ask an orgtheorist: how can you tell the prof that they’re horrible?

A loyal orghead asks:  “How should students approach beginner lecturers when their class isn’t going too well, attendance has dropped, and the lecturer hasn’t yet considered there may be a problem with their teaching style? Should one of us approach the lecturer individually, or should we collectively do something? Should faculty be informed, especially considering the early stage in their career?”

Here’s my response:

  1. First, if you are near the end of the semester, it’s probably best to be brutally honest, but constructive, in the evaluations. There may not be enough time for anything else. Be specific: “I was confused by the lectures.” “You didn’t explain the readings enough.” Etc. If enough students do that, most instructors will get the hint.
  2. Second, if there is still enough time in the semester, you can go to office hours or send email. Once again, be nice but specific. “I really want to learn, but I am having severe problems with X.” Once again, if multiple people do that, then most folks get the hint.
  3. Third, depending on the class and the nature of the problem, you could just raise your hand during class and say “we like the class, but we are having an issue with X.”
  4. Fourth, if the instructor is completely out of whack, then you should definitely consult the dept chair, the undergrad chair, one of the undergrad advisers, or even the dean. You should only do this if the problem is really severe.

Which option should you use? No fixed rule. It depends on the teaching issue. For example, #3 helped me fix a problem once. I once totally bungled a book order for a class. The students totally got on my case – in class and a bunch of them did it. Book orders have been totally on time since then. #1 also helped me. For a while, I wrote a lot on the chalk board. Big mistake (a post for another time). It’s too late to completely change the lecture style in the middle of the semester, but hearing about my horrid chalk board technique on the evals helped me change. Here’s a case where things didn’t work at all. I was once a substitute for a popular teacher. The students did #4 – they went to the dean to complain that they liked the other teacher better than me. Not constructive. However, talking to the chair or dean may really help with a class where the teacher and students have developed a contentious relationship. #2 is really good for issues like super hard exams. A few students could go to office hours and politely explain how, in your opinion, the test seemed to be totally unrelated to the homework. Many instructors will be sympathetic and try to accomodate.

Other thoughts from students and teachers?

Written by fabiorojas

February 5, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Posted in academia, education, fabio

16 Responses

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  1. I have an issue with the underlying premise here, namely, that the students very probably should do something. As a start, I’d question the idea that student evaluations (and less formal feedback) have positive effects on teaching. What it actually does is to alienate teachers from their own standards of quality instruction. Young instructors, especially, are trying to find out what works. They find out by looking at the work the students turn in and seeing if they “got” what they were trying to teach them.

    The evaluative mindset is actually destructive to the teaching situation. The students should struggle and learn. There are good and bad teachers and sometimes you luck out and get a good one. But it’s still your job as a student to learn. When we made telling the teacher what works and doesn’t work the students’ problem we completely distorted their role in the classroom.

    None of this is meant to deny that the outrageously-bad-teacher-about-whom-something-should-be-done exists. What I question is the idea that the students should be spending their time articulating “brutally honest” or “polite but specific” criticism of the teacher’s approach. Yes, it may work (i.e., get the teacher to stop using the blackboard or order the wrong books) but it comes at the cost of turning the students into something they should not be. It’s their loss in the end, because they learn less (secure in the knowledge that whatever they missed was really the teacher’s fault).

    This is a long comment. (Hot topic for me.) I think, at bottom, this sort of issue comes from overdramatizing the classroom. Classroom instruction at the university level is important, but it has come to be seen as the meat and potatoes. It was meant to be salt.



    February 5, 2009 at 8:06 pm

  2. I remember a meeting long ago when faculty were discussing student evals. One anti-eval prof was making the “I taught good, they learned lousy” argument (ht Jim Bouton), and a guy from the psych department said, “I don’t see how you can conceive of the role of teacher separate from the role of student.”

    Where I am, students rarely complain about bad teaching to anyone but one another, and I’m not sure how to interpret that. Is it because they accept their position as powerless and passive? Do they fear retaliation? Or do they fear being embarrassed because they can’t specify just what it is that’s wrong with the teaching? Or (and this is my great fear) is learning the material just not that important to them?

    As for Fabio’s question, why put the responsibility on students on an ad hoc basis? Why not do evaluations halfway through the course or before, when student feedback can still do some good, or have some other institutionalized mechanism so that profs get a better idea of how they’re doing?


    Jay Livingston

    February 5, 2009 at 11:34 pm

  3. Thomas: The post is not meant as a call for students to mouth off against teachers. Most of the time, students should file complaints in the evals. I do also agree that students must assume responsibility for learning.

    But, I do feel that if students perceive the class to be horrible, then there is nothing wrong in saying so in a civilized way. I’ve been around long enough to see that a portion of instructors are usually messing up and need some feedback. And if students don’t register the problems – who will?

    Jay: From what I understand, the mid-term evaluation is one of the few known things to actually help instructors. I am on board with that.



