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Ideas that kill education

by Borek
Tags: education, ideas, kill
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Andy Resnick
Jun27-10, 03:02 PM
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Quote Quote by Sankaku View Post

Perhaps I misinterpreted these comments?
I think you misunderstood my posts. Specifically, I have claimed:

1) While there are many methods to assess students, there are (AFAIK) none that assess the instructor.
2) Student assessments of instructors generally do not contain information sufficient for the instructor to gain an objective measure of effectiveness.
3) That does not mean instructors should not try and develop self-assessment tools.
Jul19-10, 12:53 PM
P: 341
I've found that the worth of student evaluations depends heavily on the maturity and ability of the students I've taught. At the very best places, where the students were motivated, bright and interested, their feedback, especially their comments, helped me see which parts of my courses had worked better than others, and sometimes contained useful suggestions.

At another place I taught where, by large, the students were not very motivated, indifferent, a little bit lazy and not wanting to be pushed, the student evaluation forms had a negative effect on the quality of teaching. Alas, the students didn't like being pushed, they responded to flattery rather than fair and honest criticism, and preferred easy courses that didn't push them. After a few years there, and a few negative evaluations, and a few depressing sessions in front of our Head of Department, I played that game, bit my tongue, told a few jokes and won them over. Everyone was happy - except me and I soon quit the place.

It's an interesting question how you assess the success of your course - but student evaluations and tests passed are, in my view, pretty dangerous instruments if not used wisely.
Sep30-10, 12:15 AM
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Quote Quote by Andy Resnick View Post
Student evaluations are (generally) useless. I'm sorry to see some administrators thinking otherwise.
It really depends on who the students are. I found student evaluations at MIT and University of Phoenix to be extremely useful because they both have extremely motivated and high caliber students.

One signal as to whether or not student evaluations are useful or not is to count the number of evaluations that complain that the class was too easy and the teacher didn't challenge the students enough.

There is a lot of self-selection here, because one thing that I've found is that students that aren't motivated tend not to choose physics classes as electives.

Student evaluations can work either well or badly, but I wasn't impressed by Fish's article since he is looking very superficially at a proposal, and just bashing it randomly.
Andy Resnick
Oct1-10, 02:57 PM
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I think there's a more fundamental disconnect involved, because the teacher and student (generally) have different learning objectives.

Generally speaking, the teacher's objective(s) is for the student to understand/master the presented material. Generally speaking, the student's objective is to get a good grade/pass.

I'm being serious- assessment tools like tests and projects are written from the teacher's perspective: how complete is the student's comprehension or mastery of the course material? Assessment tools like teacher evaluations are written from the administration's point of view: how effective is the teacher? The evaluations are answered from the student's perspective: how reasonable were the requirements for a good grade, and did the teacher help or hinder my ability to get a good grade?

Note, there's nothing inherently wrong with a student wanting nothing more than to pass the class, or get a good grade. I see this a lot from pre-professional students: pre-med, pre-pharm, pre-dental, etc. Generally, the percentage of *all* student questions regarding grading policy, tests, homeworks, etc. is far higher than questions pertaining to subject mastery.

The trick is to challenge the student while being clear that students who meet the challenge will be happy with the grade they earn. That, and setting reasonable challenges.... :) So as the class moves along, those students who desperately want a good grade have a clear understanding of what they need to do to get a good grade. Which, coincidentally (or maybe not!), happens to be the ability to demonstrate to me that they understand the material, along with a clear definition of 'understand'- in my case, it's correctly and clearly formulating and setting up the problem for solution.

So far, my evaluations have been average- no complaints about an unreasonable burden, and no praise about how easy the class is.
Oct1-10, 03:36 PM
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Quote Quote by Borek View Post
Yep, I see I wasn't clear. I am not against tests as such, I am against policy that made teachers teach to the test.
When schools are graded on the aggregate performance on standardized tests, you can bet that teachers will be strongly encouraged to teach the test. That old joke about the drunk looking for his keys comes to mind ...
A cop sees a drunk stumbling around under a streetlight and asks if he needs help. "I lost my keys and I can't find them!" said the drunk. The cop asks where he lost the keys, to which the response was "In that dark area over there." "So why are you looking here?" asked the cop. The answer: "Because its dark over there!"
Standardized tests are the ground under the streetlight. That ground is not where our (good) future lies.

