Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

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navigatr85
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Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby navigatr85 » Sun Apr 18, 2010 8:27 pm UTC

This discussion started in the thread titled "When am I going to use this?", but I wanted to start a new thread for it. It got somewhat off-topic, and I think it's worth discussing because it points to some flaws in the overall academic system. I teach math and physics at a community college, and about 9 months ago, I had a discussion with the head of my department about another teacher. That conversation went something like this. (I'm not using the other instructor's actual name.)
navigatr85 wrote:Me: "It seems like, almost every time I tutor one of Mr Lenhart's students, they're very confused about physics concepts. But then, after working with me, they usually say they understand it much better. I think Mr Lenhart might not be explaining things clearly."
Head: "He's probably doing fine. Students tend to distort the truth about their teachers."
Me: "Yeah, it's possible that they were lying, but I think it'd be good for someone to observe Mr Lenhart's teaching and see what's going on."
Head: "But when someone has served you well for years, you don't just walk into their classroom and start checking on them."
Me: "Well, how do you know he's served you well, if he's never been observed?"
Head: "I've never heard any complaints about him."
Me: "I think the reason you haven't heard any complaints is because you're only here in the daytime. He only teaches evening classes, so most of his students have day jobs, so they aren't here in the daytime."
Head: "These students distort the truth, they lie about their teachers, they cheat on tests. Even if students are saying things like that, don't listen to them, we can't trust them."
I get the impression that she's biased against students and towards teachers.

Then Yakk responded to my post with this:
Yakk wrote:That seems politically very smart. She interacts with the professors, and not the students. The students are transients, have next to no political power, and do not matter to her quality of life to any great extent.

Sending observers into his class will be a headache for her, possibly causing her harm, and possibly make him dislike/distrust her with a personal grudge.

What, exactly, is the upside to your proposal? Even if she wanted to do the proposal, what would be the upside to conspiring with you to do it? That would be politically idiotic.

He's served her well -- he takes a class of students, and doesn't generate complaints. That is her incentive. If she wants to undermine him, she could do what you describe -- heck, even if she wants to bring up teaching quality as an issue for whatever reason, she can do it everywhere. But committing to some 3rd party to investigate him based on flimsy evidence? Politically idiotic.

Doing it because one person noticed that some of his students don't follow what he teaches? I mean, what professor doesn't have a myriad of students that don't understand what he is teaching? It isn't even a useful data point.

Of course she should be biased against students and towards teachers. Her teachers are her colleagues, and hard to replace. Students are transient visitors, and easy to replace.

First, let me say that the college is based on teaching, and not research. None of the instructors do any type of research for the college. In fact, we call ourselves "instructors," and avoid the term "professor," because the term "professor" implies a person who splits his/her time between research and teaching.

After thinking about this for a while, I've realized that, in that original conversation with the head, I wasn't considering the other instructor's emotions. When I suggested this, I had good intentions. My goal was to determine whether or not there were any major flaws in his teaching style, and, if so, suggest improvements to him, and thereby cause his students to be less confused and learn more. But I realize that, even if the intentions are good, any kind of observation could upset him and make him feel insulted. Ideally, he shouldn't feel insulted by that, but I suppose that's just human nature. I, myself, wouldn't be insulted at all if one of the administrators wanted to sit in my class and observe one of my lectures.

So, I would like to ask a question to Yakk, and to anyone else who agrees with his position. Under what circumstances do you think it WOULD be necessary to take action about a teacher who might be doing a bad job? Are there any circumstances? Yakk said that teachers are hard to replace. What if a teacher was doing a bad job and was easy to replace? (In this particular case, he IS easy to replace, because he's an adjunct, and the other adjunct physics teachers have been asking for more classes to teach.) Also, Yakk said that this situation involves filmsy evidence. Can you give me an example of something that you would consider to be strong evidence? Part of my original goal was to acquire additional evidence by observing his lectures, but that's not going to happen.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Jorpho » Mon Apr 19, 2010 5:04 am UTC

I don't get it. Why don't you just talk to Mr. Lenhart instead of trying to covertly observe him in some roundabout way?

I also want to address why daytime vs evening should make a difference in the level of complaints. Surely there are class-wide end-of-course evaluations of some sort or another?

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Mr. Freeman » Mon Apr 19, 2010 5:20 am UTC

Like Yakk said, every teacher has several students that just don't get it. Of course they understand it better after they see you for tutoring, that's the entire point of tutoring.
Generally, this is the purpose of professor evaluations. These should determine how many students actually think that a professor is effective.

The real issue here, though, is politics. An overall negative evaluation of a professor should be enough to have someone look into the matter. The reason no one is sent to look into the matter, even if a prof receives amazingly bad evaluations, is because it causes headaches for the people in charge. An official evaluation of a professor's effectiveness is sure to cause drama and conflict within the department. Unfortunately, the people in charge usually place maintaining the status quo above their actual job which is generally to ensure that the students receive a quality education. The head of your department is obviously a dipshit that has no business operating in whatever capacity he's currently operating in. "These students distort the truth, they lie about their teachers, they cheat on tests. ... don't listen to them, we can't trust them." This statement shows a complete disregard for the quality of education of the students he is in charge of. He is clearly failing to perform his job duties and should be fired. Of course, he's probably tenured and this will never happen for the reasons I just mentioned.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Chen » Mon Apr 19, 2010 1:02 pm UTC

Uh correct me if I'm wrong here, but doesn't it make perfect sense that the students who come for tutoring are the ones who don't understand the class concepts? Seems like a very large sampling bias there.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Mon Apr 19, 2010 4:25 pm UTC

One question. Have YOU observed the teacher yourself? If it is any reasonably large class, you should be able to do this easily without ever being noticed.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby a7d07c8114 » Mon Apr 19, 2010 10:19 pm UTC

Not only could there be sampling bias, but keep in mind that everyone learns in a different way, and it's nigh impossible to get the same subject matter out to all students using the same method. "Mr. Lenhart's" method of teaching could possibly be effective for the majority of his class that do at least average in his class, but for these students needing extra help they may require a different method of teaching, something more closely tailored to the individual student.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Adacore » Tue Apr 20, 2010 11:34 am UTC

This problem is part of the reason student-lecturer evaluations existed in my Uni, where the students rate each of their lecturers at the end of the year on quality of teaching (it's about 4-5 questions on each lecturer you had in the year, using a 'rate from 1 to 5 where 1 is good and 5 is bad' system).

