Blog 70

Teaching Wheels

James Andrew Smith, Lassonde School of Engineering

There are typically two ways to get feedback on teaching: through anonymous student feedback and through your colleagues on the tenure and promotion committee.  But both of these mechanisms are based on faulty assumptions that the feedback will always be objective and fair.  While I’ve seen the positive side of these evaluation systems, I’ve also seen the ugly side — and I’m here to tell you that there is a complementary and perhaps better way to get teaching feedback. York University calls this fabulous volunteer peer feedback system “Teaching Wheels,” and I’ll get back to it in a moment.

The first time I saw how cruel teaching feedback could be was as a student in a lecture hall filled with first year engineering students at the University of Alberta.  Professor Jack handed out the survey forms, then left the room so that we, the students, couldn’t be coerced into writing positive reviews. A few seconds after the door shut, the popular blonde loud mouth in the third row, waving the form in his  hand, yelled out to the rest of us “you’re k-k-k-kidding, right? He can’t even spu-spu-spu-speak right.” The mocking of Prof. Jack’s stutter was bang on and I was horrified.  Professor Jack was a really decent teacher.  He rarely made calculation or conceptual errors in class, his notes were great, he was personable and seemed to genuinely care about teaching.  Was that reflected in the student feedback that day?  Probably not.  I suspect that his stutter featured prominently, though.  He left the University of Alberta a few years later and I can imagine that his teaching evaluations must have played a role.

Three years later I took a class with Professor Daniel, who, coincidentally, also stuttered.  It was his first time teaching. He was sincere, well-meaning, very knowledgeable, and an awful teacher.  Awful.  Like all professors, he had had no formal teacher training and he was winging it from day one.  He knew what the rest of us knew: that the reviews for his very first class were going to stink.

Then, one day, a stranger appeared in the back of the classroom.  He was introduced as a consultant that Dr. Daniel had hired — with his own money — to help him improve his teaching.  The next class, the stranger was back and the class was still bad.  But the next one was better. And the next one, even better.  Then the stranger was gone, but the classes went from strength to strength.  I can’t remember what my final grade was in that class, but Prof. Daniel got a solid A+ for effort and improvement.  I recently looked up Prof. Daniel online and he’s still making a positive impact teaching.

Twenty years after attending those classes, I’m teaching my own classes here at York.  I’ve got about eight years of teaching experience and a couple of teaching awards under my belt.  I consider myself to be a pretty decent teacher.  But this past year my department handed me the biggest class that I’ve ever taught: 460 students. It took my breath away the first day I stood in front of that many eyes staring back at me. So I took a swig of coffee, hit my “lecture auto-pilot” button and hoped for the best.

About halfway through the semester, I realized that the class wasn’t going well.  The 30 kids in the front were too close to me to notice that my auto-pilot had put my lectures into a nosedive but the other 430 students were getting ready to parachute out.  Like those students at the back I could see the ground rushing up and impact was moments away.  I needed help but I didn’t want to reach out to colleagues in my own department because I was afraid of word getting out to my tenure committee.

Luckily, I had signed up a few weeks earlier for the Teaching Wheels program offered by York’s Teaching Commons.  Two professors, one from Nursing and one from Equity Studies,  were set to visit my Engineering classroom. Their visits were, coincidently, only two weeks before my official in-class tenure evaluation.  I hoped that via the Teaching Wheels program that I could get collegial, constructive and actionable feedback so that I could get my class levelled-out and back on course.

 What is it about Teaching Wheels that makes it different from a standard teaching evaluation by students or fellow faculty?  It’s the same thing that motivated Prof. Daniel to hire a teaching consultant to visit his class.  The classroom visitor’s motivation for being there is clear:  it’s to help, not to vent about a poor grade or to sabotage your chance at promotion.  Participants in Teaching Wheels can trust in their peers because we’re all volunteers and, as such, we are only participating because we care about teaching.  There is no power differential between us, no power games, no ulterior motives, no axes to grind.  We acknowledge that we aren’t perfect and commit to listening to the other.   It is truly collegial — we are there, together, to share in the observations and expertise of our colleagues.  Just as I will have someone visit my class, I will visit theirs.  We will discuss our observations, provide suggestions for improvements and maybe even steal a couple of really awesome teaching ideas!

In my case, Dr. Maria Wallis from York’s Department of Equity Studies observed that I was ignoring the back half of my class.  She followed up that observation with the suggestion that I consider the entire classroom “mine” and that I use the entire classroom to teach in.  She convinced me that teaching from the back of the class is just as valid as teaching at the lectern.  Just as important, it was for me to set the tone and atmosphere in the classroom.  But none of that could happen if I stayed glued to the front of the classroom.

Invigorated by these new ideas, I went to the Apple Store the following day, picked-up a wireless trackpad and started using it to control my laptop from the rear of the classroom.  Now, I can click through and annotate PowerPoint slides anywhere in the classroom.  (URL link to paper about this: The kids at the back of the class realized that things were radically different when I sat down beside a student in the rear row and incorporated his World of Warcraft video game into my talk on programming graphics.  From that moment on, the tone in the classroom changed.  Maria was right.  It was about setting a new tone.

Emboldened by the success of the implementation of Marie’s suggestions, I pushed the boundaries further.  When it came time to talk about programming loops I challenged students to a footrace around the classroom – and lost.  The students loved it.  I was longer trapped by the “sage on stage” teaching paradigm, but I needed confirmation, permission and encouragement to figure that out.  The Teaching Wheels program and the feedback from Professor Wallis and others was key to that.

 When the tenure committee observer came to my class, the atmosphere was different.  I was more engaged. The students were more engaged. I’m sure that the tenure evaluation is going to reflect that. I’ve since done another round of Teaching Wheels observations and plan to do it again.  Come to my class and I’ll go to yours.  We’ll then go for coffee and share some great ideas about teaching.

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Comment on “Blog 70

  1. This is excellent – the content, its honesty, and the message that every singly teacher, however awesome, will continue to be good only if he constantly learns about teaching and opens his door to just-in-time constructive criticism.

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