Regarding student evaluations: I certainly hope that the school where I took my worst course ever took the evaluations from that course to heart. I got an A, so I wasn't complaining about my grade. The school assigned a pure mathematician to teach a grad level course on optimal control theory. Big mistake! We spent the whole semester covering existence and uniqueness, the first 60 pages in a big thick text. Worthless.
Apr15-12, 01:01 AM
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Quote Quote by Borek View Post
That was before tests were introduced to check students knowledge. The idea was that tests should be objective, identical and used at the same time in different schools to make results comparable. That ended with teaching to the test - it doesn't matter what student knows and understands, it matters if the student gets high score on the test, so high score gets a priority over understanding. It may look like understanding leads to high scores, obviously it is not that simple, and kid got thrown with a bath. Pupils are doing previous tests, test tests, trial tests and preparatory tests, to get prepared to the real test. Somehow they don't have time to really understand the material.
I had to bump this thread. I recently transferred to a big university and it's amazing seeing how the test takes precedence over actual learning. 95% of the students learn by memorization and repetition instead of understanding things logically and building an intuition. Another thing is the horrible practice of finals week where students cram and take drugs in order to focus. I used to think it was the students, but now I think its the broken educational system.

I'm not good at learning many different things quickly because I need to read a lot and see the big picture and build intuition. I have a very good memory though. My grades have suffered tremendously because I don't fit into the current system, while many students who don't actually or know the subject after the tests get good grades.

I hate to say something is bad and not offer a solution. I'm trying to find ways to better integrate technology into education so that individuals are actually educated instead of this generic system of educating the masses. We never teach students to understand and develop the way THEY learn . Instead we throw out generic templates. I think I'm going to right a book on this, but that probably won't do much since this is such a fundamental problem on such a large scale.
Apr15-12, 11:32 AM
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Quote Quote by Borek View Post
That was before tests were introduced to check students knowledge. The idea was that tests should be objective, identical and used at the same time in different schools to make results comparable. That ended with teaching to the test - it doesn't matter what student knows and understands, it matters if the student gets high score on the test, so high score gets a priority over understanding. It may look like understanding leads to high scores, obviously it is not that simple, and kid got thrown with a bath. Pupils are doing previous tests, test tests, trial tests and preparatory tests, to get prepared to the real test. Somehow they don't have time to really understand the material.
I agree with this. In my own calc III class I just do my friend's old test and duplicate whatever he did onto my own test, only difference is the numbers are changed. I have the highest grade in the class and I have little idea of whats going on.
Apr15-12, 02:02 PM
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Reading some isolated negative class evaluations from my least contented students can make me depressed. After all I have devoted my life to doing all I can to help my students realize their goals and dreams. I do suffer from a firm belief that this occurs not when they receive phony grades, but when they actually learn to use powerful ideas that will be valuable to them.

But when I think back on my own career, I realize the complaints may reflect a gap between what was expected by the teacher and what was assumed by the student. I went to Harvard college after 12 years in a mediocre southern school where I could almost literally copy my class reports out of the World Book the night before they were due, or answer questions on Ivanhoe after reading the Classic Comics version, and I always got A's. Needless to say, I did poorly in college. My first college composition, written in the habitual fashion, came back annotated: "Unoriginal and dull". All the professor had said was for us to summarize the plot of Plato's Republic and I did so, but the grader said we still should have known that at Harvard, an original critical essay was expected.

They let me in because I was smart and had potential. But lack of sophistication in writing, thinking, studying, and faithful class attendance, doomed me. After I got my first few poor grades, and found myself failing out and criticized for it, threatened with losing my scholarship, I began to blame my teachers as well, and I wrote some very scathing evaluations. But no one read them, because at that time at Harvard they were not part of the process. Evaluations were compiled independently and sold by the student newspaper, partly as amusement, but the university did not care what disgruntled students said. (This has subsequently changed, I think for the worse.)

