Stagnation

- - posted in teaching

I have a friend who is an amazing teacher. His students rave about his classes, and when I first started teaching statistical methods, he gave me terrific advice, nearly all of which I’ve followed. A few weeks ago I ran into him at a work dinner, and he said something that shocked me: He doesn’t read his course evaluations anymore.

Personally, I find a ton of value in my course evaluations. I try new things in my classes every year, and it’s critical to get feedback on them. These evals are how I find out what the quiet students in the back are thinking. Students have wonderful creative ideas and they often point out low hanging fruit: things I can easily change to make the class better for almost everyone.

So I probed and my friend had some seemingly very reasonable answers. He said he’d been teaching the same course for a while and he liked it the way it was. He said at this point, he’s heard all their ideas. And he said he got tired of reading the inevitable random insults that some students like to anonymously contribute.

I still don’t like it. I think my friend has stagnated. I’m sure his class is still very good, but if a class isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. Students can tell when their instructor isn’t totally present and excited. I also think excellent teachers are a precious resource. They should be constantly pushing and creating new things with an open mind.

If you find yourself on autopilot teaching a course, I think you have two morally justified choices. First, you can change it up. Add a group project. Flip the class. Incorporate clickers. Replace a chunk of the material with a topic you are currently excited about. Just do something that could potentially improve the class. Second, you can pass the reins over to someone else and do something new.

Teaching is a creative process, and if you’re not creating, you’re doing it wrong.

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