It gives you a way to evaluate the teaching quality of everyone consistently. It's not perfect, since some teachers can be popular with the students without being great teachers, or vice versa, and that will distort results. Comparing between classes with completely different demographics can also be difficult, as they can be inclined to answer in different ways. For example, generally the responses you get from adult education classes are far more positive than those from a group of highschool kids for teaching of the same quality. In my experience the system does work though - it exploits the fact that the students are transient, allowing you to gather several data points from different classes (possibly over an extended period of time), then you can respond if members of the teaching staff are scoring consistently below average. The one time my class gave a universally low rating to a lecturer, he was replaced and the course was taught by someone else the following year.

Now, if you don't have that system, I think the only way to ensure quality of teaching is to have regular or semi-regular (ideally random) observation of all teaching. Or you can use both.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby hnooch » Fri Apr 23, 2010 2:14 am UTC

I'm a graduate student at a large-ish university in the US.

For each of the undergraduate intro courses in my department, there is a department-wide final exam; there are several sections of the same course, and so the professors teaching the course save time by teaming up to write the problems. I heard a story about a professor (before my time here) who consistently got mediocre reviews by his students. He was boring, dull, uninspiring, etc.

But the students in his section always did the best on the final exam. Turns out, he was dull but happened to be very good at explaining things. The students might think he's dull for saying the same thing five times, but he's saying the same thing in five different ways and managing to convey information effectively.

The moral of the story? Students might not be in the best position to evaluate whether their professors are effective teachers. So maybe the best way to evaluate teachers is to find some way to measure how much their students learn...

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Adacore » Fri Apr 23, 2010 9:18 am UTC

I concede the point (and remarked in my post) that you can have lecturers who are disliked by their students but who are still good educators. I personally never came across anyone who fits the description you gave during my time at university. I did have one professor whose students always did excellently in his final exams, but that was because he set easy exams, not because he was a good teacher (he was, as it happens, also a good teacher and had quite interesting lectures, but his exams were formulaic enough that you could answer every question by rote if you did a few past papers).

Now, this may be a personal learning style thing - I know I had one lecturer who I considered terrible, he basically just taught straight out of a book and didn't put any interest or original thought into it, but some students loved it - all they had to do was read the book, and they could do his course. Again, that's different from the example you gave, but different students like different styles.

In my personal experience (from 6 years of uni), the courses I enjoyed tended to be the ones where I subsequently felt I scored well in the exams, and vice versa. That doesn't correlate directly with test scores, since some courses were universally understood to be considerably easier than others.

Another thing to consider if you have two groups of students, one who enjoy a subject but gain a less comprehensive knowledge and another who hate a subject but get a better knowledge, which group do you think is more likely to continue pursuing that subject and contribute to that area in the future? The whole point of university is that courses aren't target-driven for exams, but an opportunity to explore exciting knowledge. One of the courses I took in my final year as an undergrad was known to be fiendishly difficult - and the professor deliberately set incredibly hard exams to ensure that only the people who were really passionate about the subject took his course. The grade average of his students must have been well below average, but I'm sure we actually learned more in that course, and enjoyed it more, than any of the other courses I did that year.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Fri Apr 23, 2010 8:58 pm UTC

Student reviews are too subjective. It's like asking prisoners to write a performance review of their guards - set up for failure.

I have a physics prof who knows his days are numbered at my institution, and a lot of it is because the students complained about his teaching style. He doesn't use a book, nor is he fond of using a concrete number in his problems, which generates massively negative reviews from the class, who are mostly engineers. I think he is great at explaining how the concepts work together and would like to have him stay, but that is not meant to be.
Also, the questionnaire used here has bubbles for things like "this course has broadened my appreciation of cultural and literary perspectives" for all the classes - something that is clearly N/A for a lot of the sciences.
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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Fri Apr 23, 2010 9:58 pm UTC

@cjmcjmcjmcjm:
I must say you are probably 1 of the minority who likes that prof. To be honest, that style of teaching only works in grad school, and not with normal students. Even so, the lack of concrete examples is really, really bad. Not everyone can think abstractly, not even mathematicians (I don't know about physicists, so I will refrain from commenting on that). Explaining how concepts work together is nice and all, but if the students don't even understand the concepts themselves, they aren't going to see any relations.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby navigatr85 » Thu May 20, 2010 3:55 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:I don't get it. Why don't you just talk to Mr. Lenhart instead of trying to covertly observe him in some roundabout way?
Well, he probably wouldn't listen to me, because he and I are on the same "rank", so to speak. He would be more likely to listen to the head of the math department, who outranks him and is like a boss to him.

Jorpho wrote:I also want to address why daytime vs evening should make a difference in the level of complaints. Surely there are class-wide end-of-course evaluations of some sort or another?
Yes, there are course evaluations done by the students. But the administrators never actually read those end-of-course evaluations. There are many other problems with the course evaluation system, but I won't get into that right now.

achan1058 wrote:One question. Have YOU observed the teacher yourself? If it is any reasonably large class, you should be able to do this easily without ever being noticed.
No, actually, every class at my college is restricted to a small size. 20 students is the maximum. So, he almost certainly would notice if I observed him. Actually, now that I think about it, it might be worth it to talk to him and ask him for permission to observe one of his classes.

