Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Teaching Better’

Controlling Their Expectations and Impressions

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009As I said in the last post, sexism and racism by students is real and exists. I gave some advice for how to combat sexist or racist reviews from students once you got them. I also gave some helpful hints to senior people to help younger people.

Not to be an a-hole, I took my own advice, and talked to a junior faculty member about his last year reviews. This is a perfect time to have this conversation because he is getting ready for this fall’s class. Going through his reviews, there was some definite and easy ways to get him some better evaluation scores. These changes fall along the lines of “Changing 20%” which is the scheme I advocate for making any changes for your life in general (for instance, see here and here). Based on my conversation with my junior colleague, I thought about some things I could share to help everybody score better evaluations.

  1. Never, ever say anything negative about yourself. I have had an entire blog post about this (here). Yes, I have said it before, but as any teacher knows, repetition doesn’t hurt. You should read that post, but also, just take this home: Do not ever say anything negative about yourself in class. It does not matter if it is true. This is actually an easy one to change.
  2. Set Expectations From DAY 1. I have also posted about how best to set expectations and set the tone in your class starting on the first day.
    • Your Syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with the class. I have a post about your syllabus (here). I stand by what I said here, but I want to make something else very clear: You should make policies that WORK. When I was discussing with my junior colleague, there were a number of modifications to the syllabus that were needed to make it clear about the expectations. In his case, his late work policy was WAY TOO LENIENT. Because he had a “nice” late policy, the students took advantage of him.
    • Confirm the contract. In order to make it clear that the syllabus is a contract, get them to agree to it. I usually ask if they have changes they want to make, and they never do. They are often a little stunned at being asked their opinion.
    • Do something different. Yes, you will go through your syllabus, but you aren’t going to start teaching on day 1, are you? If so, don’t. It is a waste of time. They won’t retain anything. They might not even stay in the class. So, after going through the syllabus and getting is approved, I recommend doing something very different. As I posted previously, I take pictures of all my students. I have them go to the board, four students at a time. They write their names over their heads, and I take their pictures. I never force them, but have never had a student say no. I ask them to put up the name they want me to learn and know. They get to get up out of their seats. They realize that the class is different than other classes. You look whimsical. 
  3. Play to and Destroy Their Stereotypes. That last thing on the last part, where I say, “You look whimsical” this is so important. To me, looking whimsical, is a good thing. And, it undercuts some of their initial, likely stereotypes of me in the class. I prefer to look whimsical rather than incompetent, mean, or difficult. I believe that you must set the tone for their expectations of you. This means you must build an image of yourself in their minds. Unfortunately, they will come with culturally devised, pre-conceived notions of you based on your age, race, gender, hair, clothes, and height.
    • Example 1: Are you a middle-aged, tall, white man? Congratulations, your students will be very likely to think you are smart, competent, and correct all the time! Put on a little charm, act like you care, and you are likely to get very high evaluations.
    • Example 2: Are you a young woman? They will likely think you are incompetent, do not know your material, should be a push-over, and the class should be easy.
    • Read About It: If you are interested in this, I highly recommend this book: Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by Neffinger and Kohut. It is not necessarily about teaching, but it describes cultural biases and norms for different body shapes, age, race, and genders. It helps you identify the positive stereotypes that you should play up, and those negative ones that you need to combat.
    • Say positive things about yourself: See point #1 above. Students will repeat what you say to them in your evaluations, so why wouldn’t you say positive things about yourself? I am not suggesting you brag or look arrogant. I suggest you mention good things about yourself in passing. Mention that you got tenure. Mention that you were nominated for a teaching award.
    • Tell them you care: This goes with the one above, but it is more specific. Because they will repeat what you say, you need to make sure you are telling them how much you care about them and their learning. You may think it is obvious because you are spending so much time on them, but they really have no idea what you are doing all day. When you are teaching them, I suggest that you tell them that you care and use that as a reason for pushing them. When things get difficult in class, be a cheerleader, be positive, and make it clear that you care. Plus, caring is one of the positive stereotypes of being a woman. The flip-side of this is if they think you don’t care, they will be VERY NEGATIVE about you. So, not only do to need to tell them that you care, you also cannot, under any circumstances, let them know that you don’t care. It is the kiss of death.
