Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.
Question: “A junior colleague asked me to sit in his class and offer feedback on his teaching. I’m happy to help, but I’m never sure how to be helpful in this way. During the class, I don’t know what to pay attention to or focus on, and afterwards I never know what to say other than generalities like ‘try to encourage more participation.’ Worst of all: I’m always afraid that harsh criticisms will be more harmful than good. What should I do? What are good strategies for helping my friends and colleagues teach?”
The philosophy department at California State University, Sacramento, has a robust teaching evaluation program. Russell DiSilvestro, the department’s chair, describes the department’s program as the best approach he has ever seen.
Here’s what department member G. Randolph Mayes has to say in response to the question:
I think the concern about harsh criticism is understandable because it is a more of an environmental issue. We’ve approached that by adopting a strong stance against inflationary evaluations and a departmental ethos in which everyone is expected to seek out and respond favorably to such criticism, which isn’t easy to do. On our webiste, here, we have our standard template for doing faculty visitations (click on ‘Visitation Forms’)… You’ll notice that a lot of the questions aren’t particularly about classroom performance, but basic course design.
More generally, I think it is just important for teachers to start becoming educated about what works and what does not. This just isn’t a matter of speculation or anecdote anymore. Empirical learning science has been around for a very long time and there are many robust results, well-summarized in books like Make it Stick by Peter Brown, et al, and How We Learn by Benedict Carey. This is accessibly summarized in Morrison’s article, “Make Teaching ‘Stick’ with Ideas from ‘Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.’” Lots of these things have application in the traditional lecture classroom, but lots more are about how to effectively depart from it.
Here are some of the items contained within Sacramento State’s philosophy department’s visitation questionnaire:
Syllabus and requirements:
- Are the syllabus and the work schedule for this class clear?
- Are the course requirements clear?
- Are the assessment methods appropriate and transparent?
- Does adequate assessment occur within the first three weeks of instruction?
- Are the readings and other course material appropriate?
- Are the requirements and assessment tools adequate to a course of this type?
- How can the basic design of this course be improved?
- Punctuality of instructor
- Presence or absence of distractions or distracting behaviors in students or instructor
- General level of readiness and attentiveness in students or instructor
Quality of presentation:
- Was the presentation clear, interesting, well-structured and appropriate to the level of the class?
- Were there any notable omissions, errors, misrepresentations or over-simplifications in the presentation of the topic?
- Was the technology employed competently?
- Did the instructor skillfully cultivate student interest in the subject?
- Was the presentation especially creative in any way?
- Was the instructor attentive to the general level of student comprehension?
- Were any student comprehension assessment methods employed during class?
- Were students clearly held responsible for reading or other preparation?
- Did the instructor deal helpfully and effectively with student questions?
- Was the time used completely and efficiently?
- Did the instructor treat the students with respect?
- Did the students treat the instructor with respect?
- Was the social atmosphere in the course generally positive?
- “Peer observation of teaching in university departments: a framework for implementation,” Maureen Bell
- “Overcoming Some Threshold Concepts in Scholarly Teaching,” Sarah L. Bunnell and Daniel J. Bernstein
- “Teaching as community property: Putting an end to pedagogical solitude,” Lee S. Shulman
Can you also help answer this question? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.