BEING ASSESSED AS A TEACHER: CAN WE PLEASE IMPROVE HOW WE DO IT?

I have spent several days recently writing the report for my assessment as a teacher by the regional Catalan authorities, an exercise that takes place every five years. Funnily, the Spanish authorities only ask that we apply to be assessed, also every five years, and I have not done any further paperwork towards that. In contrast, the Catalan authorities require a long report (mine extends to 18 pages), followed by as many certificates as you can add, for as we know here in Spain nobody trusts that university teachers have actually done what we claim to have done. As I put together the final 65 pages (thanks Manuel for teaching me about I Love PDF! and how to mix different documents), I wondered about which bureaucrat will go through them. My impression is that someone will use reading my report (perhaps just taking a cursory glance) to justify their working time, not really to take my assessment seriously. Yes, we work for the bureaucrats.

Writing this type of report is immensely annoying because we are supposed to enter all our information in the EGRETA application, so in theory the application itself should generate whatever documentation we need. Instead, we need to keep track of every single thing we do by constantly updating our CV in our home computer and even so, we always lose track of some thing or other. I forgot, for instance, that the yearly assessment interviews with doctoral students also count for assessment. My impression is that everything counts except what actually happens in the classroom. I have compiled for my examiners lists of courses taught, dissertations supervised, tribunals I have been a member of, admin positions, and have written a lengthy essay on my view of teaching in the last five years. Yet, the weakest segment has been the one connected with teaching itself, because, guess what?, the students’ surveys of my work were not sufficient in number for that section of the report to be acceptable with no further evidence.

I must clarify that students’ assessment of us, teachers, used to be done in class on paper by taking a few minutes off each subject. This was time-consuming and expensive and so UAB opted for moving the surveys online. The problem is that students are just not interested in filling them in, which I totally understand. I myself would only bother to complete a survey if I wanted to say something very positive or very negative about the teacher.

I don’t run surveys among my students at the end of the semester, in which I am possibly wrong, but going through the ones they did fill in, I started wondering whether I should. One thing I would like to do, after this catastrophic academic year in which I have not managed to learn much about students because of the (literal) distance Covid-19 has imposed, is starting each subject with a short questionnaire to learn who each student is as an individual with their own interests and expectations. A young member of the staff who was once my student reminded me that I had already done that years ago, but I have forgotten I did so. The problem about running a survey asking for feedback at the end of the subject is that it is by then too late to correct any problems, so I’m not so sure that this is useful. Perhaps the really useful thing is running surveys (or feedback sessions) periodically, but I have never done that and simply do not have the time.

The survey results we receive at UAB consist mainly of numbers on a scale of 0-4 (I don’t know why, since we use 0-10 with students). If you get, for instance, a 3 in relation to how you deliver your lessons, you know that there is room for improvement, though the problem is that you still don’t know how. In surveys students are not asked this type of nuanced question, but only offered the chance to offer open comments. In my own assessment, there were not many comments, but in general the problem is that I don’t know what to change or how to improve what I do from reading them. I believe that my general mark was good enough, and some students seemed pleased with my work, but, then, others clearly were not. I ran a feedback session at the end of my fourth year elective subject in January, and I found that far more useful since I could ask direct questions and I valued very much that students gave me very direct constructive criticism. With the official surveys, I just don’t see it.

There were two comments that have stuck, for different reasons, both come from second year students. One student wrote in a negative comment that “the teacher is very proud”, a description I have a hard time identifying with and that set me thinking in earnest about when I had been ‘proud’ in class and what is the meaning of that adjective. Did the student mean ‘demanding’? Well, yes, I am very demanding but I have a pass rate of 90%. Did the student mean that I somehow despise students? That would be a first in my 30 year long career. I wish, with all my heart, that I could ask this student ‘what do you mean?’, ‘was I having a bad day?’, ‘do you mean generally every lecture?’ The comment hurt me very much, as you can see, and I still feel perplexed by it.

About the other comment, I just don’t know what to do. Someone complained that I include too many comments on painting and architecture, and not enough on general background, in the Victorian Literature course. As happens, I have one PowerPoint presentation for painting and one for architecture, and around seven or eight for social, political, and cultural background, leaving aside the ones for specific authors. I use, therefore, about one hour for painting and architecture in a fifty-hour course. I do recall overhearing a student complaining at the end of the corresponding session that painting and architecture were out of place in a Victorian Literature course, so I assume the comment was his (I can’t recall who he is). I’m still flabbergasted. I bring to class as many images as I can of the Victorian Age, and you can be sure I am not going to suppress the tiny segment on painting and architecture just because it annoys one student in five years of teaching.

