Last semester while participating in a faculty book club on Academically Adrift, I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that I was doing an excellent job of entertaining my students and keeping them engaged, but not necessarily an excellent job of teaching them the lasting critical thinking skills that would help make them successes after NCSU. I get very good teaching evaluations, but my intuition has been that the high numbers are largely the result of being funny, engaging, and approachable. Now, I do think all those thinks make it easier for my students to learn from me, but when they are rating me on a 5 point scale, I don’t really think it is much about either the content or skills they are learning. How interesting then, to come across this study on the very matter via the Tomorrow’s Professor blog (which I strongly recommend for all faculty and grad students, by the way):
The research design for this project was cross-sectional, with surveys administered to 265 faculty and students at a private liberal arts college. ..This opportunity for definition was afforded by providing a list of thirty options to the respondents and asking them to rank from 1 to 4 (with 1 being their best choice) their response to the question: How do you define an effective teacher? For clarity, options for the answers to the question included statements such as: motivates students to do well in the course, uses a variety of teaching methods, makes the grading requirements clear, and so on…
As displayed in Table 1, some of the more common definitions of an effective teacher by students were: a sense of humor (15%), someone who is able to relate to students’ lives (13%), someone with patience and flexibility (21%) [emphasis mine], someone who is able to keep students’ interest (44%), and someone who clearly indicates materials to be tested (16%). As displayed in Table 2, some of the more common definitions of an effective teacher by faculty members were: the love of the subject (50%), an instructor who outlines the course expectations (22%), someone who utilizes a variety of teaching methods (24%), someone who is organized (44%), and someone who encourages student questions (22%).
A-ha! Small study, but pretty much right along the lines I had been thinking. Now, don’t get me wrong, being funny, relatable, and patient are all very good things to have in a professor (and my ratings suggest that I do, in fact, possess these things), but I think it is pretty clear that these are not necessarily the hallmarks of effective teaching. My question to me is: will by evaluations go down as I place more emphasis on critical thinking? Hopefully not, as I still plan on being funny, relatable, etc. But even if they do, that’s okay– that’s what tenure is for.
[Of course, whenever I say good things about my teaching, I always do like to link to my (still) worst evaluation ever.]