Peter Filene, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that “teaching is only as successful as the learning it produces.” Students bring a certain set of expectations, personalities, and learning dynamics with them at the beginning of any semester or course. Those elements shape how they learn as much as they shape what they will learn. As professors, we try to meld those factors with course content and delivery to craft a “package” that will have a lasting effect on students, irrespective of their major.
But how do we know whether we are “making the grade”? How do we know whether we have a significant impact on student learning, student growth or students’ thinking? Are we “getting through” to students—altering or shaping their interest in our discipline? Are we, as Professor Filene underscores, producing learning? Let’s take a look.
Most colleges and universities have an elaborate system of end-of-the-semester evaluations centered around student ratings of their professors. At my institution, for example, each professor has the option of selecting one of four different evaluations forms and administering it to one or more classes during the last three weeks of the term. Students complete the forms anonymously. The department administrative assistant then tabulates the evaluations, and the department chair distributes them to the respective faculty members several weeks after the course is over (and all grades have been submitted).
Here is one form my institution makes available to faculty. For each question, students answer a yes-or-no question and then have the option of recording a separate response in a follow-up “comments” section:
1. Does the faculty member seem to exhibit a sound understanding of the range of subject matter?
2. Is the faculty member able to maintain interest during the class period?
3. Does the faculty member present material clearly and without distracting mannerisms?
4. Does the faculty member attempt to improve the course where problems arise?
5. Is the faculty member sensitive to student responses and adaptive to student needs?
6. Is the faculty member fair in evaluation of student work?
7. Did the faculty member provide an adequate syllabus for the course so you understand the operating procedures?
8. Do you feel that there are an adequate number of test given during the semester?
9. Where do you place this faculty member among all you have had at [this institution]?
1. Were the objectives of this course made clear to you?
2. Overall, was the course of value to you?
3. Compared to other courses you have taken at [this institution], where would you place this course?
Just like former New York mayor Ed Koch, college professors want to know how they are doing. We can know that only if we ask our students the right questions. For example, the Student Observation Form (above) asks questions related to the performance of the faculty member. If a faculty member considers her or his performance to be critical, then the results generated by this form will either validate strengths or expose weaknesses in the individual’s performance during the semester.
What this form does not do, however, is gauge the level of learning students achieve as a result of that performance. The shift from teacher performance to student learning is, and should be, a most critical element in any end-of-semester evaluations.
Among the factors that influence student ratings are the perceptions they bring to the evaluation process. If a student is a “surface learner,” they will praise a professor who focuses on the memorization of facts and figures but give considerably lower ratings to a professor who emphasizes thinking at higher levels of cognition (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). By the same token, a “deep learner” will give low ratings to a professor who emphasizes memorization and regurgitation of a finite list of facts but provide a higher rating to a professor who emphasizes the critical explorations of various topics.
According to a substantial body of research, students who take a course to satisfy their general interest or as an elective, tend to give the course (or professor) slightly higher ratings. Students who take a course to satisfy a major or liberal arts requirement tend to give slightly lower ratings. By in large, students tend to be more critical of required courses and less critical of non-required courses.
So, here’s the bottom line: When students rate your teaching performance, they are only assessing part of the teaching equation. It is equally important that you have information relative to your teaching effectiveness. Only then will you be able to design courses that are learner-centered, intellectually stimulating, and educationally productive. Here’s a proven strategy:
Evaluation of student learning
Consider this form for your courses. You may want to use these queries as a written exercise or a discussion guide in one of the final classes of the semester. Please feel free to modify or adjust these statements according to the dictates of your discipline or the individual design of your classes.
1. How well did this course influence your enjoyment of the subject?
2. How well did this course influence your comprehension of the subject?
3. In what ways did this course cause you to think or interact intellectually with the content?
4. What was the most challenging concept or principle in the course?
5. What did you do to meet that challenge?
6. Comment on how much you learned in this course.
7. Comment on how well you learned in this course.
8. How much did you contribute to the course?
You will notice that this form places emphasis on students as learners rather than on the instructor as a performer. The shift in emphasis is enormous and can provide you with valuable data not only on a course’s effectiveness but also on the need to modify a course according to students’ learning potential.
Consider also the concept of professor as learner. That means a professor who guides rather than leads, facilitates rather than assigns, and models rather than tells. After nearly four decades of collegiate teaching experience, I’ve learned that the most successful professors are those who are willing to learn alongside their students—providing students with the processes and the supportive arena in which they can begin to make their own discoveries and pursue their own self-initiated investigations.
Long-time readers of The Teaching Professor are keen on the attributes and qualities of good professors. But I’d like to save the best for last. That is, a good professor is also a reflective professor. A reflective professor is one who thinks as much as acts and one who is constantly searching for self-improvement.
Professors who reflect are professors who are open to change. Reflective educators do lots of self-assessment, and in doing so, they help their students grow as both scholars and individuals. Here are some reflective qualities essential to your success as a college teacher:
- Be open minded to new ideas and new possibilities.
- Think about the reason, rationale, and learning potential for every task and assignment.
- Be willing to take responsibility for your actions. If students aren’t learning, it may not be entirely their fault.
- Be open to improvement on both major and minor issues.
- Regularly assess your teaching philosophy (e.g., once every semester).
- Make time for regular periods of self-questioning. Ask yourself, “What am I learning here?”
Your success as a professor should not depend solely on how well your students perform on a midterm or final exam. It should not depend on what your students think about you as a teacher or as a human being. Rather, your success should depend primarily on how students are able to use the information you taught them in both their chosen profession as well as in their personal lives. For my part, I am less concerned with my academic popularity than with how I was able to change students for the better. If the change is positive, then I’m a happy camper. If not, then I still have some work to do!
 Surface learners are those individuals who like to learn the facts of a topic or subject. They equate learning with the memorization and accumulation of a large body of knowledge. By contrast, deep learners are those who prefer to engage in higher-level cognitive activities—analyzing material, synthesizing information from several different sources, and evaluating the worth or utility of data from a variety of viewpoints.
Anthony D. Fredericks, EdD, is professor emeritus of education at York College of Pennsylvania. He is also a prolific and award-winning author of both adult and children’s titles. His latest book is The Adjunct Professor’s Complete Guide to Teaching College (2nd ed.).