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Bad News in the Service of Good Teaching: Students Remember Ineffective Professors
by Barbara Harrel Carson, Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 10(1)91-105,1999.
Collectively and individually we have asked ourselves-What makes a good teacher? In a unique article, Barbara H. Carson has attempted to answer this question by delving into the flip side of the coin: What are the characteristics of an ineffective teacher?
Carson surveyed alumni of a four year liberal arts college who had graduated in even numbered years over a 26 year period. Instead of conducting a summative evaluation, she asked the alumni to respond in narrative format "to think back to professors, both in their majors and in other courses, whom they regarded as highly effective teachers-and then to recall those they remembered as less than effective. In both cases, I asked the graduates to describe as fully as possible specific incidents or other details (from inside the classroom of outside) contributing to their evaluation of the teacher as highly effective or ineffective." The responses represent assessments retold after a span of 8-25 years after graduation. Although the response rate to the request for information was less than 10% (222 returns from 2825 former students), it becomes obvious that what we do in the classroom and how we do it can have a long lasting effect on the student.
Numerous studies cited in the article define qualities and pedagogical characteristics that are considered hallmarks of good teaching. Carson's investigation corroborates these desirable characteristics of the effective teacher. "Outstanding teachers love to teach; they respect and like students; and they are committed to and skilled at connecting the two things they care deeply about "their subject matter and their students." Carson uses examples of the responses she received that describe ineffective professors, behaviors, and teaching methods as a mirror to "help us identify ineffective teaching...Even more important, though, is what these stories can do for those of us who consider ourselves to be good teachers?by drawing our attention to personal weaknesses that may stand in the way of our helping our students as much as we might."
Alumni reported three main characteristics of ineffective professors:
Examples and anecdotes of pedagogical behavior are presented for each of these three qualities reported by the students, e.g., absence of energy, enthusiasm and inspiration; lack of attention to method of presentation; low standards for self and for students; greater concern for subject than for students? learning; lack of organization; failure to connect abstraction and theory to practice and life; lack of concern and respect for the student; lack of interest in students as individuals; use of fear, embarrassment, belittlement as motivators; unclear, unreasonable, arbitrary grading systems; favoritism. The case is not made that "popular" teachers are "effective or good" teachers. "Contrary to those who argue that what is most important to learning is content and that the exciting professor is merely an entertainer pandering to students' desires for fun, the graduates' responses make clear their belief that the exciting classroom is also the one where the most learning is likely to take place."
We have all received student comments on evaluations that make us wonder if that particular student came to class, did the work, or was enrolled in the right class. Negative comments and negative evaluations are frequently brushed aside as meaningless because they represent only one student's opinion. But, for whatever reason, it's a comment from a student where you failed to connect that student with the material. What did you do in the classroom, either effectively or ineffectively, that changed that student's life? Carson's investigation points to the fact that the teaching we do has an impact on each student. Because we teach in a professional curriculum, we should not come to believe that the effect of our pedagogy is any less on the highly directed veterinary student than that on a less focused undergraduate student. Carson concludes: "Above all, what I believe these narratives teach us is that students, in spite of all their apparent detachment, want us to share with them our love of our fields, that they are hungry for intellectual passion, and that they are most likely to become engaged in that passion under the guidance of people whom they care about and who, they believe, care about them."