(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)
Congratulations! As junior professors, we’ve made it through the fall semester. Now it’s time to start thinking about adapting our teaching for next term.
If you feel your teaching during the fall term was lackluster, you aren’t alone; I admit that my teaching was something akin to survival mode. I had teaching experience when I started my job, but I had never juggled multiple courses, right after a move, while trying to get adjusted to a new environment and new professional relationships. Even before I received my teaching evaluations, I knew there was room for improvement, and my evaluations confirmed that suspicion. Our institution uses raw scores, so it’s difficult to know exactly what I should have done better. While the scores came back solidly in the “good” range, I’d like to see something more like “good/great” next term.
This spring, I’m conducting a teaching experiment, and I invite you to do the same. It can be boiled down to the following: I’m going to increase my level of transparency with my students across the board. The following is a list of ways in which I hope to do that. Ideally, it will help me connect with my students, allow them to see the work that I put in as their instructor, result in increased learning and, as a bonus, reflect in my student evaluations in April or May. No matter how you slice it, evaluations matter for pretenure faculty members, lecturers and contract faculty members — so why not try to enhance that portion of your dossier?
This term, I’m going to:
Start each class by telling students what to expect. When I write for an academic audience, I tell my reader what to expect from my writing. I provide signposts throughout my essay. I guide the reader step by step through my conclusions. My objectives are to make my writing as clear as possible to my intended audience.
So why don’t I do that in the classroom? This term I will take two minutes at the beginning of class to tell students what to expect from me. It is my contention that if they know where I’m headed with the day’s lesson, they’ll understand that I’ve given thought to the content of the lesson plan. In other words, I want to show them that there is a point to doing things the way we will do them in class that day. That means, of course, that I will have to create a plan that makes sense, and I won’t be instructing off the cuff, so to speak.
Conduct a midsemester feedback survey. Regardless of how helpful students’ suggestions are at the end of the term, I can’t do anything at that point to change their experience. I want my students to feel that they (and not just students that follow them) will benefit from their thoughtful recommendations. So I’m going to do a survey after their first large assessment — whether test, exam or paper. It will be anonymous and, instead of asking them to rate their satisfaction with a given element of the course, I will task them with proposing “actionable change.” In other words, they will be asked to propose concrete solutions in lieu of simply raising critiques.
After I’ve collected the data, I will address their concerns during class. I will make changes where I think they are warranted and reasonable, and I will explain adjustments that cannot be made. I will also save the data so that, if I want to, I can include it in my tenure or teaching evaluation portfolio. Ideally, I will show improvement from the survey to the end of the course, which will make everyone happy: the students will see that I value their opinions, I will have a chance to adapt my teaching to the needs of my students and my department chair will have concrete evidence that I am taking an active approach to bettering myself as an educator.
Invite a colleague to observe my class and provide feedback. More often than not, if someone observes our teaching, it is our supervisor. I would like to get suggestions from a peer. My experience with supervisors is that they have often spent enough time refining their techniques to no longer share my concerns. In many ways, a peer is better suited to provide accessible, actionable suggestions that are tailored to my teaching experience. (In other words, they will be in tune with the idea that I can’t redo everything overnight.)
In addition, I will explain to students that someone is observing our class and the reasons why. I want them to understand that, as well as soliciting their feedback, I’m getting input from someone in a place of authority. A side note here: I will need to be careful about my phrasing when explaining this to students. I will not denigrate my teaching or suggest that I’m not qualified to be in front of them. If and when it becomes pertinent, I could ask this colleague to write about my teaching and the feedback session following their observation. Hypothetically, if the evaluations that come back from the course are not to my satisfaction, I could ask my colleague to advocate on behalf of my teaching to my department chair. Alternatively, this letter could be addressed to a future employer at a teaching-centric institution or become part of a teaching dossier for a tenure and/or promotion review committee. I will, of course, offer to return the favor.
Treat my students like the adults they are when it comes time to fill out evaluations. The utility of student evaluations is an oft-debated subject. Research abounds showing that student evaluations are more likely a measure of instructor “likability” and can be deeply skewed by student bias. (For instance, see Colleen Flaherty’s “Arbitrating the Use of Student Evaluations of Teaching.”)
This term, I’m going to tell students about these findings. I will make articles about student evaluations available to students and have a conversation with them in class about the kinds of instructors that often get penalized by measures of likability. I will empower them to approach their evaluations with an eye for bias and ask them to remind themselves that they are attempting to measure teaching effectiveness as equitably as possible — not dress style or their ability to get the grade they hoped for.
In sum, my experiment is of being as transparent as possible with my students. It’s an experiment in trust. I will trust that if I show them how I do my job, it will allow me to do my job better thanks to their accountability. As a side effect, we’ll see if my efforts are reflected in their evaluation of my teaching at the end of the term.
As your new classes get off the ground, I wish you the best of luck in your teaching and look forward to hearing the ideas you have and other strategies you find successful with your students.