June 9, 2008

Are You as Good a Teacher as You Think?

By: in Philosophy of Teaching

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Now there’s an article title that gets your attention — at least it got mine. The article that follows this title (reference below) is a bit depressing, but the points it makes do constitute worthwhile reminders. The author offers three reasons why teachers might not be as good as they think.

First, the author notes, “there is a great deal of evidence from social-cognitive psychology that pretty much anyone who isn’t clinically depressed systematically overestimates his or her traits and abilities in a wide variety of domains.” (p. 8; and yes, the author does cite evidence supporting this claim) And college teachers may be especially likely to make such overestimations. Despite being surrounded by colleagues, teaching is still a solitary endeavor. Without consultation, faculty decide how to organize courses, what materials to include, and what assignments and exams to give. What happens in classrooms is observed by students but not regularly by anyone else. Meetings with students occur in the privacy of faculty offices. Faculty work on course preparation and grading tasks alone. “When we think about how good we are, we tend to focus almost exclusively on our own efforts. The fact that many of our colleagues, perhaps most, are working just as hard escapes our notice.” (p.8)

Second, teaching effectiveness may be overestimated because people have a tendency to define goodness in some pretty self-serving ways. So if you give entertaining lectures, then entertaining lectures becomes a component included in your definition of good teaching. Likewise, if you are able to establish rapport with students, then establishing rapport becomes a key element in your definition of teaching excellence. The point is, we define good teachers in terms of what we do well. We may perform some teaching functions poorly but never address them because as far as we’re concerned they aren’t ingredients of effective instruction. Definitions so derived are eclectic and idiosyncratic. This means someone who lectures well can still think he or she is a good teacher, despite accumulating evidence that other methods better achieve most learning outcomes.

Finally, the very feedback that should be creating accurate and balanced portraits of teachers fails to do so. To support this claim, the author cites evidence documenting how often the midpoint on evaluation rating scales is not the average score. On a nine-point scale, for example, 7.22 may be the actual average. At most places where colleagues observe and rate other colleagues, “average” scores are even higher. “These kinds of student and peer evaluations tend to confirm our inflated views of our own abilities. A better interpretation of your rating of six on a seven-point scale, then, is that you have no extremely obvious shortcomings. That’s a long way from being a superstar.” (p. 11)

Add to this the fact that positive feedback comes to our attention more often than negative. Students pass out compliments; often they make just as many complaints, but not to our faces. They are too worried about their grades to tell us what they really think. When students do complain (say anonymously on rating forms), we respond by questioning how hard they worked and what they contributed to the class. A quiet student who earned a C has no right to offer critique?

Making the same point from a different perspective, the author observes that “college students are incredibly good at seeming to have learned stuff.” (p. 12) They nod in class, don’t ask questions, and cough back content verbatim on exams. He recounts how when he started incorporating some cooperative learning formats, he saw students struggling for a whole period to master content that he’d breezed though in 10 minutes of lecture and had assumed students understood clearly.

So will coming to the realization that teaching prowess may be overestimated be so depressing and demoralizing that faculty will give up on their teaching, transferring energy to research or administration? The author doesn’t think so, because once faculty reach this point of weakness, there’s no shortage of resources, approaches, and techniques for improving. “The difficulty is getting to this point. When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were.” (p. 13)

Reference: Price, P.C. (2006). Are you as good a teacher as you think? Thought and Action, (Fall).

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