Evaluating the Teacher

There is an interesting research article in the Journal of Psychological Science for which a blurb can be accessed at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/the-first-step-to-change-focusing-on-the-negative.html. In short, Johnson and Fujita found that individuals who wanted to improve focused on negative information. After all, Johnson proclaims, how can you improve a “system” if you don’t know what’s wrong with it?

Well, that also seems to be true about great professors. They seek out criticism, even from students, as if we don’t know what is wrong, how can we fix it. In returning to the next level of great teachers, as outlined by the Society of Teachers of Psychology (Division 2 of APA), we find ourselves in this very area of evaluations, that is assessment.

Great professors assess student learning goals and objectives. It’s not just enough to present information, we need to learn that students have learned the material. And what is driving assessment is the stated student learning outcomes. Now, depending upon what school you are at, there may not be specified student learning outcomes for the applied statistics class that you teach. However, you should still specify them. If you need assistance, I encourage you to look to the student learning outcomes listed in Kiess and Green’s (2010) Instructor’s manual that goes along with the textbook. You can access the manual (if you are a teacher) at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/product?ISBN=0205626246.

This coming spring, a group of faculty (for whom I am happy to be a part) will be creating a recommendation of what students should be learning in applied statistics classes in psychology. This is being organized by Society of Teachers of Psychology (Division 2 of APA), and I promise to report the findings here once we have something to report.

[Just a quick aside … please don’t fall into the trap of telling students what the student learning outcomes are for an applied statistics class … all it will do is serve to terrify them! Instead, include something more benign (though true), like … By the end of this class, you will know how to answer a question in (Topic) by selecting the right statistic to analyze data. You will learn about the strengths and limitations of several different types of statistics, and how to interpret them.  ]

Just like in research, when it comes to assessment, it’s not just enough to gather data. Great professors reflect on assessment. Where were students the most successful; where were they the weakest? What can I do, as the professor, to improve student outcomes. Thus, great professors not only reflect on assessment but take that information and turn it back into improvements. People often call this the feedback loop of assessment.  This isn’t something that is just in vogue … we can see these actions in the great teachers of the past. And remember, not all assessment is formal and direct, though all statistics classes do need to include formal and direct assessments. (See a prior blog on indirect and informal assessment as a means of improving teaching https://statisticalsage.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/the-texas-two-step-indirect-and-informal-assessment/) .

Let’s face it. Great teachers are often adjusting even as they are teaching. If a particular example isn’t helping students, she switches examples. If students are confused after completing a practice problem, he evaluates what piece of the calculation the students are missing, and re-does it. Great teachers take informal and formal assessment, direct and indirect, and make changes to how they teach, what they teach, and the assignments and assessment tools they use.

I’m guessing I’m not alone. I really do hate pulling together those huge binders for tenure and promotion. I’m working on a big binder right now, for submission almost a YEAR from now. One of the challenges I have is finding how to categorize which part of my work falls under teaching, scholarship, or service. Why? Because I research about what I teach, not for the sake of the science but for the sake of becoming a better teacher. SToP states that excellent teachers seek the scholarship of teaching and learning. They formally study about how their students learn their material, and what can be done to improve student learning. Great teachers attend teaching conferences, so they can learn about the scholarship of teaching and learning. Great teachers read resources and journal articles. (Maybe, great teachers read this blog, as we try to treat all topics on the teaching of applied statistics in a scholarly fashion. We will also tell you about free webinars, conferences, and books with good information in it on teaching).

Great teachers do something I have to admit to not being so great at over the last three years … they provide feedback on assessments to students in a timely fashion. There have been semesters where exams would be returned to students in the next class. This is truly ideal, but … my first year teaching I had 120 students and no advisees. This semester, I had close to 300 students and almost 50 advisees … and though we should accept that perfection is not possible, and give ourselves a bit of slack … it still should be an admirable goal to get feedback to students in a timely fashion. I think I might put that on my New Year’s Resolution for 2012!

One way that we can provide quick feedback to students without breaking a sweat is to provide students with the answers to homework problems. Students get the feedback they need right away. And, let’s face it, if they don’t do their homework, they can’t pass the class. I, with the help of a student assistant, created a workbook for students that includes answers to questions. You can access Exercises and Assignments for Students at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/product?ISBN=0205626246

 Students have to complete on-line quizzes (through D2L). Yes, its not as good as having students complete essay or calculation questions, but I save those kinds of problems for the exams. Students get feedback immediately as to how well they are mastering the material. I keep the grade component low enough that cheating won’t have a huge impact on the overall grades, and I keep it high enough to encourage students to actually complete the quizzes. If you are a professor who uses D2L and would like copies of the questions I use, please contact me, and I would be happy to share them. They go along with Kiess and Green (2010), but are truly fundamental and really would work with any applied statistics textbook.

However, it is the dreaded student evaluations that can help you see things from the students’ perspective. No, I’m not saying do what you have to in order to get high course evaluations. However, there is information that can be gleaned from good course evaluations. For me, this is our first semester (ever) of having open ended questions (and yes, our union is fighting it). I, however, was thrilled. One question on our new form asks, what didn’t you like about the class, and another question asks, how would you like to see the course change. I can’t wait to see what students have to say, because if I don’t know what isn’t working, how can I fix it? When the comments come in, maybe I’ll feel differently, but for now, I’m excited to see ways that I can improve the class.

However, don’t wait until the course evals to get student feedback. I often have students take three question surveys if I make a major change to a class. I also just ask them. Sure, to my face, they’ll say nice things … but, they will also highlight areas needing improvement. After you gather student feedback, whether it is formally or informally … the last recommendation from SToP on great teachers is to reflect on the feedback. I encourage you to do so in a place of comfort, with your beverage of choice. And if you start feeling like a stinky teacher, remind yourself … but I can’t be that stinky … I’m doing what great teachers do, and what individuals who want to get better do … I’m attending to the negative to identify areas of improvement.

In the end, though your students may not thank you … you will know that they should!

Happy assessing!

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2 responses to “Evaluating the Teacher

  1. Pingback: Bain’s (2004) Approach to What Makes a Great Statistics Professor | Statistical Sage Blog

  2. Pingback: So you don’t like teaching … | Statistical Sage Blog

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