Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feminist philosophers agree: Down with grading!

Over at the Feminist Philosophers blog, someone asked: "If there were one or two things you could change about academia, what would it be?" A heartening answer (from my point of view at least) given by several commenters: grading!

Some choice comments and observations below the fold:

San Diego's H.E. Baber:

Grading. From the perspective of an American academic, grading creates a serious conflict of interests. On the one hand, we’re teachers: we want students to understand the stuff, get excited about the stuff, and do well. On the other hand we’re agents of the university which functions as an employment pre-screening and credentialing agency, ranking students who are after scarce resources: jobs and places in graduate and professional programs. So, we have to produce a spread of grades and make sure that a sufficient percentage of students get bad ones. At my place in particular we’re under constant pressure to keep a lid on grade-inflation.

I teach at a community college, and the conflict between the aims of education and of certification represented by grades is very acute here. What is more, grading often obscures rather than conveys information about student learning; from learning that Student A got an A in an Intro course at one college and that Student B got an A in an Intro course at another (or very often even at the same college, from different instructors), and nothing more, one has learned nothing about their education. You don’t know what they’ve learned, you don’t know how they have been challenged, you don’t know the skills they’ve picked up. The two grades are not commensurable, but we treat them as if they were, and when we do, it’s just pseudo-information, pseudo-knowledge.
Baber's remarks in particular struck a chord. It's frustrating to be playing roles with antithetical aims: the students' educational partner and the students' performance evaluator.

On Teaching Statements

Most philosophy instructors have had to produce a teaching statement at one point, either in the attempt to get a job or receive promotion/tenure. Professor Kevin Haggerty, at the University of Alberta, claims that "Teaching Statements are Bunk."

Haggerty says,
The first suspicion that there is something insincere about teaching statements derives from the fact that almost every author professes to love teaching. Cumulatively, this pandemic of instructional ardor strikes a dissonant note when compared with the routine activities of academics, many of whom spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to secure release time from teaching. That is, when they're not complaining about the petty hassles of coordinating teaching assistants, dealing with "grade grubbers," writing reference letters for undergraduates they could barely identify in a police lineup, evaluating essays, ordering textbooks, completing copyright permission forms, revising syllabi, learning the latest instructional software, and worrying about the time all of that takes away from other academic pursuits. Such grumblings dominate the hallway conversations of most faculty members I know.
...This, then, is a plea for greater specificity in reflections on the techniques and tactics used in teaching. I have learned almost nothing useful from the smattering of statements that I have read, but my students and I have benefited enormously from pragmatic lessons that colleagues have passed along about how they coordinate assignments over the course of a term, train teaching assistants, craft course outlines, remember students' names, and organize online resources.
Haggerty argues that we should be concrete when constructing teaching statements, rather than speaking in general and nearly universally-expressed abstractions. I think he's right in many ways, but then the crafting of a teaching statement is nearly useless, and perhaps irrational to require, of a job applicant with limited teaching experience (say, a freshly-minted PhD). On second thought, it might be quite reasonable to require such a statement from a new PhD, because it may be more difficult to give concrete and pragmatic lessons learned about teaching rather than the standard general claims about "instilling a love for philosophy in my students," "not teaching them what to think, but how to think," "showing students the relevance of philosophy," and other such statements contained within the standard teaching statement.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"A mildly discreditable day job"

Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss on the profession of teaching philosophy:

I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable, partly because I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness. Partly, too, because 10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual “philosophical” part, is almost invisible from the outside, totally unclassifiable in any schema known to me—and quantitatively, in any case, so insignificant that it can more or less be ignored.

So the experience I have of my everyday work environment is of a conformist, claustrophobic and repressive verbal universe, a penitential domain of reason-mongering in which hyperactivity in detail—the endlessly repeated shouts of “why,” the rebuttals, calls for “evidence,” qualifications and quibbles—stands in stark contrast to the immobility and self-referentiality of the structure as a whole.

Read, react, discuss?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On making reading unavoidable

Inside Higher Ed's Rob Weir usually offers sage advice on all matters pedagogical. A few months back, Rob tackled an age old teaching problem: students who don't read. Rob notes that there probably never was a Golden Age of Student Literacy, a halcyon era when students would gladly forego doing the Charleston/hitting the drive-in/scoping out Facebook for the opportunity to read assigned academic material.

The fact of the matter is that most students are not like us; they are not intrinsically motivated to read difficult or challenging academic texts. In my experience at least, students don't see that reading the material before class makes it possible to participate meaningfully in class discussion, readies one to write papers, etc. Students generally don't see a connection between reading and learning, or between reading and other academic tasks. (Or they see these connections, but just don't want to put in the effort.)