    February 6, 2009 at 2:37 am

  4. I’ve used index cards in my class. About once every other week I ask my students to write one thing they learned, one thing that is fuzzy and one line of feedback for me on an unsigned card. I do this 5 minutes before the end, so that they don’t spend time editing. Its informal, non-threatening, not time consuming, doesn’t require preparation, but just thumbing through the cards gives me a lot of information. If you get the sense that something is stirring – I highly recommend trying it.



    February 6, 2009 at 2:52 am

  5. To clarify: I hope my comment can’t be interpreted as “I taught good, they learned lousy”. My argument depends on concepts of teaching and learning, teacher and student, that are very closely connected.

    When we ask them to tell us how we’re driving, we give them a new responsibility and that responsibility interferes with the main one. Like I say, it is definitely possible to get explicit information out of your students that might help you improve your teaching. Just remember that there is no information without energy. Student evaluations are the heat-death of the classroom.

    Thinking about this some more, I guess my intuitions on this are the opposite of Fabio’s. I think complaints about teaching should be civilized by the dauting task of taking them to some higher authority. Sending an email or filling out an eval or even, in today’s climate, speaking up in class, is simply too easy. A problem that really can be solved that way will either work itself out (because the teacher is improving all the time) or is not worth the energy needed to produce the information. I could be wrong about this, but it is not because I reject the very idea that my teaching may deserve criticism.

    BTW, there are alternative ways of gathering this kind of information. The practice of having a colleague sit in on your classes would be a much more serious way of getting feedback on your teaching. And it would not affect the student’s perception of his/her role in the classroom.



    February 6, 2009 at 5:27 am

  6. Thomas: Appreciate the comment – a few more from me before I rest for the evening. I don’t think that evaluations require much from students or divert them from learning. I don’t see much evidence for that view. In fact, evals, or the occasional comment, seems to be easy. People can often distinguish between good and bad lecturers and it’s easy to report.

    A while back, I posted on a review of teaching evals ( A major finding is that evals are actually consistent and valid measures of teaching. For example, the review reports that in studies of math instructors, students performance on calculus tests was correlated well with evals.

    The same review shows that student evals are better than peer evaluations. Basically, peers tend to minimize problems. In my own teaching, a peer once wrote a rather positive evaluation of a class that turned out to get miserable evals – and the students were right. You claim that there are options to evals, but in empirical research, evals remain the best, though imperfect, measure of teaching quality.

    I used to be anti-student evaluation. But I soon came to realize that they work for a simple reason. Though student may not always be articulate, they know if a class is going well and they’ll be honest about it. It isn’t perfect, but it’s by far the best we’ve got.



    February 6, 2009 at 5:47 am

  7. Thomas: From Huemer’s review of evals:

    “Furthermore, other methods of evaluating teaching effectiveness do not appear to be valid. Ratings by colleagues and trained observers are not even reliable (a necessary condition for validity)–that is, colleagues and observers do not even substantially agree with each other in instructor ratings.”



    February 6, 2009 at 5:55 am

  8. I don’t question that if the aim is to rate teaching, you need something like evals. Otherwise you get the validity problem you are talking about.

    But we’re talking about *improving* teaching. It is easy to imagine a perfectly valid system of rating that also (again because information requires energy) destroys the object being rated in the process by the acts of observation themselves. That’s the sort of argument I’m making.

    My point is that we should be less concerned about how well we teach compared to other teachers (and that’s really all the students can tell us with any degree of accuracy) and more concerned with the things that are within our power to change.

    So, again, if you get a colleague in the room for a few classes, someone who knows you and what you are capable of (also someone who knows roughly what you know about the subject you are reaching), then the feedback you get will translate into better teaching. This holds even if two colleagues a in radical disagreement about what you are doing right and wrong. The conversation is what matters.

    We should talk to our students about the subject matter we are teaching. (I say “we” here, but I should say that I almost never teach undergraduates.)



    February 6, 2009 at 6:16 am

  9. I thought of another thing on the way into the office.

    “I don’t see how you can conceive of the role of teacher separate from the role of student.” (See Jay’s comment)

    In my view, evaluations separate the teacher and student in a particular way: they raise the question of teaching quality independently of the question of what students learn. It is a short step from the separation of the question “Is NN a good teacher?” from the question “Am I learning anything?” to making the answer to the first an explanans for the answer to the second. That is, teaching comes to be seen as the *cause* of learning (now construed as an *effect*). These days it is very difficult to get anyone to see that there is anything wrong with that view.


    Thomas Basbøll

    February 6, 2009 at 8:48 am

  10. Last thing: I was not interpreting the post as a call to mouth off. I was interpreting it as assuming that students do well to spend their time in careful consideration of the question of how to inform their teachers about how they feel about their teaching. (You are by no means to blame for inventing that assumption, Fabio, but it is tacitly accepted in your post.)

