Pleasing all of the people all of the time

In case you didn’t already know this…… can’t.

If you don’t believe me, try teaching a class to a group of college students.  I’ve been instructing at the university level for 6 or 7 years now, and I like to think that as a professor I always make a sincere effort to master the subject material I am teaching and present it in as engaging a way as possible.  Being not too far removed from the classroom experience myself, I remember all too well the boredom and frustration that can accompany a poorly structured syllabus or a lecture by a professor who is clearly  “phoning it in,” and I strive to avoid provoking that reaction among my students: my PowerPoint slides are peppered with photographs and cartoons, I tell jokes and anecdotes, I show movies and plan field trips….Really, I’m on the verge of becoming a performing monkey myself.

I have not resorted to costumes and pageantry. Yet.

And yet, each semester when I receive course evaluations, I find myself faced with contradictory student opinions about the degree of success with which I have designed and executed a class.  A few examples will help illustrate:

No matter the subject material of a class, exam format is consistently one of the biggest “issues” that arises on evaluations.  In general, my rule of thumb is to use multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank style questions when I teach an introductory course, and to ask short answer/essay questions for more upper level classes.  I think this makes sense given the breadth and depth of material taught in different courses.  But — surprise, surprise — students don’t always agree.  Some adore multiple choice, while others deem it confusing or wholly unfair.  Similarly, some students relish the opportunity to spew any tangential facts they can possibly think of onto the pages of a blue book (ideally in barely legible penmanship), while others panic at the sight of a blank page.  Perhaps these test-taking anxieties are the result of students having different “learning styles”, but they don’t seem to realize when they comment about exam formats on evaluations that (1) nobody gives professors individual dossiers with this information, and (2) it wouldn’t matter.  The reality of the situation is that throughout their academic career, students will face a variety of  assessment methods, not all of which are tailored to their individual strengths.  In other words, you can’t always get what you want.  Call it the Mick Jagger approach to education.

Pictured: Pedagogic Genius

I suppose my frame of mind is a bit biased, but if a professor told me that she was going to cancel class one week during the semester so that everyone could instead take a trip to the zoo on the weekend, I would be thrilled.  Honestly, who prefers sitting in a classroom for a 3-hour lecture about primate behavior to watching juvenile gorillas wrestle?

I mean, come on.

I mean, come on.

Actually, to be honest, most students seem to enjoy the zoo.  The behavioral observation assignment that I ask them to do is not difficult, and for many of them it is the first time since childhood that they have visited a zoo and seen exotic animals up close.  But there are always one or two critics who use the evaluation form to complain about the cost of the field trip [Really?  The $16.00 zoo admission is an undue strain for a class in which I don’t require you to purchase a textbook?] or question its purpose.  If I knew who these students were, I might be tempted to make them wear “Debbie Downer” name tags at the zoo.

Writing assignments are also frequent fodder for evaluation comments.  Now, it’s no surprise that most students aren’t crazy about having to write term papers [Newsflash! — Most professors aren’t crazy about grading them, either!].  That’s why, this past spring semester, I tried to change things up a little for the students in my mid-level Human Population Biology class.  Instead of a traditional “research” paper, I asked each student to write a simple grant proposal for a hypothetical research project.  I thought this might be a more interesting assignment for them, and potentially a more useful one in the long-term if any of them had intentions of pursuing a graduate degree.  And because I knew that most of them would not have written anything of this sort previously, I provided them with detailed guidelines about appropriate format and content, as well as a copy of the rubric I would use to grade the assignment.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered, reading the course evaluations, not only that opinions were split about whether students liked the assignment (again, see the title of this post), but also that many of the faultfinders whined that they didn’t know what was expected of them in order to do well on it.  Here I take umbrage!  It’s one thing to simply dislike the work, but don’t claim ignorance when I go out of my way to spell out requirements.   That’s just plain lazy.

“I wish there had been more in-class discussion.”

This is possibly the most maddening comment that a student can write on an evaluation of one of my courses.  I like student discussion.  I try to encourage student discussion by pausing frequently for questions and highlighting topical news stories.  But more often than not, I find that trying to generate student discussion is like trying to get a response from, well…..


Seriously.  Have you ever posed a question to a roomful of people only to be confronted with a sea of blank faces and utter silence?  How is it possible that someone who regularly participates in this ritual during the semester can later decry the lack of voluntary verbosity?  If you want there to be student discussion, TALK!

***pause for deep breath ***

I like teaching.  And, despite my bellyaching, my course evaluations tend to suggest that my students think I’m good at it.  But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to find a way to please everyone?

Although if I’m making idle wishes, wouldn’t it be nice to win a MacArthur Genius Grant and take a round-the-world cruise?  Evaluation: great idea!


One response to “Pleasing all of the people all of the time

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