Given this, Rob's motto strikes me as correct: If you want students to read, make it hard (or impossible) to avoid.

Here are some of Rob's tips to make it reading unavoidable:

  • "Assign appropriate material. Just because you found an 800-page specialty tome to be spellbinding doesn’t mean your students will. Don’t expect undergrads to get excited about most journal articles either; you’ll need to teach them how to approach such dense reading. Seek material that is appropriate for what students need to know — the more engagingly written and short, the better."
  • Craft frequent writing assignments to help ensure reading. (Rob also has some advice on to deal with grading a large volume of papers.)"
  • "Construct lectures and discussions in such a way that reading is a prerequisite for comprehension. One should allude to materials in the reading — if you don’t, expect complaints that you made students buy things you never used — but don’t waste class time with a point-by-point rehash of the assignment. I often clue students about what they need to pay close attention to in order to understand an upcoming lesson. In that lesson I entertain questions about the reading, but I seldom walk through it.In like fashion, write lectures around reading concepts and content, or spin them in a new direction, but don’t repeat what the readings say."
  • "If you give exams, make certain that parts of those exams are based on material that could only have been gotten from the reading."
  • "Research and reflection papers should definitely require student writers to grapple with assigned readings."

Rob also mentions a technique I use: quizzes. I'm not a big fan of pop quizzes based on assigned readings. In many of my classes, I make available a short quiz each week via Blackboard. They usually have about six questions, most based on the assigned readings. Students can only take the quiz once, but I give them an hour to complete it. I've found that this approach does compel students to read eventually. No, they still may not read between class sessions, and yes, many of them probably pick up their texts while they do the quiz in order to find the right answers. But I'm not so bothered by that. They end up having to read carefully, the quizzes reinforce their comprehension of the reading, and they get important cues on the sorts of things to read for.

Anyone have any other ideas to make reading unavoidable for students?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Suggestions for Helping Students Find "Dialectic" Indicators?

Hi, folks,

One of my departmental colleagues recently expressed some frustration about his students' reading abilities, and I thought that it might be useful to air the source of his frustration here. To paraphrase my colleague: he finds that at all levels of his Philosophy courses, many students have a very difficult time either identifying or following the dialectic thread of an essay, article, book chapter, etc. I have noticed this difficulty in most of my Philosophy courses, as well.

There is already a challenge to get some students to recognize something as an argument when they're reading a text. Spending some time with those students on identifying indicator terms -- by which I mean, the words and phrases that indicate (likely) premises, intermediate conclusions, and main conclusions of arguments -- can help quite a bit. However, there is a second, probably larger challenge, and this is the one that my colleague was talking about: even when students can recognize that an argument is being presented, they often have real trouble recognizing what the author is doing with that argument in the context in which it appears.

For example -- you might ask your students: What seems to be the author's relationship to this argument in this section? Is the author setting it out "simply" to present it, without either endorsing it or criticizing it? Is the author setting it out so that, one paragraph later, they can begin to criticize it or to present someone else's criticism of it? Is the author presenting it and endorsing its conclusion, but not all of its premises? And so on. (I don't mean to suggest that those possibilities are mutually exclusive, of course.) In my experience -- and in my colleague's experience -- students overwhelmingly treat arguments that the author discusses as ones that the author is endorsing; the results for their understanding of what they read are easily predictable. I have sometimes assigned "guided reading questions" to accompany the assignments, in which I ask, e.g., ""What seems to be the author's relationship to this argument, and how can you tell?" But even when I've thereby alerted them to the need to ask that sort of meta-level question as they're doing the readings, I find that many students still struggle to figure out how to do it.

(Assuming that I've described it correctly,) Is this a challenge that others of you regularly face in your courses? What are some of your favorite ways to meet that challenge?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Myth of the "Life of the Mind"

Thomas Benton at the Chronicle of Higher Education has written a thought provoking piece on the culture of humanities graduate schools and its resistance to bridging the gap between being practical and living the "life of the mind". Is it disconcerting that humanities graduate schools often neglect giving practical advise to their students regarding the difficulties inherent in getting a humanities teaching post? What are the responsibilities of professors/advisors? Is the professor/student paradigm in place at most institutions antiquarian? What if anything can/should be done?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Student evaluations — in the long run

Following up on our recent discussion of how to evaluate your own teaching evaluations, Tom Deans at Inside Higher Ed describes some of his efforts to get more "longitudinal feedback" on his teaching — feedback on a longer time horizon than simply the end-of-term evaluations most of our institutions rely on.

