Thursday, September 18, 2014

Student Evaluation of Teaching: "We Had to Learn it Ourselves."

The Student Evaluation of Teaching is always an interesting tool for evaluation of one's job performance. Thankfully, at my school administrators seem to pay attention to them, but not so much as to overemphasize the results.  I find them useful and pay special attention to the comments that students enter beyond the numerical rankings. Over the many years these comments have helped me to understand the undergraduate mind and make what I believe to be improvements in the content and presentation of material.

One comment that I received on SET form this past Spring semester has really been gnawing at me. When prompted for  comments about my teaching one student responded, "We had to learn many topics ourselves."  I had never seen a comment like this before. Apparently, these types of comments are not all that unusual. According to this article, today's students are inclined to complain that they are not being taught and have to think in order to learn the material.

As I thought about the comment and became introspective about my teaching methods, I realized that I was surprised that I had not seen comments like this before. Indeed, I can teach material, but students always must learn on their own.  I have developed methods over the years where I intentionally lead student far down the path through the woods to the cool clear lake, but stop short of pushing them in - assuming that they can take that last leap into the water on their own.  The journey is the learning process.

But for today's students, these methods may begin to negatively affect my SETs. I can speculate about the causes. First, students are distracted by their phones and laptops during class. Consequently, they are not participating in the learning journey.  They just look up to see the destination.  Having no idea how they got there, it is impossible to extrapolate the learning experience to other concepts. They don't have to use maps to get places, they follow GPS instructions while simultaneously listening to an i-pod.

Second, researchers tell us that today's generation of students are less intellectually curious.  They are less interested in acquiring knowledge than in obtaining information necessary to complete a specific task (i.e. earn an exam grade). Millennials are much more interested in "checking a box" as done and moving on.

Finally, our students are digital natives. They always have information at their fingertips. Everything is "breaking news."  Anything and everything they want to know comes to them automatically without effort through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media even as they are sitting in your class. Consequently, it is disconcerting to them that they might have to put together a string of thoughts and carefully analyze alternatives to arrive at a conclusion.

I don't plan on making any radical changes in teaching methods in the near future.  But I am interested in watching for these types of comments in future surveys to determine if a change is necessary. On a larger scale, these considerations go right to the core of the purpose and effectiveness of higher education.  I encourage my students to see themselves as life long learners.  I hope that I can remain one as well and will try to learn as much about how my students learn as I can. But right now I have to go to click on the Facebook link I just got to see the latest adorable kittens video.

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