What Are You Saying?

Dec 15 2010 Published by under colleagues, teaching

One of the great things about academia is its global scope in terms of research and people. At my US university, I work with colleagues, graduate students, postdocs, and undergrads from many different parts of the world, and my work involves travel to international sites for conferences, visits, and research. I value and enjoy this aspect of my job.

As a native English speaker, I have the advantage of being fluent in the language that is used in most international journals and at international conferences. Even for native English-speakers, however, the global scope of research and education makes it very useful to know languages other than English.

In addition to the languages I studied during my school years, I have recently been taking classes and working with a tutor to learn another language, and this has been very helpful in my research and travels. One of my goals is to be able to give a research talk in this language, and, although I am far from being able to give such a talk fluently or well, I have made some progress. These efforts have given me greater sympathy for those who struggle to give talks in English at international conferences.

In the research sphere, I think many of us make an effort to understand each other somehow, even if there are some language barriers. The intersection of people with different speaking and comprehension abilities in different languages is, however, more complex in the teaching sphere, where students and instructors need to understand each other in a very different context.

A well known and much-discussed academic/language issue involves the difficulty some students have with professors and teaching assistants who are not fluent in English or who have such strong accents that they are difficult to understand. This is one important element of this general topic, but today I want to consider a slightly different (but related) issue and a second issue that flips the situation around. That is:

The related issue: Without minimizing some very real problems that do exist when instructors are not easy to understand owing to their language skills or accents, some of my foreign-born colleagues who teach at US universities are frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of some American students when it comes to listening to an instructor with an accent. Even a very fluent English speaker with an accent that does not impede comprehension for most people may be difficult to understand for some students.

Alternatively, some students are inflexible or irascible and refuse to listen to anyone who sounds different from what they are used to. I have some colleagues whose accents I don't even notice (perhaps in part because I am used to talking to them) who get student evaluation comments about their "thick" accents that are difficult to understand.

I don't think this phenomenon is entirely confined to the US. I once listened to a very understandable and interesting talk by a Scottish scientist, only to have some English people in the audience complain that they couldn't understand him. Similarly, I have heard comments from colleagues in various European countries who complain when a compatriot has an accent (in their native language) that is different from their own. And even within the US, there can be impatience by northerners with those who speak with a "thick" Southern accent (for example).

I was once on a committee that looked at the teaching evaluations of faculty in various parts of the university. I was struck by one case in particular in which a professor from another country had very good teaching evaluations, well above the averages for his department, and many positive comments in the written portion of the evaluations. On one of many pages of student comments, I saw that a student had written "Learn English" as a criticism of the professor. I searched through all the other pages, representing >5 years of teaching evaluations, including peer evaluations and student evaluations, and there was not a single other mention of any problem with this professor's English-speaking or listening abilities. This one student, who was clearly unhappy for unknown reasons, took a cheap shot at a foreign-born professor.

Perhaps this student was just being mean or perhaps this student really did have a comprehension problem of some sort. Some students eventually learn to "listen", but others don't.

This leads me to the second issue, brought to my attention by a reader who wonders what he, as a native speaker of English, can do to help his non-native English speaking students who complain that he speaks too fast or speaks in other ways that are difficult to understand. From other information supplied by this reader, who is teaching a rather large Science class, it is clear that the student made no effort to get help and waited until the end of the course to complain, when it was too late to devise strategies to help him.

Of course it's best to know early-on if a student is having such a problem, but lacking such input, are there things we as professors can do? Here are a few suggestions, although I hope that others will chime in with additional ones:

- Announce early in the term that anyone with any problem with comprehension, whether it be related to language, hearing, seeing, or whatever, should contact you, the instructor. You can do some general things to make yourself heard by as many students as possible as well as possible, even in a large class, but you can't help particular students with particular problems unless they communicate with you. Let them know you are open to such communication, but put some of the responsibility on them.

- If you have many students who are not fluent in English, avoid idioms and unusual slang as much as possible.

- Don't talk too fast. This will be helpful for everyone.

- Consider doing a mid-term (or earlier) evaluation. Maybe some students having problems will identify these problems early enough for there to be a solution. There is also the possibility that you will get such a wide range of comments that you can't possibly please everyone, but at least you could discuss the issues with the class and let them know that you are fixing issues that are fixable and have (good?) reasons for not changing other aspects of your teaching.

