On teaching

May 18, 2008

I am afraid that teaching in top research universities has become less “teaching” and more “speaking in the classroom.” I am drawing on my own experience at one top research university, after having taught there for six years, but the symptoms that I will refer to are evident, anecdotally, in other places as well.

At the outset, it is important to define “good teaching.” You can find many places that list certain characteristics of good teachers. For example, strong knowledge of the field, good communicator, good listener, respectful towards the students. Here are two operational definitions of good teachers as they are applied in my school. The first is more or less a quote I received from the associate dean of faculty when I asked him how he defines a good teacher. “A good teacher is one who can teach different courses in different programs.” Way to go. Based on my observations and experiences over the past six years, I can confidently claim that the operational definition of a good teacher in my school is “one whose students do not line up at the dean’s office door to complain.” The advantage of both these definitions is that they are easily quantified and measured in real time, making it easy for administrator to “evaluate” good teaching at low cost.

How is this last definition degrading the very education that these institutions are purporting to provide?

At least based on my experience, my colleagues trade off rigor for both good teaching performance (in the way it is defined in my school) and less effort. By “teaching performance” I mean that when a course is less rigorous, there is less chance for students to line up in the dean’s office and complain that the course is too tough. Also, while the evidence of the relation between rigor and teaching evaluations is mixed (some say no relation and others call for a negative relation) it is hard to argue for a positive relation, on average. Thus, reducing rigor increases the chances of performing well in the classroom, according to the above definition.

By “less effort” i mean that increasing the level of rigor requires more faculty time, both in putting together a rigorous set of exams (i.e. not relying on generic test bank questions) and spending more time with students either in the office or in replying to emails. All of these lead to an equilibrium in which faculty spends the minimum amount of time on their teaching to get them by, and students are provided with a sub-par product, the quality of which they cannot judge, because they lack the appropriate benchmarks for comparison.

The reduction in rigor is quickly translated to the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation. As Stuart Rojstaczer observes in www.gradeinflation.com grade inflation is caused “by the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education. Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase. In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content. Both intellectual rigor and grading standards have weakened. This conjecture is based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove.”

In addition to sacrficing rigor and standards, grade inflation has the danger of setting students up for the wrong career path. I have witnessed students who have done quite well in a non-rigorous introductory class who choose their next set of electives based on that performance. When they are faced with the more crucial realities of these courses, they tend to be frustrated. Moreover, they blame their lack of performance on the professors of the advanced electives, because they are convinced that they were meant to major in “X” because they did so well in the intro classes. This is an enormous disservice we do to our students.

Lack of effort on the professors’ part is clearly visible to students. While they are not likely to complain about it, they surely not to be inspired by the subject matter. Indeed, this is where we would lose our next great chemist, biologist or accountant. By not challenging our students we do a disservice to both our strong students AND our weaker students. We are not inspiring them for excellent achievement and hard work. Also, in showing them lack of effort, we are not leading by example, instilling the values of hard work and striving for excellence in all we do. This is a tragedy.

So, what are some other definitions of “good teaching”?

Here are my two definitions. First, a good teacher is one whose students line up at the den’s office door to complain when they learn that he is let go. Second, a good teacher is one whose students remember after 20 years. The disadvantage of these definitions is that they cannot be easily quantified. They can, however, be easily identified, with some effort that is higher than the effort required to implement the previous two definitions, even in real time, and not necessarily after 20 years.

I was recently asked by my associate dean what are some qualities that I possessed that made me successful in the classroom. I told him that there is no clear recipe, but one thing is crucial. When you go to teach, I said, leave the ego (if you have one) in the office. Unfortunately, many of the professors have a bigger ego than warranted, and unfortunately, the drawers in their offices are too small to temporarily store these egos.