    • Realize that different classes may require different personas. When I teach majors, I have a different persona and project a slightly different personality compared to when I teach non-majors. This is because the students have different needs and expectations for me because on their backgrounds. I will probably try to detail and describe this more in a future post, but I believe it is important to keep in mind that your student populations are different depending on the class, the level, and even the year.
  4. Learn their names. An easy way to show them you care is to learn their names and use them. If you have a relatively small class, this is a must. If you have a big class, make sure you learn about 20% of them. Then, call them by name in class when they answer questions or when you call on them.
  5. Start off as a Hard-Ass and Ease Up. Your syllabus may have a strict late policy. For instance, mine is to not accept late homework. And I stick to this because I only count 10/11 homework assignments. But, about half way through, I start to ease up on some students. It isn’t that I really accept late work, but I start to allow somethings like scanned homework assignments emailed to me that I print and add to the pile. I tell the student I will make an exception only once. Why do I do this?
    • It makes me look nice and like I care. And because, honestly, as long as not everyone is doing it, it isn’t difficult on me. If you start as a softie, they walk all over you, and you are making exceptions all the time. There are a number of problems with being too nice: (a) Some kids never take advantage, and they resent that other students got away with stuff, (b) it is harder on you if this happens a lot.
    • Example: Another thing I do is to let them redo the question on their exam they lose the most points on. But, I don’t tell them this at the beginning. I act like it is a spontaneous act of kindness because I care. I want them to learn the thing they missed, and this will allow them to do this. I do this for every exam, because it is good for them to re-try and get right a question they missed. But, it makes me look nice, and that is a bonus.
  6. Be Fair. Part of appearing to care is to be fair. Being too easy or too flexible or allowing students to walk all over you is not fair. One nice thing that that you can often get out of annoying situations by playing the fairness card. For instance, you cannot offer only one person extra credit or accept a late assignment (which will be more hassle and a huge pain to you) because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. I use this ALL the time.
    • Give points – don’t take them away: This is perhaps obvious, but psychologically, students often think they are starting at an A and that you are removing points to make them get a lower grade. This, of course, is ridiculous. In fact, they start with zero points, and they must earn points. You need to set this straight from the beginning by making it clear that they are earning points for each assignment. Also, you should make it clear that THEY control their points – you are just reporting on what they do. This can be difficult in classes where they grading is somewhat subjective.
    • Have a rubric for grading: I have a secret. All grading is subjective. As much as we gripe about student evaluations of us, we are constantly evaluating and assessing our students. We have just as much opportunity (more actually) to screw them. We are also biased and can misjudge people. That being said, you should try to be as fair as possible when grading. One way to do that is to make sure you have a rubric when you grade. I also recommend hiding the student names.
    • Other Helpful and Time-Saving Tips:  If you are grading an exam of homework with many problems, you should grade one problem for all students in one sitting. Don’t grade the entire exam and then start on the next entire exam. This will also allow you to stay consistent between students, not look at their name before you grade AND it is much faster, because you can focus on one solution/rubric at a time and not be switching. Most people take 15 minutes to switch between activities, so why would you do this to yourselves??
    • Communicate: All of these policies are for naught if you do not communicate to the students what you are doing or how you are doing it. Fairness is a policy that should be in your syllabus. Most current college students hold this principle above all others. If they prefer for bias (in their favor), you can stick to your principles of fairness in the name of most of the others.
  7. Look accessible. Notice, that I am not saying you should “Be Accessible.” You just need to appear to be accessible. They have to think you are and that helps them realize that you care. Here are a few ways I appear accessible.
    • I have evening office hours. I posted about this before here. Most students could not make my daytime office hours because of other classes and commitments. The office hours are not really office hours, but rather homework sessions which allow me to help more students at one time. It also helps the students to build cohorts. Some students cannot do evenings due to personal issues, and I will make a daytime session, if they ask me, but I prefer evening office hours.
    • I email them back and use instant messenger. This allows me to respond back relatively quickly. I don’t necessarily email back the night before a homework is due, though. I warn them about this before, and tell them it is a conscious, pedagogical choice, so that they will learn to time manage and come to evening office hours. They typically respect this because I am so responsive otherwise.