It took me years to appreciate the high level of preparation and expectations my professors had brought to my classrooms. In the same way, when I teach a Fall classroom of "advanced placement" 1st semester Georgia Freshmen an off sequence 2nd semester calculus course, for which they have prepared in a Georgia high school AP class, they have no idea of the level of expectations I hold for them, even though I say so right off the bat, and in writing. It just takes longer than that for them to absorb what real study means and demands, when they have never been exposed to it.

I want them, as Andy said, to understand the ideas behind the subject and obtain a good mastery of technique, as well as a sound grasp of when to use what technique in practice. I want them to master theory, computation, and application. For many of them, all they expect is to be told to memorize some easy computations and see the same ones on a test, and then have me guarantee a certain percentage of A's regardless of performance.

When I give 4 tests and only score the best three, and then give graded homework and a final, spend dozens of hours grading them in detail, and prepare three grades, an overall average, an average omitting the homework, and a final exam grade, and assign them the highest of those three grades, many do not think I have "curved" the scores. To some of them, a curve means a predictable number of grades of a certain level regardless of performance, i.e. a grade relative to other students rather than relative to the material taught. I am even criticized when I will not give a C to a student who displays no discernible grasp of the most basic fundamentals of the subject.

These students are not evil, stupid, or lazy. But they have no idea at all what is expected from university students. Successful teaching is a happy marriage between the two parties, teacher and student, and it requires good communication. If only we could provide a better introduction to university academic life for our students, really convey to them what will be expected of them, how much harder the work will be, and exactly how to satisfy those demands, it might help.

Complicating this further is the inevitable tendency of professors willing and even forced to water down these expectations, in order to receive favorable evaluations. It is hard to answer the question, why is your class so hard when professor so and so (often a graduate student) gives all A's? (and does not ask any theory or hard computations.)

Maybe a summer preparatory program before the semester starts, or even a high school class or seminar taught by a professor in the senior and junior years, to hint at the different level of expectations. I have taught honors courses in high school for the best students and was initially asked to present it as a college level class. It was not long however until I was told I simply could not expect as much work as I was assigning from high schoolers. I.e. even the high school teachers who had asked for college level work from me backed off when they saw what it entailed. But my best students went on to successful careers at Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Chicago.

Here in Atlanta, we are still in the throes of a cheating scandal that revealed, in spite of the determined resistance of the public school system itself to the truth, that demands for steadily rising standardized test scores in elementary and middle schools had resulted in organized and wide spread cheating. Administrators returned tests with poor scores to teachers and teachers actually met after school at "test changing" parties, creating statistically implausible numbers of erasures from wrong to right. This scandal implicated literally hundreds of public school personnel.

The local paper then analyzed scores and wrong to right changes in school systems across America, releasing the data last Sunday. Some school systems had results that could have occurred naturally only with probability 1 out of a billion or more. Still, with a few exceptions, most of these school systems refuse to acknowledge any problems.

Teaching and testing present hard challenges. But in learning it helps if one actually wants to learn and is willing to try hard to do so, and in testing it helps if one actually wants to know the true results.
Apr15-12, 02:10 PM
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Quote Quote by mathwonk View Post
in learning it helps if one actually wants to learn and is willing to try hard to do so
Amen to that.

And I am quoting the last phrase so that you know I read the whole thing and I agree completely.
Bearded Man
Apr15-12, 02:55 PM
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I recently wrote a fairly lengthy article on the need for educational reform in mathematics for my high school newspaper. I am appalled that mathematics is approached as a mere collection of formulas, which students are told to use because they magically work when necessary. There is no emphasis on teaching the students to think like mathematicians, which is a skill far more important than being able to do simple computations. It seems like both students and teachers care only about ensuring students can blindly do the math on standardized tests. As a result, most of my friends and fellow students hate mathematics. They see it as boring and stenographic by nature. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Is it really a mystery why we are short on scientists and mathematicians in the US when our approach to teaching these topics at the elementary and high school levels is fundamentally wrong?

When I help students who are struggling with mathematics, it appears that problems arise not from a lack of intelligence, but from a lack of understanding. They don't understand why you're doing something to arrive at a solution, and so mathematics appears to them as a bizarre language whose rules of grammar have never been fully enumerated. It's a shame, really.
Apr15-12, 03:06 PM
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A certain amount of 'memorisation' is necessary in any subject. And there will also be a need for deeper understanding and intuition. I guess the trick is to teach the correct balance of both of these things.

