A bitter pill

It’s been a rough twenty-four hours for me.  Yesterday morning, I received my student evaluations from last semester and one section rated me really low. Although my usual course evaluations are on par with departmental and university means, this section rated me a full point lower than I usually receive.  Particularly troubling was the areas in which they rated me the lowest.  The two lowest sections were “the instructor treated the class fairly and with respect” and “the instructor demonstrated concern and interest in students.”  In these two areas, I received ratings drastically lower than my average and my other sections from the semester.  Seeing these low scores in print was definitely a bitter pill to swallow.

I have to admit that the scores weren’t completely unexpected.  I had several difficult moments with this particular section.  The course is built around a semester-long group project that pairs students with a local elementary school.  My students create instructional materials for use with the elementary classes and evaluate how they’ve impacted learning.  While it’s a realistic application of instructional technology, the project is at times chaotic and messy.  I’m trying to teach soft skills like problem solving, flexibility and creativity and the project creates an authentic environment for these skills to develop.  But students have mixed reactions to this approach. As one student wrote on RateMyProfessors at the end of last semester,

“Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging.”

Obviously, the challenging nature of the class (and my teaching) caused the negative evaluations I received.  So, after “licking my wounds” for the last 24 hours, I decided to use this space to work through these emotions. Since I’m the director for my institution’s teaching and learning center, the evaluation scores are humbling (to say the least).  But they also present an opportunity for reflection and growth.  In the remainder of this post, I want to share some of thoughts and emotions that I’m working through.

  1.  I own these scores.  While I’d like to chalk the scores up to a bad group of students or to student immaturity, the reality is these scores represent how this group of students saw my teaching.  I don’t control student maturity and I don’t control the students who take my class but I do control my teaching and how I interact with my students.  While I consider myself to be a student-centered instructor who works on behalf of his students, clearly my approach was off the mark and needs some revision.
  2. The scores don’t mean I’m a bad teacher.  Despite a few hours of self-doubt and self-pity, I’ve decided to embrace the “growth mindset” and see these scores as opportunities for improvement.  I find that some instructors who embrace the growth mindset when working with students won’t necessarily apply that same mindset to their own instructional or scholarly lives.  Just like a single bad grade wouldn’t mean that a student didn’t possess the ability to succeed, a section of bad evaluations doesn’t mean that I’m a bad instructor.  With hard work and dedication, I’m confident my evaluation scores will improve.
  3. I will need to make some changes.  I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché “insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.”  This certainly applies here.  A new section of the class meets tomorrow for the first time and this evaluation data shows that changes need to be made.  So, what am I going to do differently?  First, I’m going to try to scaffold the chaos a little more so students don’t feel as stressed by the project.  I’m also going to directly explain my overall objectives and how the students’ learning (and futures) will benefit.  Another change I plan to implement is to more regularly take “the temperature” of the class.  While I include lots of active learning strategies in the class, I don’t often attend the affective dimensions of learning and how my students are feeling and reacting to the class.
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6 thoughts on “A bitter pill

  1. Ollie, I am sure that your plan, especially item 3, will help. I think being honest with you students and saying as you do it, explaining that you are trying to improve your teaching so it meets the needs of students you had not realized were struggling, is the best possible role modeling you can do. You don’t need to spew mea culpas all day, just be honest that you want them to succeed in their big project and you know you need to “take their temperature” to ensure that will be the case. It might be interesting to see how you plan to do that….material for more blog posts as you do it, perhaps?

    Of course, some procrastinators or whiners will likely try to tell you they “have a fever” the night before it’s due… and you’ve dealt with that before. I think today’s students have had very, very little experience with projects that are not tightly defined and constantly “assessed” by benchmark tests.

    I’ve been there. I think every good teacher has. The sting of the one negative comment (or in this case section) haunts far longer than the successes past, present, and future. If it didn’t, you’d be a jaded, crotchety old prof. And you’re NOT.

  2. Ownership is good, and getting to that point so quickly after reading ratings that are not typical is laudable. Ratings are ratings. Making a difference in students’ lives, i.e. real and tangible experiences and actively engaged learners is really what is important. We are always modeling…always.

    • Actually, this post was intended to model reflective practice. It was a little uncomfortable exposing my evaluations like this but it makes me more accountable for making changes.

  3. I have been in this place as well, because, I, like you, try to change things up. Sometimes this works and sometimes not. What made my evaluations improve markedly was to spend way more time in the first class session, explaining how I was going to do better. Spelling out expectations of myself as well as what I expected from my students very, very clearly made a huge difference! I no longer assume anything from one year to the next.

  4. I want to say I think it is very brave to acknowledge and publicly share your story. It’s not easy to receive feedback like that when you clearly are trying so darn hard to help your students. And to take time to deal with the hurt is important because it shows you really are a passinnate teacher and that you see this as an opportunity for growth is a great model for your future students and for yourself. As a professor, once principal and middle school teacher, I have been there several times and I will be for sure. Keep doing what your doing and keep growing. After all, we are all learners.

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