Mr. Freeman wrote:Like Yakk said, every teacher has several students that just don't get it. Of course they understand it better after they see you for tutoring, that's the entire point of tutoring.
a7d07c8114 wrote:"Mr. Lenhart's" method of teaching could possibly be effective for the majority of his class that do at least average in his class, but for these students needing extra help they may require a different method of teaching, something more closely tailored to the individual student.
OK, these two comments are representative of a particular attitude that is widespread throughout the American academic community. But I think that attitude is wrong. Most teachers, when they see that several of their students aren't understanding the material, think there's nothing wrong with that. But if I'm teaching something, and a lot of my students aren't getting it, that makes me wonder if I might be doing something wrong. It makes me wonder if I'm not explaining the topics clearly enough, or if I'm teaching a topic that's too far beyond their level, or if the confused students are not actually up to speed on the pre-requisites for my class. Sure, every teacher has some students that just don't get it. But if one teacher consistently has 50% of his students not getting it, and another teacher consistently has only 5% of his students not getting it, that second guy is a better teacher.

It's true that many students need something tailored individually for them. I think teachers should give individual attention to students, during class, whenever possible. That's something I do for my students quite often. In fact, according to other posters on this forum, giving individual attention is a topic that is emphasized in any basic teacher training course. Of course, individual attention is only possible when the class size is small and when there is time available for it.

cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:Student reviews are too subjective. It's like asking prisoners to write a performance review of their guards - set up for failure.
I don't think it's like that at all. The main part of a prison guard's job is to punish the prisoners. The main part of a teacher's job is not to punish the students, but to educate them. Especially at the college level, where all the students are adults, I think the students actually do have a good idea of whether or not they are learning things from the teacher.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Chen » Thu May 20, 2010 5:49 pm UTC

navigatr85 wrote:I don't think it's like that at all. The main part of a prison guard's job is to punish the prisoners. The main part of a teacher's job is not to punish the students, but to educate them. Especially at the college level, where all the students are adults, I think the students actually do have a good idea of whether or not they are learning things from the teacher.


Except students, even if they do learn stuff from a teacher, will evaluate the teacher much harsher if they happen to give hard tests or the like. Hell I know people who will blame teachers for their failure even if its clearly their own fault. Its rare you'll get unbiased evaluations, especially if the teacher isn't one to give out "easy" marks, at least in my experience.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Fri May 21, 2010 2:11 am UTC

navigatr85 wrote:
achan1058 wrote:One question. Have YOU observed the teacher yourself? If it is any reasonably large class, you should be able to do this easily without ever being noticed.
No, actually, every class at my college is restricted to a small size. 20 students is the maximum. So, he almost certainly would notice if I observed him. Actually, now that I think about it, it might be worth it to talk to him and ask him for permission to observe one of his classes.
You can make up just about any excuse, maybe something like you want to sit-in to see whether you would want to take up the class, or that you are trying to fill in gaps. From my experience, most profs are not objected to students sitting in (I have sit in something like 1/2 dozen courses now, for learning purposes, and have no problems with the profs what so ever. It's good because I don't have to do HW nor pay tuition.)
navigatr85 wrote:It's true that many students need something tailored individually for them. I think teachers should give individual attention to students, during class, whenever possible. That's something I do for my students quite often. In fact, according to other posters on this forum, giving individual attention is a topic that is emphasized in any basic teacher training course. Of course, individual attention is only possible when the class size is small and when there is time available for it.
This isn't going to happen, period. You would be lucky if you can get through 30% of the material that way. Besides, there's this thing called office hours. If they want individual attention, they can seek it. My experience is that too few of them do.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Yakk » Fri May 21, 2010 7:13 pm UTC

There is a difference between "ought" and "is".

The head of the department "ought" to care how well the undergrads are educated, but there is very little incentive for the head of the department to care about that in many academic institutions.

If you actually care about that, and are willing to take risks, then you can probably make a greater contribution than your own excellent teaching could by working ways to up the education of the entire department.

But it won't be easy, and it won't be risk-free.

Get a position to push change. Start the gears turning on having educational results matter (and not just exam results, but percent of students who go on to grad degrees, or how well students do in the next course, etc) over time. Have systems in which professors cross-learn about each others teaching strategy. I really cannot solves this problem off hand: it is a hard problem (how to get instructors to teach better, and students to learn better). That is a risk (of failure), plus the risk of rocking the boat (and being treated poorly in return, as you are doing something that is not in your own direct self interest).

(The one about having all teachers sit in courses taught by other professors in the same subject could be a good one. It is non-judgmental, and it allows your teachers to cross-fertilize ideas about teaching. And you can push it without it being about "this guy sucks", but rather "here is a little thing we can do to get better at teaching undergrads")

And try the pull the above off without being ground down into a whimpering bureaucratic functionary of the status quo.

Understanding why someone makes a politically selfish decision is easy. Understanding why a decision is smart, or why it is motivated, is not the same thing as saying that their decision is what it "ought" to be.
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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Jorpho » Fri May 21, 2010 10:56 pm UTC

Yakk wrote:Start the gears turning on having educational results matter (and not just exam results, but percent of students who go on to grad degrees, or how well students do in the next course, etc) over time.
I can hardly conceive of a faculty in which this would be welcome.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Vaniver » Sat May 22, 2010 4:58 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:I can hardly conceive of a faculty in which this would be welcome.
It's not that bad, it's not like job security is the most important factor for teachers everywhere!

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Yakk » Sat May 22, 2010 6:31 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:
Yakk wrote:Start the gears turning on having educational results matter (and not just exam results, but percent of students who go on to grad degrees, or how well students do in the next course, etc) over time.
I can hardly conceive of a faculty in which this would be welcome.