Edit: Also, there is maybe too much emphasis on exams. I guess it is the simplest, most efficient way to evaluate the understanding of the student in most cases. And the need to revise for exams can encourage students to learn. On the other hand, revising for exams isn't necessarily the most efficient way to learn a subject, since the student will also be learning exam technique. And exams can be stressful, negative experiences for students. So I think in an ideal world, exams wouldn't exist. Now I think about it, I feel like exams are strongly linked to a free-market, capitalist ideology.
Andy Resnick
Apr17-12, 08:25 AM
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Mathwonk's post struck a nerve with me. At the risk of random ranting:

1) most of my negative reviews can be summarized as "He is a bad teacher because I didn't understand anything". This is why student evaluations are generally ignored. Certainly, one of the functions of teaching is to *enable* understanding, but a teacher cannot understand things for the student.

Students arrive in my class with a wide range of preconceptions: Physics problems are basic plug-n-chug ("tell me what formula to use!"), Understanding something is equivalent to memorization, giving up means someone else will do the work ("work the problem out for us!") etc. etc. I encounter strong resistance and resentment when I directly confront their preconceptions. Far too many teachers fail to think about the purpose of the class they are teaching: what do I want the students to learn and remember long after the class? How can I evaluate the students against what I expect? What is the function of homework?

2) The classroom environment is highly asymmetric. Students have the opportunity to rant anonymously on a variety of platforms. Students can come into my office and yell, whine, cry, complain, cry some more, and even threaten. I, on the other hand, am highly restricted.

An example: one of the 'test like questions' we worked through in recitation was put on the (open book, open note) exam, *verbatim*. In spite of the students having the solved problem in front of them, a large majority still could not work out any substantive part of the problem. I'm sure you can imagine the string of profanities that issued forth while I was grading (in private). To the class, however, I am only permitted to express 'puzzlement': "I don't understand why so many people got this wrong, even when we worked this out before". Even then, many students interpret this comment to mean I am angry at them personally; somehow am impugning their intention to work hard and 'understand' the material. So their poor performance is really my fault, because they are working really hard and I don't explain anything.

</rant>. Sorry- it's been a long semester.
Apr17-12, 09:16 AM
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Just as a data point. I once saw, tacked on a prof's office bulletin board, 2 student review cards for the same class. One was a perfect 4.0, the other a perfect 0.0. What is to be learned from this?
Apr17-12, 11:40 AM
P: 717
Just as with any data set, you have to focus on the signal, not the noise.

I sympathize; If the data set is too noisy then, yes, discard it. However, don't discard the signal just because the noise is personally aggravating.
Apr18-12, 12:05 AM
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Quote Quote by Andy Resnick View Post
At the risk of random ranting:

I forgot to add that I think ranting at such things is a perfectly natural response.
Apr20-12, 02:36 PM
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Andy, in the vein of "but they've done this before": In an abstract algebra class, intro level, I felt required to ask for proofs on tests. Since very few students could do them, I took the following approach. I would assign some easy proofs as take home tests, let them work out the proofs, hand them in, and I would grade them and hand them back. I also had some of them present them in class. Then I would ask the same proofs on the test. You guessed it, most students still could not do them. Even those who could come close, often just wrote down almost the same words as in a correct proof, but without the little modifier and connective words that made the logic correct and clear. I.e. they often seemed memorized and not understood.

Describing it now, I see this could only have been the result of a conscious lack of any attempt to understand the reasoning. Most students simply copied the proofs from the book, without adding any explanation or clarification of missing steps, and ones who did slightly better, just memorized the words as best they could also with no attempt to understand. This betrays a complete lack of understanding of what is wanted from the student, a lack of any idea of what college is about, learning to think, analyze, and verbalize.

Many of us assume teaching is about clear explanation. But in many cases, effective teaching seems to be about figuring out strategies to combat willful refusal to learn. This is depressing to those of us who do not see ourselves as personal trainers, or drill sergeants.
Apr21-12, 01:01 AM
P: 168
If students feedback isn't considerd relevant then who's actually going to judge the instructors performance?

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