Saturday, December 15, 2007

Reflections on teaching at a big school

I think I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I do not envy my undergrads in intro biology. The lecturer leaves a lot to be desired- he has poor presentation skills, his lectures are hard to take notes on, and his exams are difficult to study for. All of the exams (which comprise about 4/5 of their grade) are multiple choice, and they are hard enough that I would have to study for several hours to get an A on the exams (other than the one about plants). They have to take the exams in a crowded lecture hall with uncomfortable seats and they have 50 minutes. There appear to be few if any concessions for students that require additional time for test taking.

I decided to go back and look at my exams from college to see if they were that difficult. I kept nearly all of my biology (and chemistry) exams and notes and they are now in my office. It was fun to look back at my old exams and see what I got wrong. But I have no idea how to decide if my exams were easier or harder, because they were completely different. I didn't take a single scantron exam in college so my exams were mostly short answer and drawing (compounds, structures, life cycles, etc). The advantage of something that isn't multiple choice is that you can get partial credit. There's no partial credit for C if the answer is A.

The grades for all of my students have been submitted. One of my lab sections did pretty well. The other lab section didn't. Disappointingly, many of my students in the second section got D's and F's. This is especially sad for me since I know that some of those students were trying (albeit not hard enough). I am sad for them because obviously they don't have effective study and/or time management skills. At least three of the students who ultimately got a D or F came to meet with me individually. Two of them hung around at the end of the last lab and told me how much they learned and how much they enjoyed having me as a TA. They did ok in lab but performed terribly on the exams (consistently 40-50%). Why? I don't know.

I find it interesting that my second lab of the week was the one with more underperforming students. I think this is just random. I was definitely a better teacher for my second lab of the week because I made my mistakes with the first lab. For this reason I don't think the poor performance of students in my second lab is my fault. Many of them started this class at a disadvantage (such no chemistry in high school, or ever) and I think I did the best I could with what I had to work with. I hope they are all able to find something they love and at which they excel, and at the very least I hope they now have a greater appreciation for how biology provides a framework for understanding our lives and the world around us.

During the last lab students filled out course evaluations for the lecturer and for me. I asked the lab instructor when we will get the results of our evaluations and he said, "oh, probably in February." What? That hardly helps at all for my teaching approach for the beginning of next semester. If a school really wants teachers to take evaluations seriously then they should get them back to them in a timely manner so they can use them to improve their teaching. Next semester I am DEFINITELY doing my own mid-semester evaluations with my students since the university feedback system seems useless.

I wish that big research universities rewarded professors for excellent teaching and mentoring. They like to give it lip service, but really publications and grants are much more important. The NY Times recently had an article about the decline in tenure-track jobs as universities put more teaching jobs in adjunct positions to save money because they can pay them less. I'm very disappointed by this trend and this is why I want to teach at an institution that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to undergraduate education.

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