Tag Archives: Humility

Adventures in Being a Complete Novice

Yesterday I failed miserably. I was frustrated, a tiny bit embarrassed, and delighted. I was delighted because one of my personal goals for my sabbatical is to learn something completely new from scratch. I want to feel like a complete novice, so I can improve my empathy for what my students may be going through when they join my class. The phenomenon called the hindsight bias or curse of knowledge basically means that once we know something it’s really difficult to imagine what it’s like to not know that thing. Imagine not knowing what the traffic lights or temperature mean. Imagine not knowing how to decode what these letters that form this sentence mean. Weird, eh? The challenge is, it’s my job as a teacher to imagine what it’s like to not know about psychology (or some aspect of it), and then try to teach that topic to people who actually do not know (as much) about it. What makes this action trickier is that the longer I do my job, the more I know about psychology, which makes it harder and harder to imagine what it’s like to be in my students’ chairs. I try to get around this challenge in a few ways, including talking with my students about their thoughts. But let’s be honest: it’s been a while since I’ve had a pure experience of complete and utter lack of understanding.

Enter: Pottery class.

Yesterday morning I wandered down to a studio I’ve passed a million times but never entered. I was excited to embark on a new learning adventure! I was going to create something! It might not be beautiful, but I could create! I was the second person to arrive, out of a class of 10. I met my teacher, she used our names to introduce us to each other. I felt welcome. Someone said she had done this before and I didn’t think much of it until later. (For the record, my only foray into art was a single class in high school that was half history, and included zero pottery.) The teacher showed us around the facility. I was trying to absorb all the information. The keywords I remember, in no particular order, include: kiln, bisque firing (as opposed to another kind of firing I forget), plug, glaze, members only shelf, don’t touch, student shelf, slip, washroom, clay, silicate, wheel, clean, wedge, centering. Soon, my brain was full of terms, but I was still excited. Read: without some sort of handout or way to take notes, jargon became a jumbled mass quickly… but maybe that’s ok as I don’t really need to know all this right.

It felt like an eternity until we finally got our clay! Read: all I wanted to do was *DO* the discipline of pottery, which made it difficult for me to concentrate fully on the orientation. The teacher demonstrated wedging, which is kind of like kneading dough and is essential for a strong final product. I measured exactly 2 pounds of clay from my large block (instant success!). My wedged clay looked reasonably good for a first try. Great! With confidence I prepared my wheel station. I watched the teacher’s demonstrations carefully, and tried to emulate her precise hand and body actions. Things were going reasonably well until suddenly half my clay came off in my hand! I made do for a while, and then I tried to make a cylinder, carefully watching the steps and trying to follow with a half portion of clay. After trying to be so careful with it, my cylinder fully collapsed in on itself. It was such a disappointment. I suddenly felt frustrated, especially when I looked over at the person who had done it before. Hers looked just like the teacher’s. Read: social comparison framed my feeling of disappointment and pushed it into failure, but also motivation to make another one.

I stayed an extra half an hour because of a fierce desire to make SOMETHING, ANYTHING that didn’t resemble a pile of grey mush. I tried three times and couldn’t even get the clay to stick to the wheel. It kept slipping off! That most fundamental starting point eluded me, despite the careful attention I had paid to the demonstration, despite the fact that I’d successfully done it just an hour before when my teacher was there. Frustrating! I gave up — but only because I realized I had actual work I had to do and couldn’t just spend the rest of the day on pottery. Reluctantly, I left. All the way home I was frustrated and annoyed because I couldn’t get it. Slowly, I began to laugh at myself. I had taken one single class in a completely unfamiliar discipline and somehow I wasn’t a magical unicorn prodigy in pottery so I was frustrated by it. Ha! Later, I actually uttered the words, laughing, “Turns out I’m not a great potter!” and they made me pause. Really? Is it true that I don’t think I’m a great potter because I got one lesson and couldn’t make something? Of course not. Read: This reaction is consistent with something I’ve suspected for a long time. I tend to have a fixed mindset, and correct to growth when I notice it. I’m reminded of when my statistics students say “I’m no good at math” and I try to convince them otherwise. It takes time and practice and willingness to fail but not feel like a failure.

Scorecard: Pottery definitely won the day. I won insight about failing and a pile of clay covered in mud (called slip) that looked kind of like this (actually this is nicer than mine was):

When I searched for “Pottery cylinder collapse” this image from “Fine Mess Pottery” came up, in a post aptly titled “To that beginning student.”  Apparently I’m not alone.

Responding to Student Evals 2011/2012 Part 2: Psyc 100 Introductory Psychology

Welcome to part two of my reflections on student evaluations of teaching from 2011/2012. Please see my earlier post for a general introduction and reflection on feedback from my Psyc 217 research methods course. I have also posted graphs that facilitate comparison across all my courses and years I have taught them.

First, I would like to thank each of my students who took the time to complete a student evaluation of teaching this year. I value hearing from each of you, and every year your feedback helps me to become a better teacher. Please note that with respect to the open-ended responses, I appreciate and consider every thoughtful comment. The ones I write about are typically those that reflect common themes echoed by numerous students.