It is not much different than "class evaluations", except instead of the short-term subjective results of your students who attend the class where the evaluations happen, it is a longer term closer to goal directed measure.
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision - BR

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Jorpho » Sat May 22, 2010 10:24 pm UTC

If nothing else, things that are longer-term just have that much more potential to be affected by unrelated influences.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby BobTheElder » Wed May 26, 2010 1:31 pm UTC

This is a very 'meh' producing thread.

Firstly, I haven't been at an educational establishment where teachers are NOT periodically monitored by having other teachers sit in on their lessons.
It doesn't seem that the aim of this should be to get the teacher in trouble for not being good enough, but to help them improve. No one's perfect.

Secondly, you didn't actually mention any complaints from the children, whether or not there where any. What you said was that they DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY SHOULD. Furthermore, you showed that this wasn't due to their stupidity or unwillingness to learn, as you then went on to help them understand the concepts.
It seems pretty clear here, then, that your head either doesn't care how well her students are taught, in which case she should be fired, or she doesn't respect or care about your opinions, which is a shame, as she's harming her ability to have her students be taught well.

Although there's theoretically nothing wrong with asking the teacher in question if you could offer advice, or if you could sit in on his lessons, I fear that he would likely be offended by such a request. It is a big shame that (I assume) there is no routine of sitting in on lessons and offering feedback and advice for improvement. Then it would be standard procedure, and wouldn't cause any offence. The situation where this is NOT the case, makes it difficult, because even just checking if a teacher is doing a good job is implying that they're not.

Thirdly, to everyone who says it's impossible to give every individual the attention they need, or that it's impossible for teachers to care about more than just getting students through with some decent grades, etc, etc- I know from personal experience that you're wrong, and think it's sad that you've chosen the word impossible. Difficult, maybe. Not impossible.

So many people go through school without being introduced to the joy of learning, or being inspired in any way.
Rawr

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Thu May 27, 2010 3:21 pm UTC

BobTheElder wrote:Thirdly, to everyone who says it's impossible to give every individual the attention they need, or that it's impossible for teachers to care about more than just getting students through with some decent grades, etc, etc- I know from personal experience that you're wrong, and think it's sad that you've chosen the word impossible. Difficult, maybe. Not impossible.
What is your class size, and how much material you have to go through? With what I have to work with, it is indeed down right impossible. It might be possible for the OP's class of 20 people, but I just cannot see this happening to a class of 100+.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby navigatr85 » Wed Jun 16, 2010 7:58 am UTC

Chen wrote:Except students, even if they do learn stuff from a teacher, will evaluate the teacher much harsher if they happen to give hard tests or the like.
I've never understood why some teachers give extremely hard tests. If a teacher gives a test that's much more difficult than all the lectures, homework, etc, seen up to that point, then I think that IS a bad teacher.

Chen wrote:Hell I know people who will blame teachers for their failure even if its clearly their own fault.
That's true. I've seen that happen. The problem is that many teachers and administrators, upon seeing a student failing a class, quickly jump to the conclusion that it's the student's fault and not the teacher's fault. In the situation I was describing in the first post, it COULD be the students' fault (not coming to class, not studying). Or it could also be bad teaching. I don't know for sure which one it was. The head of the department didn't know for sure either. But she just assumed it was the students' fault.

Yakk wrote:Understanding why someone makes a politically selfish decision is easy. Understanding why a decision is smart, or why it is motivated, is not the same thing as saying that their decision is what it "ought" to be.
OK, I can see how that decision is smart for her own self-interest. By not observing the teacher, she avoids putting in extra effort, and she'll keep her same job, same salary, and everything, whether or not she puts in that extra effort. And I can see how her decision would avoid upsetting the instructor.

So, I guess you're saying that when a person is making a "politically smart" decision, their primary goals are:
1) Minimize their own workload, while maintaining their salary/job/position
2) Avoid upsetting people.
To achieve those goals, they should:
1) Avoid collecting evidence, even if it seems like more evidence might be necessary
2) Look at ambiguous evidence, and interpret it in a biased way, and not even admit that it's ambiguous.
Is that right? I think we're in agreement that this decision, even if it's "politically smart", is not completely logical or ethical; it's not what it "ought" to be.

By the way, Yakk, can you please answer my questions from the first post? :) Under what circumstances do you think it WOULD be necessary to take action about a teacher who might be doing a bad job?

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Wed Jun 16, 2010 1:21 pm UTC

navigatr85 wrote:
Chen wrote:Except students, even if they do learn stuff from a teacher, will evaluate the teacher much harsher if they happen to give hard tests or the like.
I've never understood why some teachers give extremely hard tests. If a teacher gives a test that's much more difficult than all the lectures, homework, etc, seen up to that point, then I think that IS a bad teacher.
This I agree, but on the other hand it is good to give tests which are possibly too hard as opposed to possibly too easy. It's fine to scale up the students' marks in general, but it causes a lot of issues trying to scale down. Imagine how the students feel when you tell them that the 90% they achieved on the final really mean only a 70%.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby MysteryBall » Wed Jun 16, 2010 2:36 pm UTC

Surely teachers have to be observed once in a while anyway? I mean, he must have some sort of observation coming up at some point within a year?

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Yakk » Wed Jun 16, 2010 3:10 pm UTC

Hard tests are good. A test where the expected success rate at a question is 90%+ is not going to be able to distinguish students who are barely understanding from those who have mastered the material.

Asto when "should" things happen -- that depends on whose measuring stick you are using, obviously, as it is a matter of values and not objective reality. Sure, educators "should" do as much as they can to make their students as educated as they can -- but someone who has no upside to the institution being a better educator, and lots of upside to having things run smoothly "should" not care about someone being a mediocre educator.

