Student Evaluations of Teaching: Once More into the Debate

Steven Volk (September 21, 2014)

A slight detour this week from the daily business of the semester to a look towards its end. This Article of the Week was spurred by an article which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week. In “Scholars Take Aim at Student Evaluations’ ‘Air of Objectivity,’” Dan Berrett reports that a new examination of end-of-semester student evaluations has found that they “are often misused statistically and shed little light on the quality of teaching.” Other than that, they’re probably OK. (That’s just me being snarky, so disregard.) More seriously, the draft study by Philip B. Stark, a professor of statistics at UC Berkeley, and Richard Freishtat, senior consultant at Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning, repeats some of the critiques that have been leveled against Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) for a long time and raises some new ones.

I can’t comment on the research design or reliability of these studies, and there are certainly arguments in favor of SETs, but the following data has been reported over the years: Continue reading

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively

Steven Volk, September 14, 2014

Compared to our colleagues at most universities, our classes are blissfully small. Computer Science 61A enrolls nearly 1,100 students at Berkeley; Economics 10 topped out at more than 800 at Harvard. Still, many of the classes we teach are beyond the comfortable-discussion size of 10-15 students regardless of what our faculty-student ratio may indicate. That doesn’t mean we should abandon small-group discussions as a pedagogic strategy, but it does require some planning, especially in the critical step of socializing the information gained in smaller groups among the whole class. How can we use small discussion sections most effectively in classes that enroll 30, 50, or more students?


Why Discuss?

This post is more of a “how to” than a “why to,” but it’s still important to touch on the importance of discussion in student learning. A constructivist notion of learning, simply put, holds that understanding is gained by experience and reflection. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with previously held ideas or experiences, figuring out how to make sense of the new knowledge. In that process we become the active creators of our own knowledge rather than sponges just absorbing what others tell us. While our students can (usually) reproduce what we tell them, learning is not the process of hearing-remembering-repeating, even though repeating and remembering may well be a part of ultimate learning. To learn means to ask questions, challenge ideas, explore unfamiliar territory, come to clarity in our own terms. As Ruth Tringham, a Berkeley anthropology professor put it, traditional teaching models are like banking, “where you pour knowledge into a student and hope to get some interest back,” whereas what we really want is for students to come “to grips with the questions themselves and learn to evaluate information.” Continue reading

Mindsets: “I’m not really good at that…”

By Steven Volk (September 7, 2014)

My mother (who taught Spanish and French), my sister (quite competent in French), and I (Spanish) used to tease my father mercilessly about his inability to speak a language other than English. We drove around Mexico when I was young and laughed with great zest when, after each meal, he would try to ask, in Spanish, for the check (“La cuenta, por favor”). What emerged from his mouth were strange sounds that had quite literally become lost in the translation. The server would look at him in puzzlement until one of us stepped in to the rescue.


For my own part, I still remember the “D” I got on my drawing of an American eagle in the 4th grade from Mrs. Simmons, who (I thought) was a lovely teacher and was just pointing out a reality: I couldn’t draw, never could, still can’t. My father’s problem was that he just couldn’t learn another language. (He often told the story of how, when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin – he became a lawyer; no slouch, he – his Latin teacher gave him a “C” instead of failing him if he promised never to take a foreign language again.)

So, where are these familial stories going? To the mindset research of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, which is the subject of today’s “Article of the Week.” Those in psychology or neuroscience will surely know her work. To boil it down drastically: through decades of research, Dweck (and her co-investigators) came to the conclusion that most people have two very different understandings about intellectual abilities and where they come from. Some think that people are just naturally talented in certain areas (foreign languages, art, math, music, etc.), and if you weren’t born with those abilities, there’s not much you can do to change that. Others think that intellectual abilities can be cultivated and developed if you apply yourself to the challenges at hand. It’s not that people don’t differ in their current skill levels, nor that with hard work everyone can be a Serena Williams, a Yo Yo Ma, or an Albert Einstein, but this second group believes that they can improve their underlying abilities if they work at it. (Interestingly, Einstein once wrote, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”) Dweck called these approaches “mindsets,” and labeled the former a “Fixed Mindset,” and the latter a “Growth Mindset.” Continue reading