Reflections on Winning a Teaching Award

As you already know if you’ve ever gotten a 4.48 on the end-of-semester Q evaluations, 4.5 can feel like an arbitrary cut-off. It’s a score high enough to win you a teaching award from the Bok Center (thanks, Bok Center!), but also feels like the proverbial A-/B+. How do I interpret this?

One problem is that my score might have more to do with a student’s final grade than with my teaching. A common assumption about student evaluations is that students give higher scores when they get better grades. If true, this might explain why humanities courses generally get higher Q scores than science courses. It also stands to reason: students angry about low grades are more likely to trash the people they see as responsible, their teachers, as this student comment shows:

Fantastic teacher; extremely harsh grader. The overall grade reflects an average between a 6 (!) for pedagogy and a 1.5 for fairness in grades.

I had 33 students the semester I received this bit of feedback on the Q. I gave 10 A-range grades, 14 B-range grades, and 9 C+, C, and D+ grades. (Now that I think about it, maybe I’m not such a good teacher . . .) My overall Q score? A 4.5, high enough to win me an award, and clearly not correlated with students’ final grades.

So was the above student just a disgruntled anomaly? Not really: many other students’ comments echoed the same sentiment. I’m a tough grader (jury’s still out on the “fairness” thing) but I’m available to help students outside of class.

Together, all of the qualitative feedback that accompanied the numbers has taught me something.  Many of the students noted that I made sure they knew that I cared about their well-being in success in the course – success I explicitly defined not as an A grade, but as proof of their learning. Here’s an example:

… This course would not have been nearly as enjoyable or productive if it hadn’t been for Louis, whose weekly sections provided the essential glue that made the course hang together. Louis was thorough and exhaustive in the material he covered in section each week, and this was thanks to his clear pedagogical philosophy–a combination of sing-along technique, group discussion, and guided questions that provided the focus for each section. …  He was dead-on in focusing on effective, critical listening skills in section, which prepared us for the persnickety types of questions encountered on the exam. … He was accessible both in person and by email, and his commitment to teaching made me feel valued as a student.

This comment makes me think that one can grade rigorously (even harshly) as long as students know that you’re doing it not because you are vindictive but because you value your students’ learning enough to hold them to a high standard. More than any 4.5 score on the Q evaluations, comments like these give me the resolve to continue to improve my teaching – I’m not going to give everyone higher grades, but I am going to work harder to make sure that every single student understands why I grade the way I do.

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