Perceptions of Teaching and Teachers

Perceptions of Teaching and Teachers

By: Heather Kretschmer

Imagine we lived in a parallel universe where the conditions on Mars allowed life to emerge and flourish. Suspend reality for a moment to travel with me to this alternate reality . . . 

Both Earth and Mars boast intelligent species who have begun to visit each other’s planets. As a native Earthling, you are lucky enough to have been selected to participate in one of the first Martian-Earth exchange programs. For human participants, part of the exchange involves a week-long Martian language crash course in which a Martian instructor teams up with a human instructor.

On the first day, the young human instructor welcomes you and the other participants warmly in her melodious voice. As she interacts with the class, she smiles, makes eye contact, and moves fluidly around the room. You feel comfortable in her presence and ready to learn. Then, the odd-looking Martian instructor abruptly jolts out of its seat and spews forth a torrent of Martian. It speaks with a harsh, staccato voice, makes erratic movements, and never blinks. You find its mannerisms off-putting and distracting.

In the following days, your Martian instructor explains the grammar and vocabulary with thorough precision and demonstrates perfect pronunciation. In contrast, the human instructor only has a very rudimentary knowledge of Martian, makes egregious errors, and sometimes even gives you and your classmates wrong information.

At the end of the crash course, you and the other participants fill out a course evaluation form commonly administered in educational settings on Earth. You quickly work through a series of Likert scale questions and respond to one open-ended question. While you give the human instructor high marks for communication, teaching method, and language competency, you award the Martian teacher low marks in all of those categories. Overall, you would recommend the human instructor to other students, but you most assuredly would not recommend the Martian instructor.

A person in a metallic silver astronaut suit stands with their hands on their hips in a red, presumably martian desert.
photo by RDNE Stock project from Pexels

Sound far-fetched?

Not really in terms of student tendencies when evaluating instructors. The snap judgments students form of an instructor—based on the instructor’s appearance and mannerisms on the first day of class—can be reinforced throughout the course and influence students’ responses on course evaluations. As Merritt (2007) notes, “Enthusiastic gestures and vocal tones can mask gobbledygook, smiles count more than sample exam questions, and impressions formed in thirty seconds accurately foretell end-of-semester evaluations” (p. 18). Human bias is the culprit here. And unfortunately, bias isn’t the only factor in play.

A whole host of variables can influence student evaluation. They include:

    • The time in the semester when the evaluation is conducted
    • Percentage of students in a class who fill out the evaluation questionnaire
    • Types of questions being asked and how students interpret the questions
    • Emotions students are experiencing when completing questionnaires
    • The way the instructor handles the evaluation process
    • The ways the results of course evalua-tions are used

Our Main and More podcast episodes provide a bird’s eye view of the course evaluation landscape in higher education in the USA. In the Main episode, Betsy Barre gives listeners a good overview of the complexity of course evaluations and then comments, “a lot depends on why you’re using these instruments on your campus. What are you trying to actually measure with these instruments?” This is a central question. Some common uses for course evaluations are monitoring student satisfaction, reviewing teacher performance, developing the curriculum, and supporting teachers in their professional growth. Since course evaluations serve a crucial purpose, stakeholders at institutions are keenly interested in improving them to ensure they measure what they are intended to measure.

In the More episode, Beate Brunow from Penn State and Shawn Simonson from Boise State University discuss extensive, ongoing changes their institutions have made in the teacher evaluation process. Both universities recently developed teaching evaluation frameworks. The framework at Brunow’s institution, which is very similar to the framework at Simonson’s university, examines the following elements of teaching: effective course design, effective instruction, inclusive and ethical pedagogy, and reflective and evolving practice. Simonson remarked that his institution wanted a more equitable evaluation process as “faculty were being harmed by the use of this biased student evaluation of teaching,” and, additionally, excellent teaching wasn’t acknowledged. At his institution, instruction is now viewed from the student perspective, peer perspective, and instructor’s perspective. Along the same lines, Brunow noted that her university aims to reduce bias by using multiple sources of information to evaluate teaching: student feedback, peer review, and self-reflection. 

In this issue, Christine Winskowski and Curtis Kelly delve into the problems with course evaluations. Both authors provide language teachers with specific, actionable ways of managing the course evaluation process. They make a compelling case for designing and administering course-specific surveys.

And we need to remember that evaluating teachers can take many forms, including informal snap judgments in our brain. It’s easy to stereotype teachers based on their race, age, gender, nationality, etc. Focusing primarily on young teachers, Jana Kamenická reminds us to look beyond age and teaching experience to value the strengths young teachers bring to the classroom.

A woman in a silvery astronaut suit stands with legs spread apart over uneven, martian terrain.
photo by RDNE Stock project from Pexels

Whenever we’re evaluating teaching and learning, no matter what our role is—whether as students, as peers, as superiors, or as teachers—we need to be mindful of the purpose of the evaluation and any factors affecting its outcome. Factors include students’ anticipation of their grades, their interpretation of questions on the survey, their learning experience, and of course, their perceptions of their instructor. Now granted, none of us will ever take a language class with a Martian instructor. Nor will we work with a Martian colleague. And certainly, our teaching won’t be evaluated by Martian students. Yet, we might feel as though we’re Martian instructors if we teach abroad. Or if we sense our students don’t like the way we’ve facilitated their learning. Or when we get a nasty surprise after receiving the results from course evaluations. Read on to discover how you can bridge the gap between you and your students to make the course evaluation process a valuable and more equitable endeavor for all stakeholders.

Reference

Heather Kretschmer teaches English at the University of Göttingen in Germany. She dreams of learning Martian in a parallel universe.

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