Teaching EvaluationsSeptember 12th, 2012
I have a confession. I know I am not supposed to admit it, but I love teaching. Don’t get me wrong—I love research too—but there is something about passing knowledge to successive generations that is so purely constructive that I don’t see how you could do anything but enjoy it.
Aside from the satisfaction of helping students learn, teaching has also given me the chance to continue thinking about the foundational material of chemistry that made me fall in love with the subject in the first place. And one irony in teaching others is that you regularly find that you are the one who learns the most. Teaching is excellent at identifying even the smallest gaps in your knowledge, as students are quite proficient at exposing inconsistencies in the material presented to them.
A recent column in Nature Chemistry brought my attention to Berate My Professor, a blog written by an anonymous professor of chemistry. Inspired by the thoughtful and humorous tidbits that the mystery professor extracts from his teaching evaluations, I decided to go back and have a look through mine.
When you’re teaching, you get used to being the person responsible for handing out grades, so the close of each semester brings an element of surprise when the tables are turned and you must face the judgment of your students. Many instructors bemoan student evaluations as flawed, but I look forward to them. As regular readers will note, I value all forms of feedback and comments. Perhaps there is a skewed element to the process in that teacher evaluations are made public while student grades are not, but I have no problem with that aspect of the system. Teachers, in theory, are more mature and should be able to handle public criticism. Furthermore, students (and their parents) are paying for a service and deserve to collect information to guide their decisions. While disgruntled students may use the anonymous forum to exact revenge on teachers they dislike for personal reasons, I have to believe that these cases constitute the minority. Having participated on both ends of the evaluation process, I think that the majority of students provide thoughtful praise and criticism. That’s not to say that the feedback is always polite, but it is usually honest.
Below, for your enjoyment, I have posted a scanned copy of every single student evaluation I have received from the courses I’ve taught. These records are complete; I have not omitted any negative evaluations or censored any negative comments. But to respect the privacy of my colleagues, in instances where other teachers were evaluated on the same page as me, I have redacted their names using black rectangles.
My first gig as the leader of a recitation section at Harvard was for Chem 27, the “Organic Chemistry of Life” (see evaluations). I played soccer for six years as a goalkeeper, and looking back on the experience, I cannot remember any of the saves that I made. Not one. But I can remember most of the goals I let in, and my most vivid memory of my athletic career is of our team losing the final of an all-star tournament on penalty kicks. A similar bias in my recollection holds true for my teaching evaluations. Despite the fact that I had a good set of evals and won a teaching award from the College for my work in Chem 27, the only comment I can remember is this one:
Bracher was quite good. At times, however, he did not adequately understand the subject material.
Grrrrrr. After viewing this comment for the first time, I tried to figure out if it referred to a specific lesson, but I came up with nothing. In hindsight, it should not have come as a surprise. This was the first course I’d ever taught and my section was filled with a bunch of hard-charging premedical students at the greatest university on the planet. That said, there can be no excuses. I just wish the comment were a little more specific.
My wish for specificity is one-sided, because I have no problems accepting general comments like “Paul is the man.” This first set of evaluations did a lot to impress upon me that students really appreciate humor, good review handouts, and hard practice problems (with solutions). Seeing comments like the following really made my day:
Paul was amazing – dedicated, enthusiastic, and extremely helpful. Fabulous handouts, extra office hours – I won the TF lottery!
The next semester, I packed up the lessons I’d learned from Chem 27 and stepped up to the plate in Chem 30, the second semester of organic chemistry for majors at Harvard . It was a great experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Come evaluation time, for an instant, I knew what Don Larsen must have felt like in the ’56 Series, the excitement that coursed through Mary Lou Retton after her vault in the 1984 games, and the elation experienced by the ’72 Dolphins. I had a perfect semester: 5/5 responses from every single student on every single evaluation criterion (see evaluations).
I know people on the Internet only want to see my negative and insulting evaluations, so I’ll just move on. Sorry, there were none.
I had the opportunity to teach Chem 30 again the next year with a new (world famous) professor. Again, it was a great experience. For the first time, instead of having to start my handouts from scratch, I had the opportunity to focus my effort on making quality revisions and taking the handouts to the next level. I think the students appreciated the effort too, especially since some of them felt frustrated at the challenging problems presented by the professor that year. I am all for hard problems, but you quickly learn that if you’re going to assign hard problems, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time in office hours or review sessions if you want to avoid a student revolt. My student evaluations did not rise to the level of perfection attained in Fall ’03, but I’ll stand by them any day (see evaluations).
I think the pinnacle of praise is when students who are not in your class start showing up in your class for fun. Of course, this can be especially rewarding when it’s time for evaluations:
I really didn’t have Paul as my section leader, but I attended his section because of time conflicts and because he’s so amazingly good. I really appreciated the time and effort he put into preparing for his section and that he tried to make it fun (he’s funny! =D)… Improve [section] by cloning Paul and making him the only section leader.
And that’s all I have for now. An eminent professor of chemistry at Columbia once taught me that you should maximize perceived productivity by publishing the same paper two or three times. Consequently, I’ve decided to cross-post this write up on my personal site. Please don’t turn me in to the Internet police.