Amongst the other TAs and the lab coordinators in my department, I have a reputation of being a tough grader. At the end of the semester, when the course admins calculate grades, my students invariably get a few points added to their lab scores — this is done to bring lab scores more in line with lecture exam scores. Does that mean I’m a bad teacher who doesn’t explain the material well enough, but grades as if it were explained clearly? Or do I explain the material perfectly fine, but expect too much from my students?
Because I’m such a hard-ass, I often get complaints from my students — either through course evaluations, hearing them gripe about me in class, or from second-hand sources (other students, other TAs, etc). I try hard to teach the students both the material they are responsible for and the manner in which they are expected to present their knowledge to me. And then I evaluate their work in a critical manner with the goal of improving both their understanding of the material and their ability to communicate their knowledge. For this, I get critiques (via Rate My Professors) such as:
Honestly sucks. Thinks he knows a lot but really doesn’t. Grades horribly; you will not get away with forgetting to put a comma. I suggest switching if you have him.
What can I glean from this? Well, apparently I don’t know jack shit. This evaluation is from a student in an introductory Ecology and Evolution course. Damn right I don’t know jack shit about ecology. I’m not an ecologists, but I do know more about ecology that the student. And I grade horribly because I correct grammatical errors (I guess I’m supposed to let bad writing go unnoticed in a writing intensive course). I appreciate criticism, but I rarely get anything all that helpful. Maybe I can try to present less of an air of knowledge (or, as one student put it, “Plays favorites. Snobby.”), but this evaluation sounds more like that of a bitter student than someone with a real understanding of what I don’t do well.
My teaching philosophy is one in which I attempt to challenge the students. I don’t like to give away “the right answer”; I prefer the students arrive at the solution via a little work. I like to reward students who put in extra effort — I try to be as helpful as I can if a student comes to office hours — but I do not expect them to go beyond what is covered in class to get an excellent grade. That said, many students don’t understand the material covered in class (often covered multiple times on different days), and they don’t bother to seek help (which is freely available to them) that would greatly improve both their understanding and their grade.
Then there’s the whole issue of whether students are the appropriate evaluators of teaching quality. This is discussed often at Rate Your Students, and I won’t get into it much here. Thankfully, my teaching performance (evaluated however you chose) does not affect my status as a graduate student — although my poor evaluations may prevent me from earning one of my department’s coveted teaching awards (coveted because of the monetary portion of the award). Tenure track faculty, on the other hand, have their job security determined, in part, by those student evaluations. That means an excellent teacher who grades hard (earning poor evaluations) may be a disadvantage compared to a poor teacher who hands out easy grades (and gets good evaluations). When I got a poor grade in college, I blamed myself for poor study habits. When some of these students get poor grades, they blame their instructor, and the instructor’s career is put in jeopardy.
There are students that appreciate the work their instructors put into teaching. They even seem to accept that they won’t get a good grade unless they put some effort into the assignments they submit. I really like it when I get evaluations like these:
He does a good job. Not too tough, but not too easy either. At least he makes lab semi-fun.
He’s tough, but you can learn a lot from him. He really knows his****.
But I would benefit more from students who could offer thoughtful criticism of my teaching abilities. Even the best students, however, struggle with this. They simply do not understand the material well enough to offer a sophisticated critique. For that, one must turn to peers, but we rarely get those types of evaluations.