"Should" depends on the perspectives, goals and incentives of the person who is "should"ing.
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision - BR

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Jorpho » Thu Jun 17, 2010 12:04 am UTC

Yakk wrote:Hard tests are good. A test where the expected success rate at a question is 90%+ is not going to be able to distinguish students who are barely understanding from those who have mastered the material.
That all depends on what you are looking for in "mastery".

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Yakk » Thu Jun 17, 2010 12:48 pm UTC

A test in which 90% is the expected grade for someone who isn't incompetent is a good way to detect incompetence. It is a horrible way to detect excellence.

Most courses seem to be about passing everyone who isn't completely incompetent, because of the customer-seller model of education (and/or social promotion). The standards of complete incompetence change based on the population being tested.

If you move the fail mark downward -- say, to 25% -- then you can throw tests at students in which half of the material is an incompetence test, and the other half is a genius test.

Wasting half of your mark-space on failure, when the degree of failure fundamentally really doesn't matter, seems silly. I guess the same could be said about success -- when you get right down to it, it doesn't matter how well you pass a course, as nobody beyond short-term (a handful of years) academia will care what mark you got.
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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Jorpho » Thu Jun 17, 2010 11:57 pm UTC

Yakk wrote:If you move the fail mark downward -- say, to 25% -- then you can throw tests at students in which half of the material is an incompetence test, and the other half is a genius test.
But half the population isn't geniuses and never will be.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Yakk » Fri Jun 18, 2010 6:09 pm UTC

Sure? But there is a huge gap between "not incompetent" (which is what modern education seems to be about), and "genius".

With half of the test devoted to "not incompetent", and half of the test devoted to "you have to be better than incompetent to get this", everything from a barely-passing (relative) dunderhead to a maestro can be distinguished.

In the current system, once you become "not incompetent" what you are being tested on is reliability in my experience. Because the test is designed so that if you are "not incompetent" a 100% is just a matter of not making a simple mistake. The point of incompetence is simply moved in harder courses.

This is because of the 50% pass-fail marking scheme. With such a scheme, most of the test ends up being a matter of drudging though stuff that every competent (by the standards of the course) should be able to do. Toss in grade inflation, and university students who are "not incompetent" expect to get a 80+% (or sometimes a 90%+) in a course, and you have at most 10% of the material in an exam requiring any performance above "not incompetent". Even there, a student to blows away that 10% of the material, yet doesn't reliably cross every t and dot every i (by the standards of the course) on the "are you incompetent" 90% of the material ends up with a worse mark than someone who reliably manages the "barely not incompetent" standard.

Now, maybe that is a good thing -- that, in effect, nearly every course is aimed at teaching to the barely competent in the class, with the difference between courses being the bar at which they set incompetence. It seems like a shame to me, however -- it means that someone who is better than their course peers ends up with a non-rewarding experience, as the (easy to them) material is drilled and drilled into comparatively incompetent peers in order that they can produce a reliable 80%+ mark on the competence test exam.

A system where the standard of 25% was the expected mark for someone who was barely competent would both detect that bare level of competence, and allow people who managed to learn more than bare competence a range to excel within.

In such a system, someone who screws up the is and ts in the standard work can make up for it in the "enriched" material. You could look at it as a system in which grades range from 0% to 200%, with 50% being a passing grade.
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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Fri Jun 18, 2010 9:57 pm UTC

On one hand I agree with you that high school tests are simply too easy, on the other hand I do feel that you are taking it too far. Other things aside, it feels really bad to be doing less than 50% of the questions on a test, even if the test is designed to be hard. I recall an approach to setting tests from a prof that I liked:
1/3 of the material you should get if you don't fall asleep in class too often.
1/3 of the material similar to HW problems, which you should get if you do your HW and apply a little bit of thought.
1/3 of the material classified as "Good luck, have fun."

That way students who attend class often and all will get something like 70%, while you need to be rather good to get 90%+.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby navigatr85 » Sat Jul 10, 2010 12:07 am UTC

Yakk wrote:Hard tests are good. A test where the expected success rate at a question is 90%+ is not going to be able to distinguish students who are barely understanding from those who have mastered the material.
Yakk wrote:It is a horrible way to detect excellence.
Why is it necessary to distinguish people to that extent? Why is it necessary to use a test within a class to detect excellence? There are other ways of determining excellence and genius. For example, Einstein is remembered as a genius, not because he scored well on an exam, but because of his major contributions to physics. For a student who is still working on a bachelor's degree, let them complete their degree first, and then, they can be seen as geniuses through PhD work, or research, or other things later in their lives. To me, the only purpose of a test should be to check whether the student has learned what they should have learned from that particular course. Why should it be anything more than that?

Yakk wrote:it means that someone who is better than their course peers ends up with a non-rewarding experience, as the (easy to them) material is drilled and drilled into comparatively incompetent peers in order that they can produce a reliable 80%+ mark on the competence test exam.
If a person is that much better than their peers in the course, then they have other options, instead of listening while their peers are learning the material and getting bored. They can spend less time studying. At the college/university level, they can skip classes, and they can finish a test within a shorter amount of time and leave the room early on a test day. If they feel like they need more intellectual stimulation, they can read other sections of their textbook, they can talk to their teacher outside of class time about concepts from the class, or they can switch into another course that is faster-paced and more in-depth.

By the way, let me make sure we're talking about the same thing here. The testing system that I dislike is a system in which:
• the test contains mostly questions that are far more difficult than anything seen before the test.
• the teacher expects all of his/her students to be able to "extrapolate" from the easier pre-test items to the more difficult test items.
• the student will receive a bad grade if he is unable to "extrapolate" in this manner.

However, I would be OK with a testing system in which:
• the test contains a mix of questions, with a range of difficulty levels
• the teacher actually does NOT expect most of his students to be able to correctly answer the hardest questions
• the student can still get a good grade even if he doesn't do well on the hardest test questions. (For example, a 70% score becomes an A.)
In this second type of system, I think it would be best if the teacher explicitly said the above three facts to his students, before the test. We got onto this topic because we were talking about students giving bad evaluations because of hard tests. If the teacher is using this second type of testing system, but he explains the system to the students before the test, that would probably prevent students from getting upset and giving harsh reviews.