    Mouthing off happens all the time and causes no problems at all. It’s easy to deal with. What we are talking about here is the cultivation of a whole mindset in which the student is asked to take a considered interest in something that should, in fact, be at the periphery of their concerns.


    Thomas Basbøll

    February 6, 2009 at 8:53 am

  11. Reliable measures, yes, but of what? I am surprised that no one has mentioned the literature on thin slicing. Ambady & Rosenthal (1993), for example, find subjects’ ratings of video clips of lectures, as short as 2 seconds and without sound, good predictors of end-of-semester student evaluations. Related studies have found that these impressions depend on gender, ethnicity, physical attractiveness and nonverbal behavior. Perhaps these factors influence the extent to which students pay attention to the instructor and therefore how much they learn, but going down that road has worrying implications for hiring and promotion.



    February 6, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  12. a little bit of a weird conversation here, as it devolves into whether teaching evaluations are good or bad. As far as the original question, if a professor cares about teaching they’re usually aware of a) how they’re doing in front of the class; and b) how the class is reacting to their lectures.

    Beginning lecturers who care about teaching are likely even more attuned than the rest, looking for confirmation from students, wondering why people are leaving, etc. In the case of a teacher who cares, I think any of the first three suggestions would work.

    So what you’re really talking about are professors (junior, senior) who are less attuned to their own teaching and who are resistant to student input. In these cases, they’re no more likely to respond to class evals after the class – since as you know, we often explain these away – than they are to respond to criticisms during class. And if a student is confronting a professor who doesn’t really want to hear it, it’s higher stakes for the student.

    My pragmatic answer would be for students to stop going to class, do what you need to in order to learn the materials, and call it a day.



    February 6, 2009 at 12:34 pm

  13. I completely agree with this Peter: “do what you need to in order to learn the materials, and call it a day.” That’s the answer. But since going to class should be a relatively small component of your overall effort to learn something anyway, I don’t think cutting class is good advice. Better advice would be: do what you can outside of class to make best use of what you are offered in class, however little that may be.

    Think of it this way. Suppose you would normally spend three hours reading for every one hour you’re in class (I make no claims about whether that ratio is either real or ideal). Turning that extra one hour into independent reading is not necessarily going to be better than getting the 10 minutes of quality of out the “horrible” one-hour lecture. Like I say, a lecture is like salt. You can’t make up for it with more meat or vegetables in your stew.

    More advice: try not to let your opinion of the teacher or his/her teaching, whether good or bad, interfere with your attempt to learn the material.


    Thomas Basbøll

    February 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

  14. I disagree with the idea that you should just pick up and leave. If I were a student in the class of a horrible professor, I think I’d just ask more questions and get more involved in the lecture. Pluck what useful information you can from the prof by asking good questions.

    Unless the professor is completely resistant to interaction, which is rarely the case, even a bad teacher would appreciate an expression of genuine interest in what he or she is trying to say. Sometimes profs may just need a little help in communicating, and positive reinforcement via inquiry seems like a good way to get them to see the holes in their explanations/presentation format.



    February 6, 2009 at 3:07 pm

  15. I think I’d just ask more questions and get more involved in the lecture.

    Cool, that strategy might work. My frame was undergrads, but as grads, I’d amend my pragmatics depending on the course. As an intrepid 1st year graduate student at USC, I had a terrifically bad methods professor. As a class, we organized an informal pro-sem, where we invited other professors in the department to meet with us as a class and talk for an hour or two about the method they used in their work. Barrie Thorne on ethnography and ethics, Barry Glassner on interviewing, Tim Biblarz on quant mobility research, etc.

    The point is that teaching a bad professor they’re bad seems ‘right’ in principle but can be a waste in practice.



    February 6, 2009 at 3:52 pm

  16. I used to use the notecard system, like Matt, but that got annoying because students shifted more and more into a consumer mode, giving me feedback on how happy they were on a day-to-day basis with my lectures.

    I now do an informal review about 1/3 of the way through the semester. I ask what they like and what they don’t like about the class. I find this very helpful because sometimes evaluations are so course specific that I can’t really do anything once I get them back. So being able to make some changes mid-course is helpful to both me and the students.

    For me the big balance is making sure I’m doing a good job teaching while not turning my classroom into an expansion of the service industry.

    Oh, and my ego. Let’s be honest, when you get a terrible review you remember that one and tend to ignore all the ones that are positive. Or at least I do.

    As for talking to chairs: I think this is a good idea. But I think it is also a really good idea for the chair to talk to others in the class. Why? Well, I was in a grad class with a new assistant professor that some people really disliked. But many of us really liked it. Those who disliked the class complained (I’d say about 20% of the class). I was very surprised to hear this. And had the chair not spoken to others in the class the chair would have had a very unbalanced view of the problem. So if you’re a chair, I’d encourage you to do your homework when dealing with a complaint like this.



    February 10, 2009 at 11:50 am

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