Monday, July 28, 2014

Feedback that matters

Last year I promised myself I would not subject myself to reading the consumer surveys that have replaced student evaluations. As I have said in previous blog entries, they rarely offer much worth knowing at the same time they actively encourage consumer attitudes and behaviors. “What did you like best?” is an appropriate question at Baskin-Robbins with its multitude of flavors. It’s acontextual at best and irrelevant at worst in an educational setting and produces responses with very little insight.

But consumer surveys are the common practice of former universities which have largely surrendered their role as institutions of "higher learning," to quote Thorsten Veblen. They have sold their souls to the business quadrant Talcott Parsons described nearly a century ago which, as Juergen Habermas accurately predicted four decades ago, has now almost completely colonized the lifeworld.

Given that reality, those of us who now facilitate credit attainment at these working credential factories that have replaced universities have little choice but to read these surveys and take them seriously simply because our management, with control over our paychecks and work assignments, does, even as we learn little of value from them.

Violating the Prime Directive

The results of my latest round of surveys were predictable: there is too much work, the grading is too tough, the comments are too harsh. The rather mindless mantra of educational technocrats today is that patterns of comments must be taken seriously because they somehow offer important insights simply because they are repeated. But patterns of whining remain whining. In years past they were seen as predictable responses from adolescents working on maturing into adults. In today’s corporate university we treat them as divine revelation.

Of course, such comments are predictable when one sees themselves as consumers. The prime directive of the corporate university is to meet consumer demands while churning out credentialed workers. The ultimate values of consumerism are convenience and comfort, getting the most bang for one’s buck. The presumption is that when one pays tuition, that somehow entitles them to dictate the terms of the course – content, pedagogy, feedback and grading.

Those values are well illustrated by one of the comments from my Christianity class survey (in which only ¼ of the students actually bothered to respond): “Structure it like a normal course. The workload and the strict timeline with no lenience defeats the purpose of an online class.”  Clearly “the purpose of an online class” is to insure that the consumer must be assigned very little work that they can complete whenever they wish.

That’s hardly surprising given the context in which this same consumer took this course: “I did well in the course but it poorly affected my other responsibilities.” Translation: This course was an afterthought. I took it for credit toward graduation but it was always a lower priority than anything else in my life.

Real classes which actually assign work, require meeting deadlines and hold students accountable for their performance (or lack thereof) violate the ultimate values of consumerism: convenience and comfort.  In the American religion of narcissistic consumerism, classes like mine amount to blasphemy.  

Taking Us Seriously

I was particularly struck by this comment from the same class: “[T]he teacher has made it clear in his blog that he does not care about feedback from students and that these evaluations will not change the way he teaches.”  Of course, I am pleased that a student would actually take the time to read my blog even if they misinterpret what I have to say here. This response should evidence the fact that I do read student responses and take them as seriously as the circumstances permit. And while I’d guess that she won’t be back to read this reply, nonetheless, I’d like to clarify this misunderstanding.

As a veteran teacher of nearly 30 years at the college level, I have always valued the feedback of my students. I ask for it on a regular basis in the assignments in the class. I read all the discussion posts and written assignments I make and usually offer responsive comments to them. I maintain virtual office hours nightly in my online classes and in-person office hours for my face-to-face classes. I repeatedly encourage students to ask their questions even as I am prone to point out to a number of the online students that the questions they pose actually reveal the fact that they are not living into their part of the bargain by reading the course site documents which have already answered those questions.

I strongly agree with this critic that “a good teacher…would learn as much from his students as his students learn from him” though she reveals her ultimate concern here when she adds “A good teacher is constantly looking for ways to improve his teaching methods so that students will feel good about learning.” One must never lose sight of the ultimate consumer values: comfort and convenience.

The reality is that when those who take these classes enter them with the presumption that they are students with obligations to the learning process as well as their fellow members of the learning community, they often do have much of value to offer a good teacher. When they enter with the presumption that they are consumers entitled to dictate the terms of engagement, they have little to say worth hearing.

