Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Good Teachers 9

This marks the end of our series on good teachers and the book by Ken Bain called What the Best College Teachers Do. The book comes to an end with one of my pet peeves about education: assessments and evaluations.
How do you know if someone is a good teacher? I’d like to hear your answers. (We’d all like to hear your answers.)
We assess students and we evaluate our teachings, but none of it is what it should be until it is thoroughly shaped by learning outcomes. If education is learning then we assess students on the basis of what they have learned (not whether or not they have the right answers to objective questions) and we evaluate teachers on the basis of how their students are learning. Grading is not ranking students but communication for the sake of student learning.
So now some points:
1. The best teachers get to know their students so they can help those students learn.
2. The best teachers help students understand the criteria whereby learning is measured. That is, they succeed at getting students learn about their learning and about their thinking. In fact, some of the best teachers ask students to assess themselves.
3. The best teachers evaluate their own teaching on the basis of the learning of their students.
4. The best teachers use student evaluations but they are all connected to a larger, more professional, form of evaluation. A variety of factors — student evals, peer review, learning outcomes measurements — need to be compiled to see if the teacher is effective at stimulating learning.
I will tell you what I think of student evaluations: while I think they help young teachers see student impressions and find both their strengths and weaknesses, they are completely at odds with a learning-based education. Good teachers are teachers whose students learn well. The shift needs to be moved from what a student or a peer evaluator thinks of that teacher’s teaching and toward what learning outcomes are achieved by that teacher’s students. The difference is dramatic.

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posted September 9, 2008 at 4:23 am

Of course Scot, learning outcomes can’t be given a number and assembled into a promotion document for the teacher. Student evaluations of teaching allow for such easy assignment.
Bigger issue: learning outcomes (beyond exam scores) are hard to determine in any fashion for a time, sometimes years, after a course.
But … one of the “learning outcomes” in a college course should be an enthusiasm for and appreciation of the subject matter of a course – and teaching evaluations do help to evaluate how well a professor conveys such enthusiasm and appreciation. For example – we don’t need science professors displaying arcane mysteries and leaving the students feeling inadequate and overawed with the great brain of the professor – but science professors who excite the imagination and wonder of the students while teaching the material. (Bains uses an example like this in Ch. 6). Such differences in approach are easy to see in the teaching evaluations.
Bain’s wrap to Ch. 7 is also interesting. While he is correct that at research Universities the same kind of intellectual respect will not be awarded to teaching as to discovery of knowledge, the job objective is creativity and generation of knowledge; most do take teaching very seriously and approach the classroom with a desire to do well. I would guess that this is also true at NPU to an extent (certainly in your approach anyway).
Having thought about it for several years by now I have a few thoughts on what makes a good college professor: A good professor makes connection with the students (my weakest point). A good professor puts much effort into how to explain the material and to encourage students to interact with the material on a level sufficiently deep to actually learn. A good professor takes teaching seriously ? with the same professional pride and creative instinct brought to other aspects of the job.
I have a “teaching postdoc” in my research group who is working with me both on research in the lab and to reinvigorate and modernize one of our courses. He is now reading Bain’s book as well at my suggestion. Good stuff…

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posted September 9, 2008 at 5:58 am

My B.S. is Computer Science; I will eventually have an M.Div. There are a couple teachers who stand out.
Western Civ prof: He had taught the class for years and had it down to a science what slides would be covered what day, etc. One day he casually remarked that “I just learned this year that …” someone blurted out “You learned something!? I thought you just taught the same stuff every year!” Turns out, he re-read and re-prepared each year and learned something new each year. This kept his enthusiasm alive and it translated well to the students. Sometimes I still wonder if I shouldn’t have switched majors (I’m glad I didn’t, but still – I enjoyed the subject a lot under him).
Computer Science prof: Played trumpet in jazz band with the students. Dry sense of humor. Acted like he was one of the students and did everything he could to help them understand the material. One of his trademark phrases to segue to working out a problem: “Meanwhile, back at the ranch house, the Lone Ranger and Tonto were working on this equation…”
Another Computer Science prof: One of my favorite profs could have been my grandma. She retired the next year after I was in her class. She would pick a student and keep asking him/her questions until she got the answer she wanted. She was not unkind but she didn’t pamper you and she would not accept cop-outs. You had the feeling she would be there all day until you figured out what she was asking and gave it to her. The thing is, when you finally got it, you knew you had something.
Math prof: would have chalk all over his face and clothes by the end of class. Loved his subject. Would not accept your answer until he was satisfied you really knew what you were talking about. It could be so frustrating but when he gave you a good grade, you deserved it and could be proud of it.
Hermeneutics prof: Made us do a LOT of reading. Class time was guided discussion over the large amount of reading each week. The class was too intense for some. For me, it was the start of a whole new world.
I realize that my favorite classes have been some of the hardest, with teachers that expected the most. But they did it with a goal of giving students something to be proud of. They took their subject seriously and they took me seriously.
Please forgive my rambling. I just hope that some day, whether in a class room, pulpit, one-on-one, whatever, I can do for others what those teachers did for me.

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posted September 9, 2008 at 7:15 am

Pacesetters Bible School Newsletter » Blog Archive » Evaluating College Teachers

[…] Scot McKnight has an article that is actually the ninth in a series, and I think it provides some things to think about. (Use the education category to find earlier posts.) These ideas would also provide some help in evaluating Sunday School and adult education teachers. […]

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posted September 9, 2008 at 10:59 am

For those of you who might not be familiar with Carnegie-Mellon’s late C.S. professor Randy Pausch, he ranks right up there at the top of what I think good professors do.
Scot or RJS, have you read his book, The Last Lecture? Check out the video of the actual lecture as well as the charge he gave to this year’s grads just 10 weeks before his death.
As the motto goes at my children’s elementary school: developing life-long learners.

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posted September 9, 2008 at 11:01 am

…especially, take a look at the Alice Project Dr. Pausch founded.

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posted September 9, 2008 at 1:25 pm

Some professors seem to concentrate on research and writing. Others, make teaching and their students their priority. I still remember sitting in a professor’s office discussing a paper with him. The phone rang. I stopped talking to allow him to answer it. He replied, “Please continue. They can leave a message.” He was always present in the moment and for that time I was his highest priority.

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posted September 11, 2008 at 8:40 pm

This is long after the fact but perhaps a final word from John Stackhouse (Scot’s “Christian Realism”) on the signficance of teaching for the church:
“In a wide-ranging study of a number of major American denominations, the Search Institute of Minneapolis determined that the most important factor in producing a mature, well-balanced and well-integrated Christian faith was not excellent preaching, worship, small group fellowship, or anything else but adult Christian education (emphasis mine). A sermon and a home Bible study each week cannot possibly suffice.” pgae 315 in John Stackhouse, Making the Best of It. Following Christ in the Real World, Oxford, 2008.

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