Deans, who teachers English, outlines his "small experiment with long-delayed course assessments, surveys that ask students to reflect on the classes that they have taken a year or two or three earlier."

I've been considering such evaluations ever since I went through the tenure [process] a second time: the first was at a liberal arts college, the second two years later when I moved to a research university. Both institutions valued teaching but took markedly different approaches to student course evaluations. The research university relied almost exclusively on the summary scores of bubble-sheet course evaluations, while the liberal arts college didn't even allow candidates to include end-of-semester forms in tenure files. Instead they contacted former students, including alumni, and asked them to write letters. ...But how to get that kind of longitudinal feedback at a big, public university?

Deans then wrote a six-question survey on SurveyMonkey and e-mailed a link to the survey to students from courses he had taught one year ago and three years ago. I was surprised by the rate of return Deans got: 60 percent, not makedly worse than I sometimes get for my regular end-of-term evaluations. As Deans puts it, he was interested "to know what stuck -- which readings (if any) continued to rattle around in their heads, whether all the drafting and revising we did proved relevant (or not) to their writing in other courses, and how the service experience shaped (or didn't) any future community engagement." I won't go into the details of the results Deans got, but suffice to say that he got a powerful picture of which assignments and readings made an impact and which didn't.

Deans' efforts are laudable, and they raise an issue I've long thought about: the timing of student evaluations. Why should we suppose that students are best situated to evaluate their learning experiences immediately after they take place (or in some cases, as they are still taking place)?

I understand that the proximity of student evaluations to the final exam in particular tends to influence how students evaluate the course, but beyond this, I wonder if various situational factors lead students to evaluate their own learning experiences in distorted ways. The student who, at the end of term, is laboring under a ton of deadlines is probably going to say that course workload is too heavy. The student who came into the course afraid of essay writing who got an A on the most recent assignment is more likely to say positive things about such assignments. And so on. This isn't to say that situational factors might not also influence students evaluating a course a year or two after it took place, but I would speculate that hindsight, while not 20/20, is still clearer than students' immediate perception of their learning experiences. (I'm reminded of that message on a car's side mirrors: "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.")

Think of it this way: We're asking students to evaluate their learning experiences. Just after those learning experiences occur, it's likely that their evaluations will be shaped by their memories of the experiences. As time passes (and students have more information about themselves as learners, their needs, etc.), the particulars of the experiences will recede and the learning may come to the fore. Or so I would hypothesize.

So I find myself very tempted to follow Deans and create my own instruments for gathering longitudinal feedback. Are others similarly tempted? Should we expect this feedback to be more insightful, accurate, and useful than the feedback gathered as courses reach their conclusions?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Students on what frustrates them

A teaching note from the faculty center on my campus describes some recent studies about what students find to be the most frustrating instructor behaviors. The results from one student survey are below the fold. Anyone surprised by these results? What can we learn from them?:

An extensive study received about 1700 responses from 250 students concerning annoying instructor behavior (Kearney, Plax, Hays, & Ivy, 1991). The researchers coded the responses into 28 categories, which can further be categorized into about five major classes of problem behavior:

• a variety of disorganized behaviors

• lack of feedback on student work

• poorly designed coursework or unprofessional content delivery

• disrespect towards students, including unfairness, discourtesy, or even abusive behavior

• professional misconduct, including not keeping up with the field

Other, newer, studies pretty much concur with the 1991 study. Disorganization is the most disruptive behavior on the part of an instructor, and can take a few different forms:

• Giving rambling or incoherent lectures

• Changing due dates

• Losing student materials

• Lack of awareness about issues outside class that affect students

Other researchers took a positive tack, asking students about helpful instructor behaviors: “giving lectures that are clear and well-organized” was the top helpful behavior no matter how students were sorted (by major, sex, year in program, achievement level).

Other helpful behaviors included:

• Helping students prepare for exams by giving review sessions

• Providing prompt feedback on student work

• Collecting and responding to student feedback about the class

• Providing examples of excellent work

Number 10 on the top 10 helpful list was “Having group discussion activities in class.” (Oh well, at least it made the top 10.)

These results are actually quite heartening, because the top problems (or helpful behaviors) are closely related to student learning. Organization and clarity are the top factors impacting student learning. Rapport and stimulation of interest are important but not as important as organization and clarity (Feldman, 1998). Students like rapport and stimulation of interest, of course, but it does not affect their learning to the extent that clear, organized coursework does.