Sunday, 2 October 2011

Complaining Early & Often

While serving on a particular review committee at my university, I have seen many examples of negative comments in teaching evaluations for problems that seem like they could easily have been fixed during the course if only the professor knew there was a problem (and was willing to recognize it as such and change something about their teaching style).

Sometimes we professors can sense that something is wrong or that students are unhappy or confused. Some students will tell you directly, but most try to express their unhappiness and/or frustration in unspoken ways. Unless you ask them what the problem is, perhaps even by doing a mid-term evaluation to get anonymous comments, it can be hard to know what the problem is in some cases. Of course, if you just handed back a test and the average score was 17%, you might have some clues as to why students are unhappy.

The situations I am thinking about don't have to do with difficult tests, but more with teaching style. I have talked about some of these issues before, such as pacing vs. being stationary, having an accent and/or speaking too fast, using various formats and devices for writing, projecting etc.

Whenever I see a file with very negative teaching evaluations, I always wonder if any students complained somehow, to someone, during the course. Some of the problems seem entirely fixable during the term, when there is time for the students to benefit.

I tend to assume that no one complained because I seldom see a comment like "Although we told Professor X that we could never see his writing when he used the red marker, he kept using it." Instead, it's more common to see the complaint "I could never see the writing on the board when he used the red pen."

I can certainly understand why some students would not want to complain directly to or about a professor during a class. What if the professor gets angry and punishes them by giving impossible exams and low grades? There is surely some anxiety about the consequences of complaining.

Of course, there is a difference (or can be, anyway) between complaining and making a request. That is, instead of "I hate it when you use the red pen", something along the lines of "It would help us all see your writing on the board better if you only used the black and blue pens."

Other problems, of course, are more serious and more difficult to fix during a course; for example: comments about a professor's disorganization, inconsistency, perceptions of unfair tests or rude comments, refusal or inability to provide clear explanations or answers to questions. In those cases, what can a student do?

Don't wait for the teaching evaluation and don't be satisfied with writing negative comments on some professor-rating website. Get organized: talk to other students, find out what the issues are, get examples, and write it all down. Then ask an undergrad advisor, respected senior professor, or relevant administrator what to do. If the complaints/requests are reasonable, perhaps there are faculty or administrators who can pass along suggestions aimed at fixing problems in time to help the students. In some cases and at some places, these concerns will be dismissed or ignored, but I think it's worth a try.

In some cases (but probably not the extreme ones), there might even be a reasonable explanation for what seems like bad teaching. I one case I can think of, a professor used a lot of text-heavy slides in a class. The students complained about it in the teaching evaluations, but not one of them had mentioned during the course that they hated this. It turns out that there was a hearing-impaired student in the class, and the professor had been asked to put a lot of text on slides, and had spent considerable time doing so, out of concern for the hearing-impaired student.

There are ways that this particular situation could have been dealt with better by the professor and the students. For example, the professor could have explained what was going on, and could have found a way to present the course material without making the students feel bludgeoned by text-laden slides.

Of course I wish the major teaching problems could be fixed, but it is these easily fixable problems that I am focusing on today because they are fixable with a bit of two-way communication between professors and students.

So, student-readers: Are there any possibly-fixable issues in the classes you are taking now that you wish could be fixed during this term? If you give us some examples, the professor-readers can comment and say "Yes, you should definitely tell your professor about that" or "No, don't do it" (but here's a suggestion for dealing with it). More likely, you will get both answers for any particular example, but the results could be interesting anyway.


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