Thursday, June 24, 2010

Stanley Fish: Good Teaching and Student Evaluations

Stanley Fish, Teacher
and Lecturer
November 19, 2008

I don't claim to be the best of teachers, but I always strive to do my best to teach students how to think, and I suppose that Stanley Fish does as well . . . if not better.

Nevertheless, Professor Fish doubts that students themselves are consistently the best judge of good teaching since much of what is learned doesn't immediately come to fruition, an observation upon which he elaborates in a recent article that a friend called to my attention, "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (June 21, 2010), written for Fish's "Opinionator" column in The New York Times:
A number of responses to my column about the education I received at Classical High (a public school in Providence, RI) rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. "I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours," the poster typically said, "and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life."

Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money's worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers' contracts? I suspect the answers would have been "no," "no" and "no," and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.
Why does Fish think that students would be so blind to the fact that they are getting a good education from teachers whom they may even resent:
Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don't welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you've just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.

Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure.
In short, says Fish, concerning student evaluations of teachers:
"Deferred judgment" or "judgment in the fullness of time" seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.

And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the '60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning.
I have some mixed feelings on this point, for student evaluations can serve a useful purpose if reliably interpreted and properly balanced against other things, but I believe that I'm otherwise largely in agreement with what Fish lays out. As I remarked to the friend who sent me the column:
I'll have to think about Fish's arguments, though I've long held to some variant of them . . . without entirely dismissing student evaluations.

At Korea University, some students hated me for giving failing grades on plagiarized papers. One student, however, later . . . [was quoted in] an article [published in KU's student magazine, Granite Tower (March 27, 2007),] about the experience [of being caught plagiarizing] and receiving an "F":
At first, I really did hate him. I thought he was weird and odd. But now that I think about it, that professor was doing what was only right. College is a place that requires official documentation of a person's ideas and research. It is also a place that teaches academic attainments that can sometimes be abstract. It's a shame that the techniques to express the abstract knowledge are not offered at such a place.
Later in the interview, the student added:
Honestly, I don't think that other professors take the time to look over reports that we hand in compared to the professor who gave me the F.
I suspect that at the time, this student at KU gave me a poor evaluation, but within a semester or two, the student's views had already shifted . . . albeit too late to do me any good (as Fish would note).
I would hope that other students have had similar experiences of re-evaluating my teaching as time goes by, but that sort of thing will never show up on student evaluations handed in at the end of a semester when student are reacting to what they believe they've learned -- as Fish has made clear in his "Opinionator" column.

I would add that in the article for Korea University's student magazine, Granite Tower, the student who later praised my teaching was in error about one thing:
We were never given a specific definition or exact regulation of plagiarizing by the professor nor by the school.
This is incorrect. I always define plagiarism for my students, and very clearly, so I can only infer that the student must not have paid close enough attention to my warnings about plagiarism until she received a failing grade on the first draft of her essay.

But I'm sure that she understood by the time that she was working on the second draft.

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At 5:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Dr. Fish that student evaluations are of limited value. Students are stakeholders, so their opinions should be solicited, but student evaluations should be weighted less heavily than other measures of teacher effectiveness.

Just as K-12 schools and teachers are held accountable through NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001), I would like to see something similar for publicly funded tertiary institutions. Annual reports should measure 4 and 5-year graduation rates, dropout rates, and percentage of students making satisfactory academic progress. There should be financial rewards for schools that can demonstrate achievement for at-risk students in particular, like GED holders and low high school performers.

Research on K-12 teachers shows that the best teachers can get a low performing student to make the equivalent of 15 months of progress in a 10-month school year while the same students may learn only 5 months of material in one school year. Students who have low-performing teachers two years in a row are unlikely to close the gap. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to track student progress over time for each teacher to get a more accurate assessment of teacher effectiveness. This seems fair to me, and I would like to see something similar for tertiary instructors and professors. For example. let's say that 80% of your intermediate composition students who take advanced composition pass the course while only 60% of teacher X's do, that is an indirect indicator of your teaching effectiveness. Your students were better prepared to meet the rigors of the higher level course. Assessed over several years, this sort of measurement would be valid. What do you think, Jeffery?


At 5:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

correction: their opinions should be elicited

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not sure that this would work so easily. In the composition courses that we teach, for instance, students from certain fields do better than those from other fields.

Students of the arts (dance, music, painting, etc.) tend to do quite poorly, whereas the international studies students do quite well.

