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Monday, February 16, 2009

Are you teaching if they aren't learning?

My department is beginning to talk about writing new questions for our teaching evaluations. One of my colleagues wants to only ask 'objective' questions, such as whether professors are in their office when they say they will be, whether they were on time (or even present) for classes, etc. His reasoning is that faculty can control whether they are doing a "professional" job (his word, not mine) but we can't control what our students do. As he put it (and I quote): "The problem with measuring how much students are learning is that there is an implicit assumption that we are responsible for how much they learn. The responsibility is both ours and theirs, yet we don't ask questions about how responsible they are being."

On one level, I can understand where he's coming from. On the other hand, my personal philosophy was pretty much summed up by Scott at Dangerously Irrelevant in a recent post that was succinct but powerful:

Two problematic beliefs

  1. That teaching can occur without learning
  2. That learning academic content is more important than caring about academic content
(that's the whole post)

In the comments, I thought zabacedarian provided a useful way of thinking about it, reflecting the very heart of the difference between my colleague and me:
How you look at the first statement is dependent on your locus of control. If it is external, then you might say, "I taught it - if the students were motivated enough or smart enough they would have learned it. I have no control over the student." If it is internal, then one might say, "How can I say I taught it if it wasn't learned? What can I do to motivate the student and present the information to the student in a way they can learn it? I can motivate the student and ALL students can learn." That is the difference between being successful with students who are already successful and being successful with all students. Learning can occur without teaching, but teaching can not occur without learning.
The question I'm struggling with is this: given that I fall in the 'internal control' camp, how do I talk about teaching evaluations with someone who falls in the 'external control' camp?


  1. I have found that the best teachers are the ones that take responsibility for their students' learning and engagement rather than trying to hold students 'accountable' for their learning and/or behavior. I tell my students every semester that if they're not successful in my class, it's my fault, not theirs, for not creating an appropriate learning environment.

    Most instructors, like your colleague, do NOT want to own this. I will and my students and I are both better for it.

  2. But it works both ways, doesn't it? As a student, I always believed I was responsible for my own learning, that if I didn't learn something (that I thought was important), it was my responsibility. Faculty could help, or not help, or actively get in the way--but it was myresponsibility.

    I think the optimal world is one in which faculty adopt the attitude that Jennifer and Scott express (quoting Scott here: "...If they're not successful in my class, it's not fault, not theirs, for not creating an appropriate learning environment") AND students adopt the attitude that I am responsible for my own learning.

    So much for Pareto optimality. What's the second best? I'm less clear on that.


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