What are teaching awards awarding?

May 13 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

We recently had our year-end meeting of the college my department belong to, and with that, the various annual awards for "excellence" in one thing or another. Of the awards open to faculty, I'm often interested in the teaching award and what kind of person wins it. This is not because I have any remote possibility (or aspiration) of winning, but more because I am ever curious how one's teaching is evaluated.

Research excellence is fairly easy to define. We have metrics, we have concrete things that can be used as a measure of one's success, even by people less familiar with your field. Teaching evaluation, OTOH, is more nebulous. We have some subjective ways to assess teaching, but few of us employ rigorous evaluation methods of our teaching. In the particular case of this award, it is often the students who make the case for the award, which brings in a new set of problems.

It's traditional for the award presenter to read some snippets from the nomination letters and I listened carefully this year to what were the key things that set this particular professor (who I have never met) apart in the eyes of the students. "Enthusiasm", "commitment" and "depth of knowledge" were terms that certainly surfaced, but well over half of the student comments were along the lines of "This professor got to know us on a personal level", "the professor made a strong connection with their students", or some such statement implying that the students place a large value a professor's interest in them as more than students. Perhaps as friends?

Fair enough. I get how student engagement is key to getting their investment in a course and I'm not advocating for situation where the totality of student/professor interaction is with a podium in between. However, I have to admit that the level of "personal" interaction that the students seemed to revere left me a bit uncomfortable. I often joke with the students in my classes, make conversation with them while setting up before class and encourage the promising ones to get involved in research, but I don't see it as my role to go much beyond that.

I'm sure someone will pull out the trusty "students today just want to be spoon fed and coddled and get offa my lawn!" in the comments, but I doubt that has changed as much as many "remember". But sitting on this side of the desk, I wonder where the different expectations are in terms of getting "invloved"* with one's students and whether I should even care. I have no plans to be more aggressive about getting to know my students, but can I get them to respond to the class as well without going the extra (overly-personal) mile?

*In the non-creepy way.

16 responses so far

  • Rxnh says:

    The student's that praise " a strong connections" do not want to be an just ID number with a grade associated. You should know my name. And I'm even forgiving if you get most of it. But then again, I'll be in your office, bugging you with questions that I'm stuck on.

    It doesn't need to be personal involvement, in the sense that you know their dog's /significant other's names and life history. Being aware of your students professional aspirations works too. Do you know if they want to go to med school? Grad school? Do research? Go to industry? Have any clue about their possibilities? The key aspect of this is that is is certainly personal, but in the sense that the student is interacting with you as a unique individual.

    An excellent teacher, in my undergradly opinion, will direct you to the person you should contact for professional advice like the health professions office or a another prof that worked in industry, etc. Perhaps in subsequent office visits ask you how it went.

  • James Davis says:

    For those students who want to go into academia, it's very important that there are approachable professors who can get to know a students strengths and weaknesses and write a strong and honest letter of recommendation. For those students who want to go into private business or public service, it's very important that there are approachable professors who can get to know a students strengths and weaknesses and serve as a strong reference.

    In other words, no matter where the student is going, it's vital to them that they have access to professors who are willing to take the time to get to know them personally. I did not expect this of all my professors, but those professors who I did get to know, I was happy to have cordial and friendly relationships with. Never, at any point, did they become 'friends', but there were at least two who I would say were mentors. Students go to uni not just to learn, but to grow. It's much easier to grow when you have a mentor who is willing to invest some time and resources in you.

    So yes, when we students are looking at who we want to help get a teaching award we don't pick Prof. Alice does great research, we don't pick Prof. Bob who lectures lots of classes and spends lots of time doing formal education, we pick Prof. Charlie who spends time mentoring us, teaching us those lessons that can't come from a classroom.