- Use some form of online teaching system that allows students to help each other via discussion boards, chats, or something like that. Perhaps study groups or other supportive subgroups will develop on their own, especially if the course has a lab, but you might also be able to do some direct or indirect organizing to encourage interaction among students, particularly among diverse groups of students (e.g., those not fluent in English working with those who are).

Maybe technology will solve all of these problems one day.. but in the meantime, we can take some steps to make in-person classroom experiences as comprehensible and interesting for as many students as possible. Even so, there are always going to be some complainers, especially in a large class, and we just have to do what we can: care about the class and its content, but not go insane dealing with the unreasonable.

40 responses so far

Grade Anxiety for Professors

Oct 26 2010 Published by under teaching

A reader wrote to describe how she hates returning exams to students because some students will be getting back exams with low grades, or at least grades that are lower than the student wants. This is stressful for the student, of course, but also for the professor, in this case one who is relatively new to professoring. My correspondent wonders:

Have others felt this way? Does it ever get better?

I definitely feel that way, even now. I guess that means that the feeling may never completely goes away, and that's probably a good thing, even though it is stressful. I wouldn't want to get to a point at which I didn't care that some students were in distress about low grades despite trying hard in the class. Even when I teach a large class and don't know many of the students, I do know some and therefore feel terrible for them when, despite coming to my office hours and sending me questions by email, they get a low grade. It's even harder in a smaller class in which I know all the students.

During my first year as a professor, I felt bad for students who were getting back an exam or problem set with a low grade. I had always done well in classes, and getting a grade lower than B would have devastated me. I tried to smile at these students in what I thought was a sympathetic way, and I encouraged them to come talk to me to get help. To my horror, I got a comment on my teaching evaluations that said "She enjoys failing students. She smiles when handing back exams with low grades." In his or her unhappiness and anxiety, a student interpreted my sympathetic smile for glee. That freaked me out for many years, and for a long time I did what I could to avoid handing anything back directly because there seemed to be no good solution: a smile was bad, lack of expression could be interpreted to indicate that I didn't care, and a frown didn't seem right either.

Should I smile broadly at those who got A's, smile faintly at the B's, have a neutral expression for the C's, and then work my way through various stages of frowns as we descended into the lower grades? It was absurd, but I didn't know what to do.

The good news is that exam-return stress has decreased for me because now I am better at creating exams and I am better at conveying the consistent message that I care about the class and the students.

The times when I still feel bad are when a student who worked hard gets a low grade. In these cases, I may write a note on their exam -- something that is either encouraging or informative or that asks them to talk to me -- and I try to figure out what the problem was. Sometimes I can tell that there was a particular type of problem or a particular concept, and then I can help them with that for the next time. Most of these students know that I am trying to help them, so they don't feel angry at me for their low grades.

I hate giving exams (it is stressful to watch a class full of students taking an exam), I hate collecting the exams (some students won't even look at me), I hate grading (hate hate hate grading), and I hate handing back graded exams. Fortunately this is a small part of the course, and in between, there is a lot to enjoy about interacting with students, talking about interesting Science, and seeing most of the students do well.

Despite my loathing for all things related to exams, which I do have to give in all but a few of my classes, I wouldn't want to eliminate the human dimension of them. There would be some benefits to having students take exams alone with a computer, which graded the exams and gave them their score, but I refuse to give multiple choice exams and it is essential to my teaching that I know exactly how the students are doing in the class on each exam and therefore that I be a part of the exam process.

This term I had a new experience with exam-return. It was actually a quiz, and I was out of town for a few days, so a TA gave the quiz. I like to return quizzes and exams in the very next class if at all humanly possible, so the TA ran the completed quiz pages through a scanner that made a pdf document that was then e-mailed to me. I graded the scanned quizzes while I was out of town, made annotations on each, and returned the quizzes by email to each student. This worked well overall, but it was also kind of strange. When I hand back graded quizzes or exams in class, I typically do it at the end of class, and then students have a few minutes to ask me questions about their grades or my comments or whatever. I have an immediate sense for how the class is feeling about the quiz and if they are any problems or concerns. With the emailed quizzes, I got no information; there were no replies other than a few one word "Thanks" emails. I can't say I missed the stress of handing back quizzes, but I definitely felt more disconnected.