A good teacher is concerned about workload but does not think that the Carnegie Unit rule of two hours of prep for one hour of class is excessive regardless of how much time a student wants to devote to it. A good teacher knows that posing questions that stretch students’ preexisting understandings outside their comfort zones is not sadistic, it’s called creating the teachable moment. A good teacher understands that drawing a bead on misconceptions and prejudices is not a lack of respect for the student’s right to form opinions and express them, it’s taking that right and the responsibilities that flow from it –not to mention one’s role as teacher - very seriously.

A Text Without a Context….

In all of my courses I have sought to engage students in a critical process of learning. That historically has begun with a hermeneutical lens assignment to help students recognize what they bring to the learning process. The most common comment I get on that exercise is simply “I’d never thought about this before.”

At the other end of my courses, I have historically used a Student Self-Evaluation of Engagement instrument I designed myself. It requires students to reflect upon their own preparation, presence, engagement, consideration of others and honesty in the course. It provides students an opportunity to grade themselves on a standard numerical scale (5 = excellent, 0 = awful) but more importantly asks students to explain their responses in each of the categories and then to tell me if the grade those numbers add up to truly reflects their performance in the class and why or why not.

In years past when teachers passed out Xeroxed surveys and bubble sheets in class for students to evaluate faculty, I gave students this self-evaluation prior to their evaluating me. The point of this procedure was to contextualize the ensuing student evaluation of the instructor. A basic consideration in contracts law is that before one can evaluate the performance of another in a contract, one must first assess one’s own performance. Failure to perform one’s own part of the bargain is always a defense in any action against the other party.

Dirty Data Done Dirt Cheap

With the advent of computerized Student Perceptions of Instruction, a number of changes occurred. First, most students stopped participating. In years past, many students came to the final class to be able to participate in these evaluations and participation rates ranged from 75-95% of students still attending class.  In my most recent set of evaluations, I had one class in which exactly 50% of the students participated. In the remaining classes the rates ranged from 20 – 35%.

Were this a random survey, such results might be sufficient to provide an ideal type of teacher performance. But the respondents here are self-selected, some with axes to grind. Students who have long since stopped attending class or coming to the website knowing they’re failing still have an opportunity to offer feedback on a class they haven’t engaged. Survey sites open a good three weeks before classes even end so the entire course may not be evaluated. And in the end, the majority of students are not heard from at all by their own decision to opt out.

So, while this procedure clearly produces data, what does the data really tell us that is reliable, i.e., that is worth knowing? And so, student critic, how seriously should an instructor take such “feedback?”  

Baskin-Robins Comes to Town

A second change that has occurred is a decided turn towards consumerism in the content and tenor of the questions. When students are asked about text book selection, assignments, assessments and presentation of the course content, they are being asked questions of pedagogy. This is a skill for which virtually none of them have any experience upon which to draw as a well-timed question would immediately reveal: “Upon what basis do you offer these comments?”

Worse yet, the tenor of their responses is set by the few open-ended questions posed: What did you like best about the course and how the instructor taught it? Does that mean that a course students like is necessarily a good course? Does it mean that teaching and learning occurred? How so? Does it mean that if students didn’t like the course, it was necessarily not a good course? That teaching and learning did not occur? Because?

And which of the 39 flavors at Baskin-Robin today did you like the best, sir?

Without any kind of contextualization, the comments that result from such consumerist questions are largely irrelevant to serious pedagogical decision making. And this is the crying shame of this shift from evaluations that bore some semblance of useful feedback for instructors to computerized consumer surveys that tell them very little worth knowing. Without context, these responses cannot be taken seriously by anyone seeking to actually teach a course to students actually intent on learning.

When we ask students about the textbook, the obvious follow up questions should  simply be “What criteria should be used to select the course textbook?” When we ask them about workload, the obvious next question should be “So, how much work is reasonable? And how did you arrive at that figure?” When we ask them about the quality of a teacher’s performance in a class, some obvious questions should immediately ensue: What is your criteria for assessing an instructor’s performance? Upon what basis did you formulate that criteria? What was your own performance in the class? How did it affect your perception of the instructor’s performance?

These are questions students are actually capable of answering and providing feedback that could be taken seriously. But in a consumer-driven technocratic process, they will never be asked such things even as instructors will be coerced into taking the meaningless data the current surveys produce seriously. And this is the saddest part of this story.

