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Thursday, August 10, 2006

What Should Teachers Maximize?

Thanks for having me back here.  I followed the conversation about the relationship between teaching evaluations and scholarly productivity with great interest, but it made me wonder about a topic that seemed to receive relatively minor attention.  Should our goal as teachers be to get high numerical student evaluations?  This isn't quite the same question as whether student evaluations are accurate measures of teaching quality, though it's not a very interesting question if you think they are perfect measures.  What I'm wondering is, how should one make the tradeoff between maximizing student satisfaction and maximizing (what one believes is) the value delivered to students, assuming that one thinks there's a divergence.

I could actually say more about why I think there's a divergence, and maybe I will later, but I don't immediately want this to be about my particular views.  I will admit, though, that I come to this as someone who gets below-average numerical scores, and also that I think there are ways I could raise my scores that would simultaneously reduce the value I'm delivering to students.   I might just be deluded about that and/or not a very good teacher, which is one reason I don't want to start out by saying exactly why I think this, but assume, if possible, that such situations do exist (even if I'm not necessarily one).  What's the appropriate attitude to take about the relative importance of pleasing students vs. educating them?

Posted by Kim Roosevelt on August 10, 2006 at 07:59 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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May I respectfully suggest that this is the wrong question to study? The correct answer is "Professors should maximize the dissemination of knowledge." Trying to put this in a single question seems rather silly to me, because it pretends that all professors must necessarily act identically. Instead, it seems to me we need to ask:

(1) What is the appropriate balance between "excellence in teaching" and "excellence in scholarship that advances the state of the law" for Law School A's faculty?

(2) How much tolerance in that balance can be allowed for short-term fluctuations?

(3) Given (1) and (2), what is the appropriate balance for Professor X at Law School A, considering Professor X's particular "specialty", seniority and tenure status, and specific teaching needs based upon overall faculty schedules and commitments (e.g., sabbaticals and deanships)?

In short, we need to know how we're going to use the answers we get from some more-focussed study (that is, looking at student evaluations, or whatever) before we start probing them with statistical tools. And those answers will not be the same for everyone, or even for every law school; I cannot imagine that the "appropriate balance" would be the same for Harvard as it would be for, say, John Marshall (Chicago) (pulled semirandom from a list of local-oriented law schools with substantial night programs).

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Aug 11, 2006 12:17:57 PM

Kim, there's a related question that many young professors, perhaps especially those at elite schools (although you're free to correct me if you think I'm wrong), ask: What balance should one strike between being a good teacher and being a good scholar? I assume, per earlier discussions here and elsewhere, that being a good scholar can contribute to being a good teacher, and perhaps vice versa. But junior professors are faced with trade-offs in time -- time to prep for class, time to retool less successful lectures, and time for office hours -- that require a negotiation between teaching and scholarship. I suppose some of them decide they are going to slight teaching at the expense of scholarship, and are advised to do so; that others, on others' advice or not, find they are so busy trying to get up to speed as teachers that scholarship suffers in the first year or two; and still others take both seriously but find that beyond a certain point, there is a diminishing return in focusing on teaching. Your thoughts?

Of course, institutions (like mine) that make available visits from senior colleagues to watch one's teaching, or other forms of training and feedback for new teachers, rather than simply throw them in and assume they're fine, can help efficiently train new teachers, thus giving them more time to engage in scholarship. I don't know to what extent most law schools provide such guidance, however.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 11, 2006 10:47:38 AM

There’s “noise” in student evaluations, no doubt, and numerical evaluations are imperfect measures of good teaching. It’s worth noting that grades are noisy, too, and imperfect measures of being a good student. As a student, if I received high grades, I tended to give myself credit for good work; if I received not-so-high grades, I tended to remind myself of all the arbitrary noise in grades. There’s some truth in both positions, and how accurately grades (or evaluations) reflect quality student work (or teaching) tends to depend on who is doing the grading or evaluating. I think there’s an argument that grades are somewhat less noisy because teachers tend to put more effort into grading than students put into filling out evaluations; after all, teachers are accountable for the grades they assign whereas students are not accountable for their evaluations. (And this may be appropriate; students don’t get paid to fill out evaluations.)

But even if teaching evaluations are noisier than grades, as a teacher I take those evaluations seriously and will continue to do so. I try to read them with thick skin and confidence in my own judgment, but also with a willingness to consider my students’ judgments. Especially useful are patterns of similar comments, and I think evaluation forms where students can write comments are much more useful to a teacher than a numerical score for “teaching effectiveness.” (Of course, students often have a similar preference for written comments over a simple letter or numerical grade, and we professors tend to rely on the numbers…)

Bottom line: I’m not sure we can draw a very sharp dichotomy between “pleasing students” and “educating them.” Law students tend to be intelligent adults who are making a significant investment of time and money. There’s no reason not to respect a student who says, “what will please me is to get a good legal education, and here is how I think you can better help me get one.” To the extent students take the time to give us feedback, I think we should listen and try to discern useful comments amidst the noise.

Posted by: Alice Ristroph | Aug 11, 2006 10:36:31 AM

I am a rising 3L at FSU. While studying jazz in undergrad (jazzers have both comedic and antiauthoritarian) one of our professors asked us not to make silly comments about how good the scrambled eggs were that he served us everyday in class because he actually got called out by the administration as if those comments were true. I was dumbfounded that the administration paid that much attention to them but apparently they did in undergrad and I understand that they also do at FSU.

I for one think that a plurality if not a majority of students fill out the questionaires based not on the value they get out of the class but on the willingness of professors to tolerate their lack of preparedness and to accommodate requests that make the students lives easier. This is not to say that all students don't participate in the questionaires in good faith but based on my experience enough of them do to reduce the value of student evaluations to near zero.

I know that some of my more demanding professors for whom I have the most respect and from whom I learned the most and in my estimation should have gotten high marks did not.

Being a bit of an antiauthoritarian jazzer even today, I would say take heart in or at least don't lose heart because of mediocre student evaluation scores. Sometimes the most demanding and least overtly appreciated leaders get the most out of their group/band/class/etc.

Posted by: Jim Green | Aug 11, 2006 8:44:25 AM

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