Carrying On: Teaching the teacher

October 21, 2010

Not every Georgetown professor is perfect, and many Georgetown students have had serious problems with some of the teaching styles they have encountered during our college careers. I’m not talking about a complaint about the amount of homework on a particular night—I mean a fundamental problem with their professor’s teaching methods.
The primary way in which students raise questions about a professor’s methods is the end-of-semester course evaluation forms. For most students, it is the only time they ever give their professor feedback. These forms, however, are not helpful to students who just went through an entire semester of soporific lectures or endured a teaching assistant who couldn’t lead a discussion section to save his life.
The lack of focus on collecting student input is a perennial problem at Georgetown, even in the most forward-thinking programs, like the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. Because there are weak mechanisms for improving classes through feedback, Georgetown should be looking for any opportunity it can find—but it doesn’t. Georgetown has continually missed opportunities to foster discussion about pedagogy or the methods professors use to teach courses.
CNDLS’s central mission seems to be bringing technological advancements in education to Georgetown’s academic community. The center manages efforts to increase technology use in class and encourage student innovation outside of class. Its “Teaching Handbook,” when not focusing on technology, encourages professors to assess their teaching methods using a set of classroom assessment techniques. These strategies include testing students’ background knowledge before the beginning of a new unit in order to guide a professor’s lectures, and asking students to write down an unanswered question at the end of a lecture. However, none of the techniques suggested by the handbook encourage the solicitation of independent student input about how the course is taught.
Because enhancing overall teaching methods is not the goal of CNDLS, it is not surprising that it has not emphasized the integration of student observations into the process of teaching. Ultimately, the responsibility for this lack of communication rests with the University as a whole.
The current system of assessment of teaching methods—or more accurately, the lack of one—does not help professors either. Georgetown doesn’t have the right mechanisms in place to help tenured professors assess and improve their performance in terms of student opinions. Right now, all they can do is read Ratemyprofessors.com and scrutinize their students’ hastily written end-of-semester evaluations.
Without a more intense commitment to pedagogical improvement, successful teaching methods in some classrooms typically do not spread to others. This semester, one of my professors said team-teaching a course with another professor was a revelation because she, like most professors at Georgetown, largely did not know how other professors teach their courses. Georgetown should encourage more revelatory moments like this one. A new emphasis on how both students and teachers can improve the practice of teaching, rather than the dominant focus on incorporating new technology, could reinvigorate underwhelming classes.
Fortunately for Georgetown students and faculty, many teachers and schools are testing new ideas about engaging students in the teaching process. Recent advances at the K-12 level have begun to extend to the collegiate sphere. Since 2007, the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, published by Georgia Southern University, has been committed to encouraging fresh ideas about how to create optimal teaching situations. One example is Bryn Mawr College’s “Students as Learners and Teachers” program, which pairs student consultants with professors for a semester. The consultants attend the professor’s class and have meetings with the professor weekly to address pedagogical questions that arise. One professor in the program said, “The student successfully identified things that really did need to be improved upon, suggested ways in which they might be improved, and the next time I had a class it was better.” There’s no reason why Georgetown couldn’t establish a similar program through CNDLS.
The bottom line is that there is certainly no one revolutionary method to hang our pedagogical hats on. Some will succeed, some will fail, and I’m certainly not suggesting we completely reinvent how professors teach. But we could always use a little evolution.

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