Let me add that, even though I'd be OK with this second type of testing system, I don't think it's really necessary, as I was saying in the first paragraph.

Cue wrote:Surely teachers have to be observed once in a while anyway? I mean, he must have some sort of observation coming up at some point within a year?
No, actually, at our college, adjunct instructors usually don't get observed at all. There's no policy in place for that.

Yakk wrote:...but someone who has no upside to the institution being a better educator, and lots of upside to having things run smoothly "should" not care about someone being a mediocre educator.
OK, so I guess, in the current system, there will NEVER be any circumstances in which an administrator will feel that it is necessary to observe a teacher. It seems that, in the current system, no administrator has anything to gain by observing a teacher.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby ++$_ » Sat Jul 10, 2010 1:51 am UTC

navigatr85 wrote:By the way, let me make sure we're talking about the same thing here. The testing system that I dislike is a system in which:
• the test contains mostly questions that are far more difficult than anything seen before the test.
• the teacher expects all of his/her students to be able to "extrapolate" from the easier pre-test items to the more difficult test items.
• the student will receive a bad grade if he is unable to "extrapolate" in this manner.

However, I would be OK with a testing system in which:
• the test contains a mix of questions, with a range of difficulty levels
• the teacher actually does NOT expect most of his students to be able to correctly answer the hardest questions
• the student can still get a good grade even if he doesn't do well on the hardest test questions. (For example, a 70% score becomes an A.)
In this second type of system, I think it would be best if the teacher explicitly said the above three facts to his students, before the test. We got onto this topic because we were talking about students giving bad evaluations because of hard tests. If the teacher is using this second type of testing system, but he explains the system to the students before the test, that would probably prevent students from getting upset and giving harsh reviews.
The thing is that students will often take a test and then afterwards say something like "Wow! The questions on that test were way harder than anything on the homework!" But that isn't necessarily true. Sometimes the homework questions were adequate preparation for the test, but in doing the homework students had their notes and their books and their friends to help them, and then they weren't prepared to do the problems without them on the test. Other times, the students would have been fully prepared if they had actually done all the assignments that the teacher gave -- that is, if they had read the assigned readings rather than "picking it up during lecture," done the practice test under timed conditions, and so on. Or maybe the students just didn't bother to study for the test. And of course, sometimes the test really was much harder than anything previous.

I also think it's important to distinguish "hard" from "different."

I'll use math as an example because it's what I know. There are certain areas of undergraduate math, like real analysis, where many of the proofs are very similar to each other, but they don't use any single identifiable technique. The similarity comes from the fact that the same "moves" are generally useful. For example, there's a common trick of taking something of the form [imath]\left \|x - y\right \|[/imath] and noting that by the triangle inequality, that is less than or equal to [imath]\left \|x - z\right \| + \left \|y - z\right\|[/imath]. Of course, this doesn't come up in every proof. Also, [imath]z[/imath] is not the same every time you use it. Choosing the value of [imath]z[/imath] properly is the key to this step of the proof. There are lots of other "moves" like this.

Now, suppose you know of 14 problems that might require these moves. You put 12 of them on the homework assignments and save 2 for the exam. Now, inevitably, the students are going to complain that they'd never seen the problems on the exam before. And they're right of course -- they're different problems! That's the whole point! They should be easy for anyone who has mastered the techniques used to solve the other 12 problems (and probably also demonstrated in class). In fact, if you ask the professor, he might say, "Well, they're basically the same problems as these on the homework." To the professor, and to the good students, they are basically the same problems. To the not-so-good students, they seem completely different.

For this reason, a lot of professors put all 14 problems on the homework and then pick 2 to put on the midterm as well. They get really good reviews, but I think this defeats the purpose of having tests.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Yakk » Sat Jul 10, 2010 3:26 pm UTC

navigatr85 wrote:Why is it necessary to distinguish people to that extent? Why is it necessary to use a test within a class to detect excellence? There are other ways of determining excellence and genius. For example, Einstein is remembered as a genius, not because he scored well on an exam, but because of his major contributions to physics. For a student who is still working on a bachelor's degree, let them complete their degree first, and then, they can be seen as geniuses through PhD work, or research, or other things later in their lives. To me, the only purpose of a test should be to check whether the student has learned what they should have learned from that particular course. Why should it be anything more than that?

Because taking someone who was a passable undergrad student and putting them into a PhD is a waste of both the students time and the institutions time.

What harm is there that the student passes with a 25% instead of a 50%? I mean, other than the constant grade inflation expectations of what a given percent mark means. They are graded as a competent undergraduate level Physicist, but lack any signs of exceptional ability, effort etc.
Yakk wrote:it means that someone who is better than their course peers ends up with a non-rewarding experience, as the (easy to them) material is drilled and drilled into comparatively incompetent peers in order that they can produce a reliable 80%+ mark on the competence test exam.
If a person is that much better than their peers in the course, then they have other options, instead of listening while their peers are learning the material and getting bored. They can spend less time studying. At the college/university level, they can skip classes, and they can finish a test within a shorter amount of time and leave the room early on a test day.

This sounds like a great plan to remove extrinsic motivation to work harder. "If you are smart, you will get to do less work, so doing less work is evidence you are smart". A great way to train people into being smart slackers, who when actually presented with something that is actually challenging to them shy away from it.

You can train someone to respond to challenge with effort, and you can train people to respond to challenge with avoidance. Rewarding and praising someone for finding work easy ... trains people to respond to challenge with avoidance.

