Craig Norman/The Gauntlet

Fun and friendly might not mean effective

Find out first-hand what makes a prof a good instructor

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I am surprised by how many times the Safeway checkout cashier notices my university card in my shuffle to get control of the Club Card, AirMiles Card and credit card. Correctly sensing that I am well beyond my formal student days, the cashier will often volunteer what profs were good and which ones were not so good while waiting for the credit transaction to be approved.

Now, I realize there are as many opinions on what makes for good university teaching as there are students and profs. Despite what many students may believe, teaching is taken seriously at this university. One administrator told me when I first arrived on the job that bad teaching is more likely than anything else to ease out a prof at the beginning. Students' evaluations have a significant impact on profs' careers--maybe to get them tenure or promotion, recognition in awards, a better job, annual merit increases and an overall reputation as a scholar. Profs' careers have been made or broken on teaching alone.

Moreover, most profs think of themselves as good teachers so ego is involved in a big way. Teaching reputation is a ready basis for comparison across a department or faculty. That explains why they may be touchy about student evaluations posted on the web. Speaking of which, since it is that season of shopping for courses and instructors, I'd like to share what I think is good teaching. But since profs were all students once and they are subject to the same instincts, first let me try to outline what I believe most students think are elements of good teaching.

Most people like teachers who tell them pretty much what to expect in the course. We don't like nasty surprises to jeopardize our grade point averages. Surprises are stressful. We like to know how hard we have to work in the course and what mark we are likely to get at the end. If a prof does this, we think it is good.

We usually like the prof to make the course easier and more fun than it would be to learn on our own. Otherwise, who needs the prof? Fun includes interesting, varied (including liberal doses of audio-visual technology today) and humorous. Any one of these is good, but more than one makes even better teaching. Actually, being funny and a good performer covers for many pedagogical shortcomings.

My sense is that when many students, me included, rated a prof very high in teaching, they are saying they "like" that prof and the course. It is often no more precise than that. Image and the pleasure principle can trump substance. "Likability" has become synonymous with "effectiveness." Many questions on evaluations essentially ask if the prof was a nice person. If it is not asked, it may be how we interpret the question.

I sometimes envision a scenario where a prof could consistently get rave reviews from students because he or she was likable and entertaining. Yet that imaginary so-called highly effective prof did not leave these students with any current and accurate knowledge in the subject, no intellectual challenge and no lifelong thinking and learning skills. What a waste! It was a semester-long performance that everyone enjoyed but for which students had little to show afterward.

Perhaps students are astute enough to consistently fail that kind of performance-only teaching. But I would be more confident in teaching evaluations if they were completed three to five years after the course was finished when students could gauge the real impact of that teaching.

This is not to say at all that likability should be a mark against a prof. Students and profs alike simply should not let it define teaching effectiveness. In fact, if profs are in the business to facilitate learning, I'd put personal likability low in importance.

Qualities I would rank high in teaching effectiveness include: identifying and maintaining standards of academic attainment, organization of the material into logical sections that build upon each other, modeling integrity and lifelong curiosity, relating the subject to the current life of the learner, invoking applications and examples, challenging students to be intellectually rigorous, encouraging consideration of the "why" of concepts under study, developing new and engaging examination questions each time around, and equipping students to learn after the course is over. These are complex skills that, in my view, only the good profs can claim.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee these qualities of a good prof will be captured in teaching evaluations. Where a class called a prof "good," there is often little way of knowing whether that was due to likability alone or true teaching effectiveness. You will choose according to your own definition of good teaching.

We can continue the discussion at the Safeway checkout. Best wishes this term, in your selection of profs and in your academic adventure!