Heeding the News

As I poured out my heart the other night to a dear friend who has worked for years as an adjunct, my friend was very matter of fact: “Look, Harry, it’s just a job. And if they make it impossible to do the job you are capable of doing and think you should be doing, give them what they want. Ultimately it’s all they deserve.” It was painful to hear that advice. But I recognize the grim truth in it. And I think I’m going to heed that news.

If instructors are going to be penalized when consumers do not get what they want, as now happened with me several times, the only rational response contingent workers like myself can make is to take seriously the demands of those consumers. If they think there’s too much work, cut the work load. If they think the quizzes that don’t give them time to go look up the answers in the reading they haven ‘t actually done are unfair, give them more time. Let them cheat with abandon. If they don’t like your feedback on their writing assignments, simply don’t assign any whenever possible. And if they are unhappy about their grades, make sure everyone gets a good one if humanly possible. Remember, this is the generation in which everyone gets a trophy.

The customer may not always be right, but they’re always the customer.

A Quaint Notion Dies

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported a speech by the head of TargetX, a Customer Relationship Management firm, to a gathering of college admissions officers. The article began by warning “Squeamish romantics found of quaint words like ‘learning’ be warned.”  He went on to say that “institutions must think more like businesses, with customers to please, customer-service to enhance.”

Clearly, my experience is hardly confined to the local Factory where I toil. It is the new reality of what used to be called higher education. And those of us “romantics” who still cling to hopes of actually teaching people actually interested in that quaint process of learning will eventually be swept away by this new tidal wave. Indeed, as the retirement counselor I spoke with recently revealed, the only reason more folks my age aren’t yet talking about retirement is simply because they can’t pay for their medical insurance on the meager pensions the state of Florida is going to give them.

Socrates wept. 

As we were leaving the other night, my friend reminded me, “If this is going to be a meaningless process anyway, why fight it?”

Why, indeed.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Anonymous said...

Dr. Coverston,

I am one of those former students who regularly reads your posts here. I shudder at your characterization of the university-as-factory; I shudder not because it is false but because it is true. Unequivocally, terrifyingly true. Increasingly, I fear that the essential purpose of liberal arts education--that is, the cultivation of young minds and guiding them toward the contemplation of the good in all its forms--has finally withered away as a consequence of the corporate mentality run amok. These are dark times indeed.

Anonymous said...

You were wrong, the student critic has returned to read your blog. I'm glad that you were able to identify me. I wrote that because I wanted an answer as to why you taught the way you did and I knew you would respond here. I understand that your method of teaching is very skilled already, I could see it in the results in myself.

I do not believe that you are a terrible teacher; the workload for your class is realistic, the readings are realistic, the teaching was realistic. I asked for work by enrolling in any class that semester. I read, in your blog, the opportunities you took to learn more about teaching online classes, so I knew that learning to teach was covered by you already.

Not every student learns the same way, though. There are diverse personalities: some are weak, others are not. Those who are new to a university are probably weak, especially in this era. By saying that students want to feel "good" about learning I did not mean that it should not be difficult. I meant that they should want to learn because it makes them happy to be less ignorant; and you, as a teacher, have the responsibility of making learning an enjoyable experience that they want to repeat, even if it is a difficult process for the students (like the "teachable moment").

Maybe I would have been able to see the passion in your eyes if I were to take an on-campus class. My question is: what good is going to school if it is going to be a torturous event? I want to learn, very much so. It is one thing to be lazy and another to be unmotivated because the teaching is pessimistic. The first extra credit assignment in your humanities class was 19 pages of "Why students fail online classes." I just so happened to be failing because I could not afford your textbook. Why not post an article on "How to pass an online class"? I would have definitely read and learned from that one.

Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot in your classes, most importantly, how to be responsible and to think for myself. Although, there are moments when I realize that my own thoughts are not actually my own, I would never be able to identify that if it were not for you. You are right, education has transformed into a business, but your hatred towards that fact, I believe, was very much reflected in your class. I admit, if I were in your position, I'd suck; no doubt. So maybe I should just shut my mouth and let you keep working in peace. This student critic thanks you for taking time to respond to her comment. I can now move on and learn to change myself into the student that you want to see more of. God bless you always, Professor.