It would have been far more useful to me if the student in question had protested in class when I was doing my presentation about its use, because then I would have been able to explain myself. This leads me to what I am really thinking about the students’ surveys, not what they say in them but how they are organized. Imagine you’re having sex with someone, and you think you’re communicating well in bed, but when it’s over this person goes go to a public rating board and comments on your performance—and only then do you find out that the sex was bad. What is the point of telling a third person about your lover’s shortcomings? How does this help your lover improve? That’s what I feel. The relationship between a teacher and the students should not work on the principle of sending teachers messages about their performance through a third party (or a public website such as Rate my Professor), but directly. I don’t assess my students by asking a colleague to please tell them how they are doing; I assess them personally and if there is any problem I call them for a tutorial. I believe we should have the same system between students and teachers: if I am not doing well in class, I need to know as soon as possible and as openly as possible.

Obviously, the main snag in this is that students can hardly offer candid views about the teachers’ performance to their faces for fear of being punished with a lower grade if these are negative. So we need to work out a system that excludes that fear. A possibility is inviting students to channel their worries through the class delegate, or to drop anonymous notes in the teacher’s mailbox. Of course, this is awfully awkward. I can see a student dropping a note protesting the uselessness of my painting and architecture PowerPoints but I would not know how to address the issue in class without outing the anonymous student. At least, though, I would get some kind of hint. You need a very special group of students for them to be able to tell their teacher how things can work better, particularly if any of them perceives the teacher as ‘proud’. Deep sigh. My fourth year students seemed far more comfortable telling me what to improve because they know me better, so I am making a mental note to talk as early as possible with second-year students to receive feedback, and to explain better at each point what I am doing and why.

As you can see, I am not concerned about getting a 4/4, though I’m very curious to know who has the highest rating in the Department (I can imagine), the School, and UAB; the ratings can only be accessed by the teachers assessed and the Degree Coordinator. I think that there will always be dissatisfied students, with inevitably some hating my guts and others enjoying my (supposed) cleverness, possibly in a similar proportion. Once a formidable teacher we used to have in the Department told me and a colleague that we worried too much about the students’ ratings, whereas she got very low ratings and still did not care to change her teaching. I’ll write here what I told her then: I don’t care for the ratings, I care to do my job well. In that sense my favourite rating is the 90% pass rate, I have never understood teachers who are proud of failing almost the whole class.

It turns out that I am a ‘proud’ teacher, after all, hopefully not in the problematic sense that student complained about. I am ‘proud’ of losing very few students along the semester, and of raising the standards so that the pass really means they have done great work. I’ll think hard about how to talk to them more fluently and more frequently about what we do together, though there is little I can do to convince UAB to improve the way students’ surveys are carried out. A pity, really.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

2 thoughts on “BEING ASSESSED AS A TEACHER: CAN WE PLEASE IMPROVE HOW WE DO IT?

  1. Molt d’acord, Sara. Salvant les distàncies, com a docents acabem treballant per a buròcrates. De cara a l’èxit professional sembla que importi tot menys la classe en sí.

    També crec que, al final, d’1 alumne de 50 que es queixi d’una cosa en particular no n’hem de fer un gra massa, ja que 49 no s’han queixat (o no ho han vist tant greu com per a fer-ho).

    Però què és la literatura si no un conjunt de totes les parts que retrata? Pintura i arquitectura incloses.

    De la mateixa manera que intentes associar valors i continguts victorians amb l’actualitat, per què hauries de deixar de fer-ho amb els mateixos aspectes de la societat victoriana?

    Sempre hem de tenir en compte les actituds i comentaris d’alumnes com a eina pedagògica, per a millorar; però també com a eina per a traçar línies vermelles (“estic segura que això ho vull permetre?”, “de veritat no he de fer aquest contingut que em fa gaudir la meva feina i que està vinculat amb la matèria?”).

  2. Gràcies, Albert! Sí, crec que el docent ha de mantenir alguns criteris i continguts opinin el que opinin els estudiants, però no deixa de preocupar-me que el que sembla em sembla d’utilitat evident, no li sembli a l’estudiant. Potser lo de la pintura i l’arquitectura és anecdòtic però no sé si els 49 estudiants de 50 que no diuen res estan contents… Hauria de poder preguntar un per un, però sempre anem massa atabalats.
    Gràcies de nou!
    Sara

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