    That's not to say that Prof. Alice is a bad professor. She might be a leader in her field, contributing massively to the advancement of human understanding. Prof. Bob, too, might be a great professor who is able to help us understand those important and fundamental concepts to our field. We just pick Prof. Charlie because he's the one who is being a real 'great teacher' teacher and mentor. Prof. Charlie is the one who deserves that 'teaching award'.

  • GMP says:

    This year I won a teaching award like the one you described -- a college level award where there is a lot of formal nomination materials (evaluations, letters from colleagues and dept chair) plus students also write letters of support, and I won another one where it's just the students voting online for their favorite instructor.

    Anyhoo, for the big award, the students who write letters are not chosen randomly -- I was asked for a list and I gave them about 10-15 names of students who did well in the class over the past 2-3 years. I don't know how many letters they ended up soliciting or anything about what the students said, except one quote from the award announcement that the student was impressed that I can derive everything without any notes. (All the students I will refer to in this comments are undergrads.)

    I can tell you that I certainly don't go out of my way to befriend the students. I think there has to be a bit of a barrier, being too chummy is creepy and I don't think it does anyone any good. I do try to learn their names (if they come to office hours, I will ask them what their names are and try to remember the names when I give back the exams), and I think they do appreciate that, although I can never remember everyone's names. I have office hours once a week for two hours and am responsive to email inquiries. Typically, there are a few students in every class that I will get to know a bit better as they come and ask me general career questions (thinking about grad school etc). Otherwise, be nice and civil and try to help them within reason. I have a very strict/inflexible homework policy and the same for exams (I will hardly ever move exams or schedule make-ups) and I don't think either hurts me, as long as the policy is spelled out clearly at the start of the semester.

    One thing that I started doing recently that I think shows them I care is giving information regarding follow-on undergrad courses in my specialty and general pointers about grad school (what tests they need to take and when, what they can expect in terms of funding, how research at universities is funded to begin with etc.) It's actually easy to sneak this material in -- after I bring back the midterms and we go over the problems, there's about 10 min left which I fill with this material. I think they really appreciate it (and I think you'll agree that it's non-creepy).

    Levity is always good especially if the material is dry (there's a lot of math and abstract concepts in the courses I teach) . Overall, my recommendation is to just do your thing and try your best to teach them at the level at which they are (some classes need remedial work more than others) and you'll be fine.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm not worried about my teaching, nor do I have much interest in being awarded for it. Just making an observation on what "award winning" teaching seems to be.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think what you describe as doing is what they mean, PlS. don't over think it. having the kidz over for pizza and weed went out in the 70s, man....

  • Karen says:

    From this student's point of view, the best professors are those who *listen*. They answer the real questions, not what they think the questions should be. When explanation approach A confuses students, they try for approach B.

    The best professors are approachable during office hours. They're not just present, but greet their students with something warmer than a "why are you here wasting my time" attitude.

    Finally, the best professors have good ways of making sure students get timely feedback on their work. Written comments on papers, detailed exam post-reviews, homework keys that explain the answers carefully (and are printed legibly!) are some of the ways the best professors do this. I'll reemphasize *timely* as well; it isn't helpful to do a post-exam review the next class meeting after the exam if you don't return the damned exam for two weeks!

  • FSGrad says:

    What everyone is saying. My best undergrad profs never knew *if* I had a significant other, much less what his/her name was. They did know what parts of science I was really interested in and they made me feel welcome at office hours rather than handling my question as quickly as possible and getting me out the door. They let me know that they saw potential in me as a student through comments in class or on my graded work, and they let me know when they didn't think I was pushing myself as hard as I could. They also asked me to work in their labs, but I realize that's not going to happen to everyone who writes a rec letter for a teaching award.

    In sum, they always made me feel like I was worth the time they were investing in me, both in and out of lecture and lab.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I read that female students wanted to be treated, or engaged, as individuals, where as male students were more concerned about being treated fairly. I've had the experience, a number of times, of a female student going up a grade point after a five minute chat, mostly inconsequential, with me. The same would occasionally happen with male students, so it is not a rigorous gender thing.

