Thursday, April 14, 2011

How to Evaluate Teaching? Tale of Two Classes

This semester has been a study in contrasts for me. I have two of the same class on different days, and the two classes couldn't be more different. 

The class that is on one set of days has "lost" about one third the students. On any given day, only about 14 students are present of a class listed at 23. The class itself takes place at mid-day, so one would imagine that it is neither too early or too late in the day to reasonably justify many of the students not showing up. But the students who are left are a pleasure to teach; they participate thoughtfully in class discussions, always have their work done, and, if they don't, generally don't make excuses. They are engaged with the readings and invest real time and effort in the essay writing process. Their grades are generally good, and even those whose grades aren't stellar are making a real effort. 

My other class is first thing in the morning. I don't think one student has dropped it, and they all show up consistently and persistently. But the class is painful. While they all show up, more than half the class doesn't seem to have done the homework. No one wants to offer any sort of meaningful contribution to class discussions. They visibly resent any work they are assigned. And the list of excuses I get from them is bordering on infuriating (this is the class that inspired my post on ethos and emails). And while they all dutifully go through the motions on the writing process, they rarely ever actually change anything in their papers. And it shows in their work. Grading their papers is an exercise in endurance. 

The content in the classes is exactly the same; same readings, same assignments, and ostensively I'm giving the same lectures. But of course, the dynamic in each class is completely different. But it leads me to wonder how we can effectively evaluate teaching (or, to use current rhetoric, ensure accountability)? I don't know how this different dynamic will translate in my students evaluations at the end of the semester. I'm also not sure that if the results of a peer evaluation would be the same if they came to one class over the other. On the one hand, I have a dynamic class with lots of absences, versus a less dynamic class with stellar attendance. Does my apparent failure to engage my early morning class reflect a teaching deficiency on my part anymore than my success in the later class represent an inherent gift or talent? Nor will the final class average really reflect communicate anything meaningful; thinking about it, the two class averages will probably turn out to be identical, with one class of failures because of no-shows balancing out some very good students, while the other class will just generally be lower. 

We, as teachers, cannot control what kinds of students we get in our classes. If they drop or not is not always a reflection of the job the teacher is doing. Nor is their willingness to take the work seriously or their ability to do it well. I am not afforded the flexibility to simply throw out the syllabus because it is not working in one of my classes. I can't control what time of day I teach (students HATE morning classes). I can teach the same course in two different classes and get two completely different results. I'm not saying that we shouldn't evaluate and give periodic feedback on professors' performance in the classroom; I'm saying we need to take the long view and remember, so much of this is out of our control. 


  1. I agree with you, Lee. I've thought about this several times this semester: what can I do to make things improve in my sections? But you remind me of something very important. There are plenty of things outside of our control that affect what is going on in the class. I guess all we can do day in and day out is try.

  2. Great post. I've been thinking a lot lately about measurements of success as it relates to teaching (probably since we're nearing the end of the semester). Measuring success is relatively easy for my husband; he can assess his abilities as a coach by and large by wins and losses. For teachers, grades and student evaluations are just small parts of the equation. Students may give an instructor rave reviews, but the students may have learned little. Grades could be all C's, but students may have made great strides. The bottom line is, unless students take responsibility for their own educations, they won't learn. And we teachers can't make them be responsible.

  3. Now I'm second guessing myself that perhaps this shows that I have difficulty adapting my courses for different circumstances. I keep trying to think what I could have done differently to help the weaker class be more effective. And when you have other sections to worry about of other courses, it's really hard to really start from scratch for one of them mid-way.

    All of this to say is that teaching is really, really hard.


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