Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grading the Teacher: The Surprising Truth about Student Evaluations

Throughout my career I've had a love/hate relationship with end of the year student evaluations.

On the one hand, I value the input of diligent, hard-working students. The opinion of academically focused students matters to me.

On the other hand, I really couldn't care less what the chronically absent student thinks about me, the classes I teach, or the curriculum. Nor am I much interested in the opinions of students who suffer from hyper-rationalizing and bad behavior.

Still, I have often asked students to provide some kind of feedback about certain aspects of my teaching and their performance both during and at the end of a course.

So when Accomplished Teacher, a publication of Smart Brief, dropped a report questioning the value of student evaluations of teachers  in my email in-box, my curiosity piqued.

The study found that students mistake teacher fluency and public speaking ability with preparedness and effectiveness in teaching academic concepts. The finding doesn't surprise me. I've seen my Communication 1101 (a dual enrollment class) students mistake oratorical skill with speech content, even though I emphasize content over polish.

Although the original study, which was conducted by University of Iowa professors, focused on college students' perceptions, it should also encourage administrators and teachers to question both the validity and value of secondary students' assessment of teacher effectiveness.

Indeed, I've often wandered what "expertise," other than having attended school, students have that warrants their assessing teacher effectiveness via a survey. I'd go so far as to argue having students in both high school and college complete these evaluations is one way educators have devalued their role as the expert in the room. If students can adequately assess teaching, what's the point of pedagogical study both at the undergrad and graduate level? That hypothesis might be a stretch, but it's something we should consider.

Nate Kornell PhD describes an Air Force Academy detailed study of teaching effectiveness in a recent issue of Psychology Today that found for deep learning, experience and expertise trump inexperience and lower qualifications, despite student evaluations to the contrary:

Because they didn't teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking the worst in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance.  

Simply, the least qualified and experienced teachers are more likely to focus on test prep while those with more experience and expertise avoid teaching to the test, the long-term consequence of which is deeper learning.

These findings make me do a happy dance because I've long contended that experience and subject expertise matter, and they matter much more than many in education (teachers, administrators, ed-reformers, et al.) care to acknowledge.

In my role as an adjunct faculty member in Idaho State University's Early College Program, I am required to have students enrolled in the course complete an end-of-course evaluation. I think about this upcoming role reversal constantly, although not  to the point of obsessing.

Typically, students in the course are quite focused on academics, and I work hard to be fair and available to them. Happily, this shows in the evaluations, and these evaluations have made my principal happy and the counseling office exceptionally supportive of the class. Still, I worry I'll encounter a group with whom I don't click.

As Professor Kornell states:

My livelihood depends on what my students say about me in course evaluations. Good ratings increase my chances for raises and tenure.

Frankly, it's insulting to academics in our universities that their jobs are dependent on the whims of adolescents, and that's what many college students are. Similarly, those who teach high school deserve more respect than to have either jobs or teaching assignments contingent of the teen popularity contest.  Yet this is exactly what many propose and what some teachers already experience.

It's enough to make one feel a bit like that trapped spider hanging over the fiery pit of eternal damnation Jonathan Edwards speaks about in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Teachers deserve a judge, jury, and executioner of our peers.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Writing: A "Miserable, Awful Business"

"Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world." 

Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers, offers this paradoxical charge at the end of The Getaway Car, a Kindle single I recently read.

I have pondered these words as I've debated whether or not to participate in Teachers Write, 2013, the online professional development children's author Kate Messner began last summer.

The Teachers Write group is bulging with over 1,000 members. Will devoting time to actively participating in the group be the best use of my limited time this summer? That's the question I keep asking myself.

In truth, were it not for Kate, Jo Knowles, Gae Polisner and Teachers Write 2012, I'd still be languishing on the couch rather than actually producing the rough hewn elements of what I hope will be a YA novel some day.

In honor of Kate, Jo, Gae, and the many guest authors who have committed to giving so much of their time again this summer to wanna-be writers such as myself, I'm sharing some of my favorite passages from Ann Patchett's Kindle Single.

Even if I'm not actively posting in the TW group, I'll be learning on the fringe and writing in the shadows and thinking about writers and writing.

From The Getaway Car:
  • Living a life is not the same as writing a book. (loc 96)
  • Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. (loc 107)
  • On the importance of a thoughtful critic and reader: I had so assimilated her critical voice that I was able to bring the full weight of her intelligence to bear on my work without her actually needing to be in the room...Before long I was able to think the sentence, anticipate her critique of it, and decide against it, all without ever uncapping my pen. I called this "editing myself off the page." (loc118)
  • The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. (loc 140)
  • People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write a dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say. (loc 184)
  • An essential element of being a writer is learning whom to listen to and whom to ignore wheere your work is concerned. (loc 239)
  • The part of my brain that makes art and the part that judges that art had to be separated. While I was writing, I was not allowed to judge. That was the law. (loc 400)
  • Chapters are like the foot pedals on a piano; they give you another level of control. Short chpters can speed the book along, while long chapters can deepen intensity. (loc 443)
  • No matter what you may have heard, the characters don't write their story. Oh, people love to believe that, and certain writers love to tell it... (loc 465)
  • Writer's block is a myth. (loc 476)
  • I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. (loc 486)
  • The more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page. (loc 497)
I'm not sure I want to spend the summer immersed in the miserable, awful business of writing, but I'm eternally grateful for the many writers who do and who graciously devote their time and expertise to those of us beckoning our inner writer to put pen to paper as we breathe inky life into our ideas. 

And if you like reading about writing, I unhesitatingly recommend downloading The Getaway Car and learning more about Ann Patchett's writing process and how she wrote and found a publisher for her first novel.