The first thing I did to start reflecting on my intro student evals was to consider the numerical results (I am a quantitative scientist, after all!). After creating the graph below (click on it to enlarge), I noticed a small drop from last year’s intro psych class. This doesn’t surprise me a great deal for a couple of reasons: (1) last year’s results were the highest evaluations I ever received ever across any course, suggesting they’re a bit of an outlier, and (2) my class size increased by 42% this year relative to last year. An increase in class size from 270 to 370 students makes it that much more challenging to connect with students as individuals. All this said, I was pleased to note that students rated my teaching above 4 across all six of these questions. Compared with the first three bars, which denote my (relatively less positive) ratings during my first year of teaching these courses, I seem to be maintaining my ability to reach my students effectively. In sum: no concerns arose from the numerical data.

 

As I read the qualitative data, I was humbled. The most common comments noted appreciation for the enthusiasm I bring to each class. Here’s an example:

Dr. Rawn is one of the most engaging professors I’ve ever had – and she really made the class something that people became excited about, which is especially hard to do with a lecture hall consisting of 300+ students. Her passion was contagious! Great course, great instructor.

Given student feedback from this class and over all my years of teaching, I have learned that enthusiasm is one of my greatest strengths as a teacher. I try my best to bring enthusiasm for my students, for teaching, for the discipline to class every day. Without such consistent student feedback I would not necessarily know this about myself as a teacher. Therefore, over the years I have learned to cultivate that enthusiasm each day. Sometimes it takes work (I’ve been known to rev myself up to, ahem, Britney Spears or Pink from time to time…), but I find it’s always easier when I actually know at least some of my students personally. To this point, about a dozen students reported appreciating the Invitational Office Hour on Friday afternoons, which I will definitely keep given two consecutive years of positive feedback.

Exams Many students mentioned the exams and coverage of material, but unfortunately there wasn’t a consistent theme that I could use to make changes. Some people reported that there were too many/too detailed/covered too much, but others felt they were just right or too straightforward/easy. Of the three types of comments about exams, reports that exams were challenging in some way were the most frequent. Although I frequently make lots of changes to my teaching practice based on student feedback, making the exams in this course easier isn’t one I’m comfortable doing. The main reason is that I’m not getting feedback that the tests are unfair or unreasonable, either in qualitative responses or in the numerical data (in fact, this class’s rating on “fair evaluations” item is my highest of all my courses). It seems that a minority of students find them especially challenging, but the sentiment coming through is not one of unfairness (which was the case in my research methods course a couple of years ago, and I’ve been working to address it. Read more.). Here’s an example:

She is a good lecturer but her exams are very difficult even if you read the textbook and show up to each class you will find it very difficult to do well.

I have high expectations for my students — and my department does too. Our class average must be in the mid-60s, and over the past few years I’ve created exams that hit that mark. What I will think more about is how I can better reach this minority group of students who report struggling and feeling discouraged because of the exams. Given the above and similar comments, I’m wondering if part of what’s happening is that study strategies for high school are not working in university. I cover strategies in my syllabus and a bit at the start of the year, including in the memory unit, but I wonder if I/our TAs could develop some sort of  extra special study strategies workshop to help reach out to these students who may need a bit more assistance. Maybe I can partner with the Learning Commons on this.

Finally, I’d like to share a few of the quotes that touched me deeply because they signal that my role in these students’ lives was bigger than simply being their intro psych prof. Notes like these are humbling, and fuel my passion for this challenging career.

Overall amazing instructor that taught us through example how to respect others, care about the science of psychology, and take initiative with our learning.

Although I initially thought I would not enjoy being taught by Dr. Rawn, mostly due to her excitedness, I actually felt that her passion for psychology made it more interesting to learn, and the obvious effort she put into teaching was superb. If she sees this I just want to say Thanks!

Really impressive to watch Dr. Rawn work. She knows an incredible number of students’ names, puts in a lot of effort to get to know them individually, and can really hold her own in a 400-seat hall. Her enthusiasm for the subject is matched by an effective and accessible teaching style, and she manages to incorporate an impressive amount of discussion and classroom activities for such a large class. I think it wouldn’t hurt to lay down the smack a bit harder with the kids at the back of the hall, even to the point of kicking them out. Why put up with that? Nonetheless, a really inspirational role model as a scholar, teacher, and an intelligent and talented woman.

Many thanks to each and every one of you for helping me to improve my teaching by signalling both strengths and areas in which I can grow. I wish you the best.

Stay tuned for more course reflections…!

Reflecting on Student Evals, 2010-2011

Because I pour so much of my heart and soul, sweat and tears (never blood, yet anyway) into each course, I find it necessary to wait a while after a course is over to view the student evaluations of those courses. It can be very emotional to read them, full of breathtaking highs and, occasionally, devastating lows (I appreciate criticism, but not one worded disrespectfully). I have posted summary graphs of my scores and some commentary here, and will share some further reflections in this blog post. Links to all my course syllabi are available here.