So, reader who sent the original questions, you are not alone, it does get better, but as long as you continue to care about your students, I think there will always be an element of exam-return stress. I hope that your stress will soon change from high levels of dread to a lower level of background concern.

12 responses so far

Don't You Remember?

Oct 21 2010 Published by under teaching

A compilation of several questions from several readers boils down to:

Don't professors remember what it was like to be a student?

That is: Don't professors remember what it was like to learn something for the first time? Don't professors remember what it was like to take a boring class (so why would anyone teach a boring class)? Don't professors remember that exams are stressful (so why would anyone give an exam, especially a stressful exam)? And so on..

Well, I think it's fair to say that we sort of remember and we sort of don't. Is it so different from how parents don't really remember what it was like to be a kid, or even if we do, we have changed our ideas about how adults should think and act?

In a way, it is different because parents are all-powerful and infallible beings, but professors who teach may still be learning how to do so, may be teaching a course for the first time (even if they are "old"), or may be trying out some new material in an old course. We are supposed to try to find inspiring and thoughtful ways to do so, but this isn't easy. It isn't that we've forgotten that we shouldn't be boring and articulate, it's just that teaching requires considerable skills, and some of us possess these skills in less abundance than our students would like, despite good intentions.

But consider this: In some of my classes, students give presentations. I am always very entertained by the fact that the vast majority of students create presentations of the sort that they would definitely hate if they were listening to the presentation rather than giving it. Even if I discuss in advance how to give a good presentation and even if these students know exactly what they like and dislike about presentations to which they have been subjected by professors, most of them will have dense, text-filled slides that they will read, word-for-word to the rest of the class. Most of them will have no clue how to explain a topic that they have researched intensely but about which their audience knows little or nothing. I watch the presenting students glance with annoyance at their fellow students who are sending text messages during their presentations. It is fascinating. We have much to discuss after the first round of presentations in each class, and presentations do start to improve after that (although some never let go of the text-filled, narrated slide mode of presentations).

I see the same thing when graduate students and postdocs give informal presentations in my department. For example, an individual who had mocked a professor who gave a text-slide filled talk just weeks before did the exact same thing in his own talk. Why? Why don't we all learn from what we observe in others? I don't think the main cause is related to age and distance from one's student days. Based on these examples, it seems to be human nature.

Even so, I think there might be an element of age to some of the situations that motivated readers to wonder whether professors remember anything about their academic youth other than their GRE scores. For example, when we teach a class year after year after year, we know exactly what questions students will ask, we know what concepts will be most confusing, and we can work to improve our explanations, examples, and presentations accordingly. Despite this, I have, however, noticed a tendency in myself to forget what exactly students know and don't know about some topics. That is, when you've explained something a billion times, you may start to forget that there are aspects of it that may be completely unfamiliar to students encountering the topic for the first time. Or, if you've spent many many years teaching a particular class, you might get bored with certain topics and decide instead to liven things up by talking about a new (but more complex) topic, skimming over or even skipping some elementary concepts. Each time I (re)teach a course, I have to think very carefully about the basis from which I should explain each important concept, and each time I have to (re)work out the logic of my explanations. Some things about teaching get easier with time, and some things get more difficult.

Not long ago, I spent 3 years working my way through the beginning, intermediate, and advanced undergraduate courses for a particular language that is useful for my research and my international collaborations. If you had asked me before I took these classes whether I remembered what it was like to take an exam, I would have said "Of course, I've taken a gazillion exams." I was very surprised to find, however, that I didn't really remember, at least not in a visceral way. But even though I was a 40-something professor taking a non-degree course pass/fail, I got very stressed out about the exams in those classes (in part because the exams were impossible, but that's another issue). Nevertheless, I know that the exams, and the act of studying for them, helped me learn important things, even though I hated taking these exams with every molecule of my being.

That's why my answer to the basic question is: yes and no. Yes, we remember, but maybe not in a visceral way, and even if we do remember, it doesn't necessarily influence whether we are good teachers or not.

Something that students could do to help us ancient, disconnected professors (and, therefore, help you, our students) is to ask substantive questions that help us figure out what you know and don't know and to give constructive advice (on evaluations, for example) about teaching style. And if that doesn't work, you could scream "You just don't understand!" and stomp out of the room, slamming the door. Maybe that will jog our memories of what it was like to be young.

12 responses so far