evolgen

On Being Rated

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike the Mad Biologist
    May 29, 2007

    I always ignored the top 10% and bottom 10% of evaluations. You can’t let a few idiots get you down.

  2. #2 Todd O.
    May 29, 2007

    Hey evolgen,

    Stick to your guns. One of the hugest problems in higher ed is a lowering of expectations on the parts of faculty and an entitled student body who whine when they actually have to work to learn stuff. It’s an uphill battle and you need to know you’re going to get resistance.

    Also, because you’re a TA, students feel they can be more brutal to you in evaluations. A lot of that will dissipate when/if you’re a professor.

    I’m known as a “hard-ass” on my campus (my ratemyprofessor.com reviews are hysterical funny), but I also am highly respected by students. Since I started two years ago (I’m a new prof), I have slowly been attracting better and better students, especially to my upper division courses.

    All that said, i would also say that it is a GOOD THING to be evaluating your own expectations constantly. IT is possible that sometimes your expectations may be too high. I always try to ask myself, “Is this reasonable for college freshmen/sophomores/upperclassmen?” when there’s a question about my expectations in the classroom and on grading. It keeps me honest, and sometimes I do find spots where my expectations are out of whack with my demographic.

    Good luck. Teaching is more a craft learned by experience and collaboration with fellow teachers; and it’s more like a performance because it’s always live and interactive. It’s why it’s so stimulating and worthwhile.

    Cheers.

  3. #3 Chris
    May 29, 2007

    I think the root of the problem may be that you’re teaching an intro class. Younger students, fresh out of HS, often have an entitlement complex. A good college professor (or in this case, TA) smacks that right out of them, and they don’t like it one bit.

  4. #4 Jude
    May 29, 2007

    In grad school, I started writing thorough critiques of teachers based on notes taken throughout the semester. I did this because I found that I couldn’t remember positive or negative things on the day of the evaluation, but I’d think of them later in the day and say, “Wow, I should have mentioned something about that.” I handed in lengthy (one was 10 pages long) critiques which truly evaluated a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. To me, the problem with the teacher evaluation system is that it’s sprung on students, usually at a time when they’re stressed out about finals, and so you end up with comments which reflect the way they feel that day instead of evaluating performance over a semester. If evaluations are that important to a faculty member’s future, then students should put a lot more effort into them.

  5. #5 Jude
    May 29, 2007

    In grad school, I started writing thorough critiques of teachers based on notes taken throughout the semester. I did this because I found that I couldn’t remember positive or negative things on the day of the evaluation, but I’d think of them later in the day and say, “Wow, I should have mentioned something about that.” I handed in lengthy (one was 10 pages long) critiques which truly evaluated a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. To me, the problem with the teacher evaluation system is that it’s sprung on students, usually at a time when they’re stressed out about finals, and so you end up with comments which reflect the way they feel that day instead of evaluating performance over a semester. If evaluations are that important to a faculty member’s future, then students should put a lot more effort into them.

  6. #6 A
    May 29, 2007

    I have the same problem in my classes. Sometimes I think they entirely fail to grasp what they need to know even when I practically spoon feed them the information. Of course, they also try to tell me that there just aren’t any references on how pH affects enzyme activity that they could use for their reports.

  7. #7 Alan Kellogg
    May 29, 2007

    In Mom’s classes her favorite grade became known as the “One-legged A”. Lean an “F” a bit to the right and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

    You wanted a high grade in one of her classes, you worked your ass off. And she docked points for bad grammar. Not just bad grammar, but bad composition, bad exposition, and bad rhethoric as well. And this had an impact on her students. You did well in her class, you got a boost later in your career. For example, nurses she trained were in demand and started their careers at a higher pay rate.

    In the field of science business and academia appreciate people who know what they’re doing. So cut your students no slack.

  8. #8 I.P. Freeley
    May 30, 2007

    ROFLMAO!
    This is great, students get a bad grade and blame the TA. We all know they usually need to work harder at being students. But when the TA gets bad evaluations, well that’s the students’ fault!

    Dude, bad evaluations mean you’re a crappy teacher. Really. Most intro science TAs are. Do you remember your intro science TAs? I know mine sucked. It turns out you can challenge your students without being an a-hole. Grading harder than the other TAs is stupid. Grades loose a lot of meaning if they are not consistent.

    This post is just full of great irony. “My students complain I grade hard on grammer”–and you go make a blog post about it full of typos. Brilliant!

    And to top it off, we get to hear the chorus of comments agreeing with you. Kinda like how groups of bad students will get together and bitch about how the TA had it out for them. Denialism loves company at every level.

    Of course I could be wrong, maybe you are the greatest teacher ever. But when I look at the evaluations professors I TA for get (my university posts them on the web), I agree with most of them. It sure looks to me like student evaluation correlates with teaching performance.