So, the benchmarks would have to be distinct and separate for each group. This could done, I suppose, and such benchmarks might indicate something about good teaching.

The positive effect, if proper benchmarking could be done, is that such standards would encourage better teaching.

Student evaluations, by contrast, reward teachers who are 'popular' -- for whatever reason they might be popular, whether good or bad -- and therefore tend to encourage grade inflation by teachers who wish to raise their evaluations by students.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Correction: "This could be done . . ."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The positive effect, if proper benchmarking could be done, is that such standards would encourage better teaching.

Student evaluations, by contrast, reward teachers who are 'popular' -- for whatever reason they might be popular, whether good or bad -- and therefore tend to encourage grade inflation by teachers who wish to raise their evaluations by students."

Exactly. Valid benchmarks would distinguish teachers who set high expectations for their students and provide appropriate support to meet those expectations. Tough teachers do seem to get somewhat lower evaluations although the very lowest are generally earned by professors who do not know how to teach. My impression of university evaluations is that they are mostly an aggregate of published research, university leadership roles, and peer and student evaluations.

I also have the impression that traditionally preparation of university professors included little if any instruction and training in pedagogy. I have read that universities and colleges have increased their remedial course offerings, especially in math, reading composition, and writing, to cope with a growing number of students lacking prerequisite skills.

BTW, as you may have noticed from my IP address, I am vacationing in the beautiful, forested, relatively cool Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is 60 degrees as I type this, but the chilly winds off Superior belie the beginning of summer. I am looking forward to sampling the local speciality, Lake Superior Whitefish, for dinner tomorrow.


At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In the composition courses that we teach, for instance, students from certain fields do better than those from other fields."

Variations like this are why such benchmarks should be compiled and viewed over time, not just from semester to semester. Classroom teachers face a similar situation in that a few students can throw the curve in a particular year, but over time, one teacher should not be getting a disproportionate number of low-performing students unless the principal has a vendetta against that teacher.


At 1:05 PM, Blogger John B said...

Fish was writing in response to a bunch of studies that got press lately . . . I can't recall where it started, but I read about on a couple of other blogs.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger John B said...

Oh, and given your recent musings on academic careers, I wonder if you have an opinion on the latest Judith Butler business.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for all the comments, Sonagi. Have a good vacation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, the link didn't work for one of the sites, but the other site on student evaluations was interesting -- and tended to confirm my own doubts.

As for Judith Butler, I know nothing about that. This is the first that I've heard about accusations of plagiarism by her.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or you could do as I do, and just say: "I heard (or read) somewhere that someone once said (or wrote), something to the effect that...."
That saves a lot of time, effort and research. After all, I'm no scholar, and at this late period in life, have no intention of becoming one.
And, unlike the student, I never felt I actually hated Jeffery for his humiliating attacks on my stories. The feeling was slightly less extreme.


At 2:57 AM, Blogger John B said...

My mistake

At 5:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

As Anonymous said:

"I heard (or read) somewhere that someone once said (or wrote), something to the effect that...."

I'll just do this from now on.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for re-linking, John B. That was amusing to read.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see Dr. Fish's point but I do think that some sort of student feedback is needed.

I can recall one professor of Balkan/Near-Eastern History whose entire semester consisted of his reading word for word chapters from the textbook and another who delivered verbatim his (very dry) lectures on Ethics from many years past. (The seniors clued us in as to exactly which jokes he would tell us on exactly which days.) Both were Deans, so perhaps they could have been excused on grounds of pressing other business. But they certainly had wasted students time and money for years.

We recognized exciting teaching - days when we would talk amongst ourselves the whole afternoon after class on how to refute a professor's assertion that of course the world was flat - we could see that from the window and, frostily, why were we laughing and would we care to explain what theory we had?

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Your experience shows the usefulness of student evaluations, especially if students can write remarks explaining their numerical evaluation since these can be most enlightening.

I once had a student write that I'm too concerned with finding plagiarism . . . which I found both interesting and useful.

Other remarks can be damaging -- such as one by a student who claimed that I didn't prepare for class! Assuming that the student was in earnest, I can only conclude that she saw me reviewing the material while the students were doing exercises and presumed that I was only then getting into the very readings that I had assigned.

Other comments simply say "Thank you" or somesuch, but I guess that those are nice to read.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:57 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

The teachers who I thought were full of crap, I still do; some, forty years later.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, I still think that about some . . . but not about a few others. On a handful of teachers, I've really changed my mind.

Jeffery Hodges

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