  • becca says:

    The best professors learn their students names. That's not creepy personal, it's human-decency personal.
    I appreciate this is difficult for some people, but I used to learn 60 names every two weeks.
    The best professors learn where their students are coming from. Know what the course-sequence includes, and how many people might not have taken exactly the standard fair. Know what they want to get out of the class... on the first day, hand out 3x5 index cards and ask them to ask a question they want to know the answer to by the end of class, or what made them take the class, or what they want to do with their degrees.
    The best professors learn where their students are going, and help them get there. Write them good letters. Advertise the fact that, given sufficient lead time, you are happy to write letters. If you want to get to know them before you write the letter, make it explicit exactly how they can do that (e.g. coming to office hours and how to find you if they can't make those particular times).

    The best teachers, at any level, compliment growth and help their students apply a growth mindset toward their studies.

    The best professors are funny and engaging and inspiring public speakers. Nobody is perfect at that all the time though.

    And finally, the best professors express deep respect for what is going on in their student's lives. Don't assume they are out drinking instead of taking care of an ailing family member (heck, don't assume they aren't going out drinking to try to cope with the stress of having to take care of an ailing family member).

  • Karen says:

    The best professors are funny and engaging and inspiring public speakers. Nobody is perfect at that all the time though.

    Actually, two of the best professors I've ever had were not particularly engaging speakers (though they weren't all that bad, either). Both had soothing voices that could easily put you to sleep if you had the bad luck to take their courses just after lunch. But they got their points across; listened carefully to their students; supplied prompt, meaningful feedback on work; and were enthusiastic about their subjects in a way that infected their students.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh, and while you can't sacrifice research in pursuit of teaching awards, don't disdain them either. Comes in very handy for certain types of grants...

  • gerty-z says:

    I wonder if the undergrad's "best teacher" is the same person that actually teaches them most. I have no idea, but I wonder if there are some teachers that might be more effective if the students were a little less comfortable?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Here is a link for a book I found most interesting. http://www.amazon.com/grade-professors-other-unexpected-advice/dp/0807031526

  • becca says:

    @Jim Thomerson- oh don't be silly. We all know Jews from Bard can't be taken seriously on matters of education. Bard does crazy things, like having students serve on tenure committees. And Jews from Bard are worst of all, and are known to produce crazy things, like me.

    @Karen- We all have different things that we appreciate about professors, and there is not one way to be a great professor. That said, to be honest, I feel kind of bad if you've never had a professor that did all the things you mentioned and wasn't *also* a great speaker. It's a lot harder to communicate infectious enthusiasm without good public speaking skills, unless the class involves no lecture (which, admittedly, may be the best format for small classes).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I wonder if the undergrad's "best teacher" is the same person that actually teaches them most. I have no idea, but I wonder if there are some teachers that might be more effective if the students were a little less comfortable?

    In a round about way, this is part of what I was thinking as well. Does your Prof knowing your sister's name make you learn anything more or is a byproduct of an invested prof?

  • GMP says:

    In a round about way, this is part of what I was thinking as well. Does your Prof knowing your sister's name make you learn anything more or is a byproduct of an invested prof?

    I don't think ""This professor got to know us on a personal level" ever means anything even close to "He/she knows my sister's name". (Heck, I have no idea if most of my grad students/postdocs even have siblings.) I think "getting to know on a personal level" largely indicates (a) you bothered to learn the student's name and (b) you listened to him/her when he/she had questions, not just about the course but career in general.

    I don't think either one of these is in conflict with having high standards in your course. I don't think students are all lazy procrastinators -- many (most?) of them understand that the fact that you as a teacher have high standards is a sign of respect and your belief in them. When the instructor is knowledgeable and the course structured so as to equip the students with the concepts/skills/tools to rise to the challenge, high standards lead to a sense of accomplishment in students and also to high student evaluations.

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