If your curriculum provides for harder material, and you reward people (with praise) not for doing the easy material fast and dismissively, but rather for finishing the easy material then wading into the hard material, you are training people to find hard problems and solve them, instead of avoiding them.
If they feel like they need more intellectual stimulation, they can read other sections of their textbook, they can talk to their teacher outside of class time about concepts from the class, or they can switch into another course that is faster-paced and more in-depth.

Have you looked at the structure of elementary, high-school and college education? It is full of "you must take and complete course X using Y course-hours per week before you can take course X+1". Sure, the teacher can ad-hoc create a harder curriculum, but that is just doing what I was describing above, and making a harder curriculum. Except now the teacher has no backing from the institution, and the institutional rewards handed to the student do not differ from the smart slacker who gets 99% and the hard-working smart person who gets 99% and does much more work.

There are occasionally some programs that allow for enrichment. But even then, with social promotion, someone burning through material 2 years in advance of their year ... then graduates from the course, and ends up doing material that they have already mastered, with a new teacher who might not be doing a bunch of volunteer extra enrichment work and who is quite happy to have the student slack and not be a bother.
By the way, let me make sure we're talking about the same thing here. The testing system that I dislike is a system in which:
• the test contains mostly questions that are far more difficult than anything seen before the test.
• the teacher expects all of his/her students to be able to "extrapolate" from the easier pre-test items to the more difficult test items.
• the student will receive a bad grade if he is unable to "extrapolate" in this manner.

A bad grade? What makes 30% a bad grade? If 25% is sufficient to pass, and 30% is sufficient to maintain your major/stream/etc, then it isn't a bad grade.

The teacher doesn't have to expect all the students to get all of the questions. You expect that, because you are probably used to tests being designed so that students can get 100% on the test if they just paid attention to the presented material. Grade inflation is a relatively new phenomena -- even 30-40 years ago, it wasn't expected that a merely competent person could get a B or an A in a class like it is today. C was the typical grade in a course, with D meaning that you where falling behind, and B a sign that you where exceptional.

Grade inflation has occurred massively since then, and has reduced the resolution of the grade system to uselessness.
However, I would be OK with a testing system in which:
• the test contains a mix of questions, with a range of difficulty levels

Of course: there should be "you merely can regurgitate the material I presented" type questions. Enough to determine basic mastery of regurgitation.
• the teacher actually does NOT expect most of his students to be able to correctly answer the hardest questions
• the student can still get a good grade even if he doesn't do well on the hardest test questions. (For example, a 70% score becomes an A.)

Why should getting a top-tier grade be a requirement? Why should someone who isn't exceptional get the highest grade?

I guess we could just invent grades-above-A (omega through alpha!)?
Yakk wrote:...but someone who has no upside to the institution being a better educator, and lots of upside to having things run smoothly "should" not care about someone being a mediocre educator.
OK, so I guess, in the current system, there will NEVER be any circumstances in which an administrator will feel that it is necessary to observe a teacher. It seems that, in the current system, no administrator has anything to gain by observing a teacher.

Sure -- if the institution is trying to brag about being good at education, the administrator will want to find some metrics and methods that would show that they are good educators.

Or if there was a 3rd party who was doing such metrics.

Or if the administrator has enough power to spare time to actually care about pet projects (like educating students), and chooses to spend time on it. (This could bolster the administrators self-worth, for example)

Or because procedures from people with incentive to teach somehow get implemented, and the administrator is coerced into implementing them somehow.
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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Sat Jul 10, 2010 5:17 pm UTC

@navigatr85: You do want some degree of separation between the average, good, and the great. Otherwise, tests becomes a matter of "who is making less mistakes", which I can tell you for sure it is very not fun. Also, if you don't give reward to students being great, often they would simply just not care. I mean, that's why many video games award powerful unlockables when you beat the hardest difficulty, no? Fortunately, it is very doable without compromising the tests too much. In fact, it's not hard to do at all even if you are to make the test with the intention that the average would be 70%. (Personally, I say 65% would be better.)

@Yakk: I must disagree with you here. I have said it before, and I will say it again. Overly difficult tests are very damaging to student psyches, even if they know it will be scaled up. Unless, the test is just so bad that students won't bother comparing it to normal tests, but in that case you have the Putnam...... Heck, even the ACM programming contest usually have a giveaway question. Also, a test which the expected grade is as low as you suggested is not going to separate out the weak from the average well. Most students are not geniuses, and tests should not be tailored with those students in mind. Another problem with an overly hard test is that it creates none to little buffer zone. ie. You get into the case of "just because I see 1 more trick than you due to trial and error/luck" means "I am going to get a stupidly higher grade than you". This is also very not fun, since a bad day can really screw you over just like that. Easy question provides some sort of buffer this problem. Anyways, if you want to "maximize" the use of the "grade space", an average of 50% would be ideal, but I am in no ways recommending that, due to the reasons I state above.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Jorpho » Sat Jul 10, 2010 8:10 pm UTC

All this yakking about grades seems a bit pointless given that practically no one gives a damn once you have your degree.

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Vaniver » Sat Jul 10, 2010 8:11 pm UTC

achan1058 wrote:Overly difficult tests are very damaging to student psyches, even if they know it will be scaled up.
There are two kinds of psychic damage going on: the kind where students don't get what they expect, and the kind where students expect something that's very wrong. It's far, far worse to train students to train students to avoid challenges while giving them what they expect than it is to not give students what they expect while training students to respond to challenges with effort. Even if those are only weakly linked, you're better off erring on the side of effort.
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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby ProfBravus » Wed Jul 14, 2010 1:09 am UTC

Just a really quick comment: we need a culture where it's absolutely normal for instructors/lecturers/professors to observe one another's classes. It shouldn't be seen as punitive or confrontational, and the observer gets at least as much benefit as the observee. We all teach differently, and a good observer will see both things they will want to support (and emulate) and things that might need correction (and avoidance) in any colleague's class. Junior, senior and admin staff ought to be taking the time to sit in one another's classes regularly: it will improve teaching for everyone.

