How about Assessing professors!!

Last week we talked about how we as professors assess our students and gauge how much knowledge they acquired from our courses. An important question here arises. How professors are being assessed themselves?

Probably the most widely known method of evaluating university professors these days is this survey given to the students at the end of each semester to evaluate their instructors. While I believe this to be an effective way of evaluating whether the instructor has achieved the aspirations of his students in making them understand the content, I think other evaluation methods should be available to have a more complete picture. What about monitoring instructors? The department can hire an evaluation committee composed of 3-5 faculty members who are selected anonymously. A new committee should be hired each academic year and each faculty could only participate in this committee once every 3-5 years so that all the faculty members in the department can take their turn and join the committee. A camera should be installed in each classroom and each instructor should sign a consent form that he is agreeing to be monitored. Only 4 or 5 lectures are randomly recorded and selected to be used in the evaluation, but the instructor doesn’t know which lectures are being recorded. This selection strategy is to ensure that the faculty members in the evaluation committee are not overwhelmed as they have their own research and teaching responsibilities. The evaluation should be fair and any conflict of interest (i.e. one professor from the committee is working on a project with an instructor) should be clearly reported to the department. While reviewing the recorded lectures, the evaluation committee should evaluate the instructor according to how he treats his students, the effort he exerts in making his students understand the content he is trying to convey, whether his knowledge is up to date, and other factors that the department feels necessary. Finally, the committee should submit an evaluation report to the department for each instructor. I know this may have some ethical problems but I think it may be one of the additional ways that can be used beside student surveys.


“I have a dream…wait…what was it about?”

I think we have all suffered through a bad lecture. The unlucky among us may have endured countless of them. Let’s face it: there are many ineffective lecturers and even more horrible lectures. The bad rap of lectures is no surprise and, furthermore, well-deserved. But does that mean that the lecture format itself is to blame? Robert Talbert provides a slightly more balanced view of lectures in “Four Things Lecture is Good For.” Talbert asserts that lectures are appropriate when providing context, telling stories, or demonstrating how to solve a problem. Otherwise, he insists active forms of learning are the way to go. As a student in the environmental sciences that thinks we should all be outside playing in streams as a primary learning mechanism, I am all in favor of efforts to increase hands-on experience beyond the traditional classroom confines. I feel that well-designed courses already take advantage of alternative formats to some extent (although, of course, with much room for improvement); labs are integral in the sciences, and discussion is common in the humanities. However, I think that lectures also have a function in education and can be interwoven into these more active components for maximum effectiveness (and more than the four scenarios that Talbert mentions). Lectures may not always be the best way to teach every concept in every course all the time, especially in a dry, unappealing delivery, but to claim they hold little value may be a tad hasty.

Lectures have stuck around as a primary method of teaching for hundreds of years (see reference). Yes, this is contemporary pedagogy, and we are interested in how we can improve teaching for the future rather than remaining in the past. But I would argue than an integral part of looking forward is also reflecting on the past. What went well and what did not? The status quo is clearly not cutting it, but can we attribute that to the actual lecture format? Or have we all just been afflicted by one too many bad lectures? Molly Worthen defends the lecture in her op-ed in The New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.” Unsurprisingly, disgruntled academics trolling their Twitter accounts responded with a barrage of angry opposition. Worthen writes that students benefit from lectures by developing critical listening skills:

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this […] But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.

Although Talbert admits that lectures do serve a purpose in some isolated cases, he decries, among other issues, how the length of lectures is ill-suited to the average human attention span. I whole-heartedly agree—we evolved to run around on the prairie hunting buffalo with spears, not listening to a long-winded lecture. However, we also did not evolve to do a whole host of things that current society expects of us, such as sitting in front of an LCD screen writing a blog, yet here we are. Just because we are not biologically programmed to do something naturally does not necessarily mean this skill is not worth practicing. Worthen continues:

Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace—and even advertise—lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.

Because I often think in terms of examples outside of education, the whole passive versus active learning argument reminded me of stretching (maybe it’s a stretch, get it?). In yoga or other stretching exercises, active stretches are all the rage. For example, a crescent lunge or lizard pose to stretch, among other muscles, the hip flexor. Active poses are great, but muscles actually like to be stretched both actively and passively. A passive stretch for the hip flexor would be lying on the floor with a low block below your tailbone, allowing the leg to extend straight to the floor in front of you. Chances are you will not feel intense sensations if you try this, but passive stretches are extremely beneficial in addition to more active ones.

I am also a little confused by the distinction Talbert drew between inspiration and learning, as in you can be inspired by a TED talk or church sermon but do not learn from them. Maybe I am singular in this regard, but I usually learn a great deal from TED talks? Given the widespread appeal of TED talks and other activities that involve, when it comes down to it, someone talking at you–stand-up comedy, television, podcasts, speeches, plays–I think it stands to reason that good lectures can also captivate audiences and promote thought. Talbert’s anecdote of listening to a sermon and enjoying it but not being able to describe what it was about, if anything, more firmly underscores the need for the development of an “analytical ear.” Imagine listening to the state-of-the-union address or a political debate and then discussing it with a friend. “What did Donald Trump have to say? No idea, sure was inspiring though” (kidding, totally kidding). Or worse, what if we are lucky enough to have another orator like Martin Luther King Jr., and a similar discussion ensues after his/her version of the “I Have a Dream” speech. “Yeah he had a dream about something, but there wasn’t an interactive component, no Twitter prompts during the whole thing, so I got distracted. Seemed cool though.”

Guilty as charged

Okay, I confess. Yes, I am guilty of having played video games sometimes even pulling all-nighters. Yes, I am also guilty of having read books until the early lights of dawn, catching a couple hours of sleep and then heading to school. Yes, I am also guilty of having enjoyed most of my classes at school and have actually enjoyed learning.

I am a product of the nineties. We didn’t have free access to the internet, and knowledge was not as readily at our fingertips as it is today. When we needed to look up a subject, we needed to hit the library and read through encyclopedias. Fun times (NOT!). But one thing was instilled in me when I was very young,a passion for learning. I don’t remember how or why that came to happen but I grew up to be a curious person. My motto in life is “knowledge is power”. I try to learn about anything and everything. And that has become so much easier now with the technological revolution.

So, I think what the digital age can help kids acquire is a passion for knowledge by opening up imaginary worlds, yes even by using ipads and playing video games. Once your imagination is stimulated, that’s when you really start mindfully learning and enjoying it. The digital world does just that, it stimulates us. It sucks us into this imaginary whirlpool of possibilities and, most of the time, we are much better humans for it.



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