  9. #9 guy
    May 30, 2007

    not to be curmudgeonly… but, after 25yrs of teaching in assorted colleges…

    i no longer use written comments… ignoring the top and bottom 10% (i call this the olympic scoring system: toss the high and low scores) is good advice.
    however, in annual reviews the ‘good’ comments are rationalized away (“that student just liked you”), while the bad ones must be true (“you really DO suck…”). comment sheets are usually optional, while the srte sheets are mandatory around my place.

    personally, i prefer a conversation with a motivated student. i would love to speak with Jude (above) after taking my course… but, that post/attitude is inconsistent with the other 90% of my students.

    to be honest, i’m not sure that notes taken during a semester, or any evaluation system at the end of a semester are particularly useful.

    the best comments/suggestions have come from students who took my courses >3 yrs ago.

  10. #10 RPM
    May 31, 2007

    Free Pisser,

    First off, I never claimed to be a good teacher. What I want to do is improve, but I don’t think student evaluations are very helpful in pointing out how I need to improve. Many of the critical evaluations are either unclear (what does grades horribly mean?) or are negative without any constructive content (you can keep calling me an asshole, and I’ll always be a motherfucking asshole to you, but what should I do to change that?).

    I think Guy has a point that the written comments usually aren’t that helpful (I’ve been called a jerk enough that it rolls off me, and the positive pats on the back don’t help me get better). What would be nice is a well written survey that gets at what a TA does well/poorly so that they can figure out how to improve.

    Grading harder than the other TAs is stupid. Grades loose a lot of meaning if they are not consistent.

    One can grade hard and be consistent. That’s what I strive for. And by grading hard I mean being critical of students’ work so that they can improve the quality of their work. Consistency between TAs is achieved by curving scores as described in my post.

    Yeah, of course I make a spelling mistake in a sentence when I’m bitching about grammar. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the post if full of typos.

  11. #11 CCP
    May 31, 2007

    Here’s my unsolicited opinion: if anybody in your classes thinks you are “snobby,’ an “asshole” or a “jerk,” there is very likely something about your personality that is interfering with your students’ learning. If you are called a jerk “often” that’s a real red flag. You’re probably a dick, and who wants to be taught by a dick?
    Even in my very occasional visits to your blog here, I can see what they mean (remember when you referred to your readership as “bitches” and then told the sincerely offended to lighten up, it’s a term of endearment? That’s being a dick.)
    I am not talking about grading, and I bet neither are your students.

  12. #12 RPM
    May 31, 2007

    I’m an asshole, and I admit it. The bitches thing was a mistake on my part. I’m used to hanging around with a crowd where that language doesn’t even raise eyebrows. I shouldn’t have called my readers bitches.

    But that’s not what makes me an asshole. I’m an asshole because I’ll usually be honest about something without caring about what some other person thinks or how they’ll react to my opinion. I try to avoid that when I teach. I think the reason that students think I’m snobby is because I answer their questions with questions. Rather than giving them an answer (like any nice teacher would), I try to get them to figure it out.

    Or maybe I am just a snobby asshole who enjoys being a dick to all the bitches.

  13. #13 CCPhysicist
    May 31, 2007

    Mainly to RPM:

    It is not your fault that no one has taught you and the other TAs how to grade a course like the one you are teaching, or set up a grading rubric across the course to ensure that different sections are graded fairly without having to resort to a curve at the end. (That kind of curving is dangerous, because student quality varies depending on when and where a section is taught.) It is rare to encounter that sort of training at most universities.

    Absent that, you need to set up your own rubric for grading and share it with the students so they know your expectations and how to meet them. You also need to talk to others about what constitutes the “C” line in your course, and self-curve your grading (via your rubric) so that level of performance gets a C score.

    I wish I knew how to put my hands on some written evaluations I got back in the beginning, so I could promise to blog them as guidance to new teachers. No can do, but the main skill is that of communicating what you know to someone who is “not you”. When you took the class you are teaching (if you ever did), you were not the average student. There is a time for giving the answer and then following it up with a related question. Socrates had really small classes, and his final evaluation did not end well.

  14. #14 RPM
    May 31, 2007

    We actually do have a rubric that is shared by all TAs across all sections. And the students have access to the rubric prior to turning in their assignment (they even get to practice grading each others assignments using the same rubric we use). This is pretty revealing in that the students can’t recognize when other students are doing things wrong.

    But the rubric we currently use is greatly flawed, and, thanks to bureaucracy, we can’t change it. I would be a much better teacher and fairer grader if I didn’t have to follow the rules imposed by the higher ups.

  15. #15 CaptainBooshi
    June 6, 2007

    I remember when I graded the intro physics class hw sets as an undergrad. I got a reputation as being the most hard-ass grader in the entire class, but you know what? I saw the average hw grades turned in by each grader at the end of the semester, and I was significantly the most lenient.

    It turns out that I was correcting every mistake I saw, often in detail, and taking a little bit off the grade for each one (more for the truly bad mistakes, of course). The otherher graders would just correct the worst mistakes, and take a lot off for them.

    Despite the fact that the hw sets I graded consistantly got a better score than they would have otherwise, I was still hated the most just because I went through the work of trying to explain exactly how to do the problem correctly. That really did annoy me.

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