Excellent teaching?

Next month, a fairly new event in the British academic season opens: the National Student Survey.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a survey and letting students, sorry, “customers of higher education”, have their say. The problems arise in the use to which the results are put. This new survey has quickly found its way into league tables of universities published in the press. As a result, university administrators have become convinced that their goal is to improve the performance of their institutions in the survey. The problem is that they cannot dictate to the students what they should say, so all they can try to do is increase participation and engender a warm cuddly feeling.

(Please add your comments about what you think the purpose of a university is. I’ll probably get on to this topic one of these days.)

The first strategy is a recipe for disaster. If not many students from our department take part, we are in trouble over low participation rates. So we try to get them to do so, by a combination of positive and negative bribery (positive: entry in a prize draw; negative: “Your degree will be devalued if we don’t do well in the league tables”). Inevitably, it is the students who feel they have a grievance who are most likely to take part, so our satisfaction score goes down as our participation rate rises, and we are in trouble again.

The second aspect, the desire to give the students a warm feeling about us, led to something I never thought I’d see, which deeply shocked me. This week, our Director of Undergraduate Studies told us that we should not teach too well (or too badly): if we do, then students will notice the gap between the best and the worst teachers and this will cause feelings of dissatisfaction. We should all aim to be equally mediocre. I think he was looking at me when he said this, since I won a teaching award a few years ago. I alluded to this in a previous post, but now I think the time has come to tell the story. (I will have to suspend my natural modesty to do so, if I can.)

As I explained in the earlier post, I was nominated for a Drapers Company teaching prize by some of the students. I received an email from someone in registry, quoting what the students said about my teaching, for example

Professor Peter Cameron is a truly inspirational figure among both the students and faculty staff. He is not only always willing to answer any queries, but he can do so in many ways with equal enthusiasm until the student is left satisfied. His love of his mathematics is infectious and mixed with his benevolent composure makes him the perfect candidate to win this prize.

The letter invited me to submit a “teaching statement” and CV.

After some deliberation I decided to give it a go. I don’t suppose anyone now wants to read my teaching statement, but I will summarise it; these are things I do feel strongly about.

I was invited to discuss my “innovations” in teaching. I explained that the most important of these was to write everything on a blackboard with a piece of chalk. This has several advantages: it slows me down to a rate that the students can follow (unlike OHP or data projector which encourage you to go much too fast); it enables the students to take complete notes which should make sense on re-reading; and it lets me change the flow of the lecture in mid-stream if I see that the students are not following, or if questions lead us in a different direction.

At the same time, I use modern technology by putting good notes on the web after the lecture, so students get a second chance to see what they maybe didn’t catch first time around. I make these notes as good as I can, and keep them on the web even after I stop teaching the course. I know that people all over the world use them.

Another thing I do which is very popular is to have a liberal policy towards students who come to my office to ask questions. Before my present position, I was an Oxford tutor for eleven years; this meant that I had to acquire a very good knowledge of a wide range of mathematics. Students learn that I may be able to help them on many of their courses, from analysis to statistics, even if I am not teaching these courses. They really appreciate this, and the nominations referred to this. I think it was what our DUGS was specifically condemning last Monday.

And here, gratis, is a blast against those people who think that teaching and research are mutually exclusive, and we should specialise in one or the other. The breadth of view I gained teaching in Oxford has been very important in making me the kind of researcher I am, one who takes more pleasure in making unexpected connections than in digging deep. The citation data on my papers “demonstrate” (so far as such data can show anything) that those which make connections are the most important.

I also put in something about course design. Two recent courses I have designed are Cryptography (a popular topic, and something students like to have on their CVs), and first-year Introduction to Algebra(something of a challenge for me since some of my colleagues didn’t think you could teach abstract algebra to first-year students any more – well, you can, and they will rise to the challenge of learning it, I am glad to report.)

Anyway, the administrative wheels ground on, and they decided to award me the prize.

It was presented at the graduation ceremony that year. We have several ceremonies since the Great Hall is not great enough to hold all our graduands. I got the prize at the Mathematics students’ graduation. The vice-principal for our sector read the citation, and the vice-principal for teaching and learning (who was presiding in the principal’s absence) presented me with the certificate.

And then an extraordinary and moving thing happened. The graduating mathematics students rose to their feet and gave me a standing ovation. I have never had an experience like it. The presiding vice-principal had never seen anything like it either; this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the formal surroudings of a degree ceremony! It pleased me partly because I knew she had read my submission, and I thought that a valuable message about what constitutes good teaching in mathematics might have been sent.

It is a cliché, but no less true for that, that a good teacher can have a big effect on your life; I know this from my own experience. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than to have such an effect on one of my students. The NSS notwithstanding, mediocre teaching is not likely to have this inspirational effect. So I will ignore that particular bit of stupidity and continue to do the best I can.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Excellent teaching?

  1. A curious thing has happened.

    On the table by the mail pigeonholes in our common room is a parcel, addressed to “An excited maths teacher” at an East London school. It has been returned with a Post Office sticker saying “Return to sender: Addressee has left”.

  2. Codazzi T says:

    I found particularly amusing the anecdote above on the Director of Undergraduate Studies’ proposed fix for students’ perception of lecturing standards across the department but it immediately brought to mind another incident that can be classified in the same genre. I should say that for several years the Mathematics department at QMUL hasn’t been faring too well in the NSS over the whole issue of “feedback” but does rather well indeed otherwise. The problem is, or at least according to our Director, that students do not actually know what feedback is! This of course is now fully remedied by the following online document http://www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/undergraduate/feedback which cites the highly authoritative wiktionary definition for feedback. So, there it is: “Critical assessment on information produced.” Lecturers were instructed to employ the term “feedback” in all their dealings with students. For example, as student X leaves your office after seeking help on some coursework question, one must not fail to say “I hope that feedback was helpful to you” or if student Y were to greet you in the corridor and ask how you are, one must try to reply “Not too bad. There’s a piece of feedback for you” or, if X=Y, “There’s another piece of feedback for you.” Ram the word feedback down their throats, give them consistently mediocre teaching, and the ratings will soar sky high. Wisdom at its best, right!?!

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