(Oh yeah, and student evaluations of teaching are *one* useful facet of an overall quality control process, definitely not the be-all and end-all)

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby navigatr85 » Fri Aug 06, 2010 9:03 pm UTC

Yakk recently put me on his ignore list, because he felt insulted by some comments I made in another thread. So he won't see this post. But I'd still like to respond to some of the things he said.

Yakk wrote:A bad grade? What makes 30% a bad grade? If 25% is sufficient to pass, and 30% is sufficient to maintain your major/stream/etc, then it isn't a bad grade.

The teacher doesn't have to expect all the students to get all of the questions. You expect that, because you are probably used to tests being designed so that students can get 100% on the test if they just paid attention to the presented material. Grade inflation is a relatively new phenomena -- even 30-40 years ago, it wasn't expected that a merely competent person could get a B or an A in a class like it is today. C was the typical grade in a course, with D meaning that you where falling behind, and B a sign that you where exceptional.
Yakk is right, I'm used to a different type of test. I'm used to the idea that a "C" is a bad grade. I've always been under the impression that an "A" should be possible for any student who:

• has taken the prerequisite classes and still has a good grasp of the material learned there
• comes to every class and pays attention during class
• works hard for an ample amount of time outside of class, doing homework and studying
• completes all the homework assignments, and turns them all in on time
• asks questions and seeks out help when he/she doesn't understand something
• doesn't have any sort of mental disability

In the system that I'm used to, a student who does all of the above should have no problem getting an A. But, in the system Yakk is describing, it seems that a student would only get an A if he/she does all of the above AND is a genius who is able to "extrapolate" from easier examples to harder examples.

Yakk wrote:This sounds like a great plan to remove extrinsic motivation to work harder. "If you are smart, you will get to do less work, so doing less work is evidence you are smart". A great way to train people into being smart slackers, who when actually presented with something that is actually challenging to them shy away from it.
Yakk wrote:...taking someone who was a passable undergrad student and putting them into a PhD is a waste of both the students time and the institutions time.
I think Yakk actually had a good point here. If the goal of a test is to identify students who would thrive in a PhD program, then I'd be OK with a hard test that involves extrapolation. In the academic world, or when doing academic research, it WOULD be bad for people to be "smart slackers."

On the other hand, in the real world, it seems like there's nothing wrong with being a "smart slacker". It seems that smarter people really do work less, outside of the academic world. In a workplace environment, it's actually not that important to work exceptionally hard or to do your job exceptionally well. It's more important to be friendly and "political." For example, look back at the first post of this thread. That instructor is probably doing a bad job. But he's kept his job for years just because he doesn't cause a stir. The head of the math department is also doing a terrible job. But she has kept her job because she's "politically smart." (Note that when a professor is doing research, I'm counting that as part of the "academic world". But when a professor is teaching, or doing administrative activities, I'm counting that as part of the "real world".)

By the way, for those of you who are in favor of hard tests, would you agree that the whole idea of a "hard test" can be taken too far? Would you agree that there should be a limit to the difficulty?

Anyway, let me get back to the original topic of this thread. We were saying that students give teachers bad evaluations because of hard tests. If teachers would just explain their testing system to the students, they could avoid a lot of those unfair bad evaluations. When I was a college student, some of my professors gave hard tests. Their reasons were probably similar to what Yakk has been saying. But I never knew their reasons for giving hard tests, until now. These past few months, when I was reading the posts in this thread, that was actually the very first time that I learned the reasons for hard tests. None of my professors ever gave their reasoning when I was a student, and so the hard tests were frustrating. But I probably would have been less frustrated if one of my professors had simply announced to the class, "There will be some questions on my tests that will be harder than any of the questions you've seen up to this point, and I don't expect everyone in the class to be able to answer all of the questions, because my tests are designed to distinguish genius students from competent students..."

In general, I feel like there's a lack of communication between students and teachers. Teachers generally don't explain the reasons behind their testing policies, grading policies, policies on lateness, and so on. A student might dislike a certain rule that a teacher has. But if the teacher gives the reasons behind that rule, then that same student might become less upset about that same rule. I think this lack of communication is part of the reason why schools often view their students' feedback as biased or unfair.

ProfBravus wrote:...we need a culture where it's absolutely normal for instructors/lecturers/professors to observe one another's classes. It shouldn't be seen as punitive or confrontational, and the observer gets at least as much benefit as the observee. We all teach differently, and a good observer will see both things they will want to support (and emulate) and things that might need correction (and avoidance) in any colleague's class. Junior, senior and admin staff ought to be taking the time to sit in one another's classes regularly: it will improve teaching for everyone.
I couldn't agree more. :)

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby achan1058 » Sat Aug 07, 2010 5:46 pm UTC

navigatr85 wrote:By the way, for those of you who are in favor of hard tests, would you agree that the whole idea of a "hard test" can be taken too far? Would you agree that there should be a limit to the difficulty?
Yes, that doesn't change my point of view. Just because there are tests like the Putnam out there doesn't mean we should make tests stupidly easy. (I am directing more at high school tests than university ones with this comment, but there are also university tests that are stupidly easy.)

Anyways, what's the point of resurrecting a thread dead for a month?

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Re: Observing teachers who may or may not be bad

Postby Mike_Bson » Sat Aug 07, 2010 6:17 pm UTC

Of course people getting tutored won't think they are getting good explanation; they are semi-isolated incidents, and less able to understand than most people.

To the question: If people are repeatedly complaining that the teacher is doing a poor job, then he should get some kine of evaluation.

As to the topic of ''difficult tests;'' they should only be difficult if you do not understand the material. Tests should only try to make sure you know everything you are supposed to.


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