well as reasonably, sometimes piercingly, accurate. I’m also impressed that only those students who feel strongly about a particular course or professor, one way or the other, are likely to go to the trouble. Even if online ratings represent, to some degree, the extremes of student opinion — those who either really liked the class or really hated it — they still contain a great deal of useful information.

For that matter, much the same could be said these days of my college’s more formal student evaluations. Like a lot of institutions, we moved a few years ago to a paperless system, which means students receive an email in their college account (which you know they all check religiously) and then have to click on a link and log onto a website to fill out the form. Once again, only the most motivated students are likely to complete the process, which effectively means formal evaluations are now little different from the informal variety.

The bottom line: If I want meaningful feedback, I’m going to have to include RateMyProfessors in the mix. The days are long gone when we could hand out 25 copies of the evaluation form on the last day of class and realistically expect to get 22 of them back (remember having to deputize a student to collect the forms and deliver them to the department office?).

Some students complain in their ratings that it's too difficult to get an A in my courses. That's one thing I don't intend to change.
And that’s actually fine by me. By putting everything online and thereby requiring some effort on their part, we’ve essentially weeded out the apathetic students and left the work of evaluating professors to those who genuinely have an opinion.

The problem, of course, is that not all opinions are kind, even if most are. And there is where the real learning takes place — for me, I mean.

My overall ratings are pretty good; about 4.3 on the site’s 5-point scale. But while it’s certainly ego-enhancing to read some of the nice things students say about me, that sort of praise isn’t particularly helpful (except, perhaps, to the extent that it lets me know what I’m doing right). It’s the comments that sting a bit — and maybe more than just a bit — that tell me where I probably need to change.

For example, in the middle of an otherwise-favorable review, one student lobbed this little grenade: "He’s often long-winded in his lectures." Lest I dismiss that as a one-off, throwaway line, the same sentiments were echoed in another student’s less diplomatic pronouncement: "HE LOVES TO RAMBLE ON IRRELEVANT SUBJECTS. SO BORING!" (The caps here are the student’s, not mine.)

"What?!" I thought to myself when I first read those reviews. "Me? Long-winded? Boring? I do not ramble. Well, maybe a little. Occasionally. OK, fine, I guess I can be a little long-winded at times."

The truth is, in my writing courses, I really don’t "lecture" much. Most of the time, when I’m up in front of the class, we’re supposed to be having a discussion — except that the students don’t always discuss a topic as much as I would like. So, sure, it’s kind of like a lecture. I get that. And I do occasionally bring examples or anecdotes into the discussion that aren’t directly related to the topic at hand, although in my mind they’re at least tangentially related and intended to illustrate some larger point.

But the connection isn’t entirely clear to my students. And apparently I talk too much.

So I’ve resolved to take two steps to improve the classroom experience for my students. First, I’m going to make minor changes in the way I structure my syllabus. As I said, I don’t lecture much in a writing class (or at least, I thought I didn’t). We do plenty of other things — individual writing exercises, small group discussions, and so forth.

I'm going to do a better job of mixing things up, giving fewer and shorter 'lectures' -- no more than 20 to 30 minutes of me talking --- interspersed with active learning.
But I’ve realized that I typically use most of a class period to introduce some new concept — in other words, I talk for the better part of an hour — and then devote the bulk of the next meeting to more interactive exploration of the concept.

Henceforth, I’m going to do a better job of mixing things up, giving fewer and shorter "lectures" — no more than 20 to 30 minutes of me talking — interspersed with active learning.

Second, I’ve been reading some of the articles in The Chronicle and elsewhere about how to foster better classroom discussions (like this one by James Lang). I realize I’ve been taking the easy path of answering my own questions rather than encouraging and enabling students to shoulder more collective responsibility for the conversation. Beginning this semester, I intend to work a little harder to draw students out so that my "lecture/discussion" segments include more of the latter and less of the former.

Another complaint from some students, and this one really hits home, is that I talk too much about myself. Said one student, "He makes sure you don’t forget how qualified he is." Another offered, "You can expect him to mention his publications."

"Do I really do that?" I wondered. And the answer is: "I guess I do, at least a little bit, mostly on the first day of the semester."

In my defense, my objective has been to establish some credibility early on. I’m trying to persuade students that I know what I’m talking about, because some of the things I’ll be telling them about writing over the next several weeks will be very different from what they’ve heard in the past, particularly from their high-school teachers. (For a more thorough examination of that phenomenon, see this piece I wrote last year.) My intention is not to brag about my accomplishments as a writer — which are relatively meager, in any case — but apparently that’s the way it comes across to some students.

In the future, I plan to tone down the "about me" part of my course introduction, keeping in mind the simple truth that the course really is not about me.

Some students complain in their ratings that it’s too difficult to get an A in my courses. That’s one thing I don’t intend to change. Honestly, I didn’t set out to be a "hard grader." I never give much thought one way or the other to where I fall on the easy-to-tough grading continuum. I’m just trying to help students improve their writing so they can succeed in college and beyond. While I’m convinced that most students can become proficient writers, if they put their minds to it, experience suggests that few of them will ever be excellent writers — hence the few A’s in my writing courses.

For some students, that is unforgivable. As one exclaimed in obvious frustration, while giving me a poor review, "Professor Jenkins grades based on your performance!"

Oh, the horror.

However, I do give credence to a few reviews that made a related complaint: I’m not always as clear as I could be about my expectations. While I explain my grading standards and process early in the semester, I’ve never been a big fan of rubrics, which I find limiting and artificial. However, I see now that I probably need an actual document, something rubric-like that I can share with students to help them understand what’s expected of them and how they will be evaluated.

As the new term begins, I’m hopeful that the time I spent reading through my RateMyProfessors reviews — as painful as it sometimes was — will in the long run improve my teaching.

 

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Perimeter College of Georgia State University and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.


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