One thing I’m realizing about this semester is that I really miss teaching. I’ve been able to keep my lab running via email and skype, and this semester my class was kindly taken over by my department chair, who has run the course excellently by giving some of the lectures himself and by filling in with other faculty as guest lecturers. Since I still administer the course website I occasionally check out the new lecture slides, etc. and wonder whether the students are enjoying the course more now, or whether they enjoyed it more when I have taught it. Who knows. Today I read a blog post which got me thinking, how do you really know whether students are enjoying a class? There are course evaluations, but those are filled in during the last day of class in a hurry and have pre-packaged questions. Often whiny students who have complaints are the ones who write the lengthiest comments and those tend to be the ones that stick out. I’m sure every professor has their own personal way of gauging their teaching independently of course evaluations. For example, midway through the semester I hand students blank cards and ask them to write some comments about the course so far. I find these much more informative than the end-of-the-year evaluations since they tend to be more candid and allow you to adjust the course to address any problems. But to really know if I’m doing a good job engaging the students I usually look for the following good signs:
1. On a large-ish lecture course I get lots of questions during lecture.
Bored or utterly confused students never ask questions during class. It is actually quite hard to get students to pipe up during a big lecture class. My mid/upper-level course has about 100 students so the room is typically not huge but not tiny either. I usually will stop after discussing a difficult concept and ask if there are any questions. They key here is to wait a full minute before proceeding since it is rare that students can both digest what you just said and come up with a question. I tell them to think of what they heard and I’ll give them a bit of time. Of course this is awkward because you just stand there like a fucking dope until someone asks a question. But once one hand goes up, lots of hands start popping up, like little tulips. After a few lectures, if you are lucky, hands simply start popping up at all times without the “awkward minute o’ silence”. Then you know you’ve got ’em.
2. Lots of people show up to office hours with elaborate questions and what-ifs about the material.
I enjoy office hours the most ’cause I get to pull out my pencil and paper and go over the concepts with little sketches and shit. Really I think students would learn a lot more if core courses were taught in groups of 3-4 students. Then it’s more like a conversation and you can really make sure they get all the concepts. I take showing up to office hours as a sign of being interested enough to make sure you really understand the material. Sure some whiny-o’s come to see me with excuses about why they can’t take the exam, or whether I could just tell them exactly what the exam will cover, but for the most part, I find that the average office hour visitor is part of the hard-core clique of students that are just curious. I wish there were more of these dudes and dudettes. Some students have told me after graduating that they still have some of my little sketches.
3. Students send unsolicited emails with scientific papers they found and wanted to get my take on them. Or with general more philosophical questions.
Again, there are some students who don’t like the office hour scene, but still are thinking of the class material outside of class, or in relation to their other classes. This means they not only are getting the material, but they are applying it. Sure, a lot of “studies” the students ask me about are either based on popular press articles or related to some new alternative woo (eg. “Prof, this paper says they found the medical basis of Reiki!”). But you can use this to teach the students how find the primary source material on their own, and to teach them about differentiating science from pseudoscience. In any case, at least they’re thinking about the material.
4. After the term is over students send you emails thanking you for the course.
And this of course is highly appreciated. If you’re a student reading this, go ahead, send one of your professors some love (in the form of a nice email or card, not the other kind).
I think what is important, aside from giving awesome lectures and conveying the material clearly, it is very important to make yourself accessible to the students and make them feel comfortable asking for help for clarification or for whatever. I find that most students are really quite good once they are engaged. In fact even if you are a crummy lecturer, being accessible will go a long way towards correcting this.
So do these good signs always happen to me? Am I an awesome teacher? Not always, but when I see these things happen, it’s nice. And these are a few of my favorite things…