Whoa! That was a lot of information. Some of it I had touched on or detailed previously, but some of it is new. I hope you find it helpful to keep in mind as you start preparations for Fall semester! Comment or post here, if you have something more to add. I am sure I missed something or there are better ways to do things. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

Follow-Up Guest Post: Changing 20%

The following post was written by a fellow WomanOfScience. She wrote previously about Changing 20% (here) after I blogged about this as an effective way to make changes in teaching (here). I am so happy this blog works for someone – anyone! I love hearing from you. If you want to post anything relevant, please send me an email with your post: womanofscience2013@gmail.com

I hope you enjoy this post. I did!

A year and a half ago, I was inspired by a post on improving teaching slowly, by only making 20% changes at a time. I decided to try out this drastically minimal model myself. Here is my report,.

In short, I love it. The 20% model seems to give me the experience and confidence that some, finite, but non-zero change is possible. In some ways, I think I learned to cut myself some slack, in a productive way. This new year, I could not think of a single new years resolution. I know I need work/change (still self critical), but I know the work/change is possible and can be done (some productive slack).

Specific notes on the teaching plan laid out previously, and how it fared, as it may be useful to others.

Changing 20% in teaching:
1. Use the half hour before each lecture as office hour.

This works extremely well if the same classroom is available for the half hour prior to the lecture. Students hung out before class (they had no where better to go!), I bantered with them if they didn’t have questions (something I learned from this blog, that professors don’t have to be serious all the time), and asked them to use the whiteboard to work out steps and to explain to me which steps they were stuck on. Quarter way through the semester, my kids began to write down their work on the board before approaching me, and sometimes resolved the problem among themselves in the process without me (which is great!). Half way into the semester, I would walk into the classroom and find them working on the board without my prompting, showing each other their work. This was completely adorable, and in total contrast to the desolate scene when I held office hours in my office for the same class.

This does not work too well if the classroom is not available prior to lecture. It seemed that the trouble of getting to a different place (my office) was just not worth it. I know they enjoyed it: early in the semester I dragged a few to my office, they were having fun and did not want to leave to lecture (urgh…). But the momentum never caught on. Almost all the way through the semester, I was still getting questions on when/where my office hours were.

That being said, my impression is that holding office hours during the time prior to lecture can only add to, and does not negatively impact, student learning. Its advantage is not fully realized if the classroom is not available, but there is no disadvantage that surfaced in my experience. As an instructor, it still helps me consolidate time and task, so I would recommend it still.

2. Use the last five minutes of each lecture as an open floor Q&A.

I didn’t always remember to do this. I always hung around a bit, but I think making a habit out of explicitly seeking questions from them would be good. This is my next 20%.

My next goal is to changing 20% in management: Set clear, achievable, short-term goals to aid student progress.
I have a hard time being firm, for fear of various stereotypes… But why? Who suffers in this process? We all lose. I lose because, well, it’s obvious. The students lose, because they are there at least in part to receive training and mentoring.

I have started asking my students to set weekly goals, and document their last week’ progress and next week’s goal in our weekly meeting via a single powerpoint. The goals are set by the students, I give input on the scope of the goals. Whenever I can, I reiterate and emphasize the importance of 20% model: don’t plan to complete the entire project next week, but complete one achievable piece of the puzzle to push the project forward.

So this is my report. Looking back, I can see substantial personal and professional growth. I am rather impressed by the effectiveness of the 20% model. I now tell everyone about it, scientists, starving artists. I am interested and excited in how this model might work for building my management skills.

Don’t Say It

2014-05-08 13.36.39The end of classes is here or near – depending on your school. That means that course evaluations will be filled out, perhaps online or perhaps with paper and tiny pencils.  Although this may be coming too late for this term, the end of the semester/quarter is a good time to reflect upon how the course went, and maybe some of these things can be altered for next semester/quarter. Perhaps these are some of the 20% changes you can make for next time, as I have posted about in previous posts (here and here).

One big thing I have noticed with student evaluations is that they are parrots. They will parrot back in your course evaluations ANYTHING you have said to them. If you say, “I know this homework is hard, but it is for your own good.” You will get about 50% of the students commenting that the homework was hard in the course. If you say, “This book is not great, it isn’t my favorite.” They will say, “The book was terrible.” If you say, “This is my first time, and I am worried I might not do a good job.” They will say, “She didn’t do so great a job because it was her first time.” So my advice: Don’t say it. Don’t say anything negative to the class at all.

Is this dishonest? Let’s say it is the first time to teach a course, and it isn’t going great. The scientist who truly wants to be honest and report facts wants to share with the class. But RESIST the urge to share. It doesn’t make them feel better to know it isn’t going well. Yes, you are withholding information, but it is not important information that they need. They do not need to know that the course is veering off the rails. Since it doesn’t help them and doesn’t make them feel better, why say it?

Does it make you feel better? There might be some cathartic feeling of sharing a traumatic experience that is alleviated when you share with the students, but the negative impact it will have on your evaluations will leave you hurting in the long run. There is no way to explain away a course that is going poorly.  Even if you promise to do better next time, it won’t be with these students, so it doesn’t do them any good that you learned from this experience.

If the class is going so badly the students will know, won’t they be mad if you act like it is all rosy? Yes, they might, but at least you aren’t giving them ammunition to shoot you down. Make them come up with their own words for how crappy the course went. Their complaints about you will likely be less severe than your complaints about yourself. Further, you don’t have to act like it is perfect. You can make reasonable changes throughout the class that attempt to solve problems. The students will appreciate it, too, and your evaluations will probably be better if you try to course correct. What I am suggesting is not to act like you are perfect, but rather to not be so honest and blunt about your self-evaluation during the course, which is likely to be worse than they think and probably worse than you deserve (if you are like me…). As you make these reasonable changes, give credit to the students. You can say, “Several students have brought it to my attention that it would be better for you if we…” By stating it this way you, (1) give credit to the students, (2) don’t say the old way was bad – just this new way is better, (3) make a change that will be favorable, such as changing the homework due date for the class from Thursday to Friday or allow students to redo a question on an exam for half the points back, or whatever. Don’t point out that the old way wasn’t as good – it isn’t necessary!

As I write this, I am thinking, is this for others or for myself? I am so amazingly guilty of doing all the things that I just told you not to do. So, my NextSemesterResolution to change 20% is to try to not make any negative comments about my course. What do you think? Post or comment. You can get an email every time I post by pushing the +Follow button.

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