The first thing I noticed was how students rated my introductory psychology course overwhelmingly positively. Those ratings are the highest I have ever received. This was absolutely thrilling! I had felt throughout the year a special rapport with this class, despite its large size (N=260). Their energy, curiosity and astute questions continually kept me on my toes, and this in turn fueled my own passion and excitement. I want to share with you a particularly thorough–and not 100% positive!–comment that might give you a feel for what to expect from me (if you’re shopping for courses):

At first, I didn’t like the way Catherine Rawn taught. She was a little too flamboyant and enthusiastic. I felt like she babied us a little. But as the year went on, I really began to appreciate it. I found that I paid attention even to the material I wasn’t particularly interested in. I appreciated her invitational office hour. I never would have gone to her were it not a “requirement,” and that was actually the point that caused me to like her better. I realized that she actually cares about her students (enough to LEARN OUR NAMES, which impressed me) and she was willing to be challenged and she was very respectful to students with opinions different than hers. I have to say that she is one of the better professors I have had in my first year of university. She was interesting, prepared, open, enthusiastic, and positive. She may have babied us a little, but only in the sense that she was so open to help. She still gave challenging and stimulating assignments. Overall, I would say, I thank her for doing a good job.

It’s an interesting comment, to me anyway, in part because it uses a term I’ve received in evaluations before: “babied.” This always intrigues me because I suspect it has something to do with people’s notions about what learning should look like in the university classroom: It should be serious! I attempt to infuse some fun in my courses (e.g., cheering!), I enjoy and find value in exploring with my students, and starting with the basics is important especially in an introductory course. My intention is never to baby, but I also want to dispel the notion that learning has to always be serious. Learning can be fun! Overall, I’m very pleased with the ratings of this course, and will not be making major changes to it next year… with one fabulous exception: the introduction of Peer Tutors! Ten fantastic “grads” of my course from last year have volunteered to help answer questions and act as role models as new students transition to my course and university more broadly. Looking forward to introducing them soon!

The second thing I noticed was that although my scores for Psyc 217 Research Methods are solidly and largely positive, I’m still having a challenge as students are perceiving my evaluations to be less fair than is average across campus (though not unfair per se; see the means on my “evaluating teaching” page, linked above). It is possible that this is simply perception given that this is a very tough course (which is true for all Psyc 217 sections), as it should be because it provides the foundation for all further study in psychology and other behavioural sciences. Yet it’s also possible that my evaluations are in fact less fair than is average across campus. In order to address this consistent rating, I am vowing to critically re-evaluate my exams and assignments this fall. One of those, the group research project, is common to all sections and has a common grading key/rubric, so there’s little to change there. My action plan for evaluating my exams and assignments is to gather all my learning objectives together from every lesson of the course, as well as the broader course objectives stated in the syllabus, and the readings for each unit. I will then consider every question on every evaluation, specifically in terms of how well it links to one or more objectives. Then I will consider whether any question isn’t measuring any objective, and toss it. Then I will consider whether any objective isn’t being addressed, and consider whether the objective should be changed/tossed or measured. After I conduct this analysis of content validity, I will use data from previous years (as I often do) to inform changes to the individual questions to improve their ability to accurately measure learning in my course. I expect my students to use my stated objectives as a road map; it’s time to re-check that they’re aligned with the way I’m evaluating that learning.

Third, I was pleased to see that my scores for Psyc 208 Section 2: How Social Psychology Can Help You Succeed (Special Topics) have improved much from the first time I offered it in 2009, as I used the feedback from 2009 as well as inspiration from a talk by Michael Wesch last summer to make substantial changes. It’s an unconventional course, with lots of teamwork and interaction. For one, I implemented the validity analysis process for exams I explained above (for Psyc 217), which resulted in much fairer exams. As for improvements based on this year’s feedback, I will shorten the midterm a little, and make some small adjustments to the grading of the team project so that individual work related to the team project is weighted more heavily relative to the team grades. Also, I’m considering making grading keys available for the team assignment to improve the clarity of what’s expected for each. Given this feedback, I’d like to share one of my favourite comments from this course, because it reflects my intention in creating this course and in how I structure each and every lesson/experience. Of course they’re not all this positive, but indulge me:

Easily the best teacher I have had at UBC. She should hold workshops for other professors! Or publish a book, or work w ith the Chapman Learning Commons to develop a free, non-credit version of the course that students can take to learn how to improve their university experience. I would recommend her course in Social Psychology and its application to academic success to any student regardless of faculty or major and consider it an invaluable tool to my success. Catherine was always helpful, expected the best of her class and demonstrated an unparalleled concern for the personal and academic development/wellbeing of her students.
I have offered these (lengthy!) reflections to you as evidence that I take student evaluations very seriously, and make real changes to my courses in response to them. Teaching psychology to learners is my passion and, I believe, my calling. I am delighted that so many students report valuing the way I teach and what I contribute to their university experience.

Humility

Teaching is a roller coaster. Things can be going well, then all of a sudden the world is spinning past and it feels like death is imminent. Well, today I kind of wished for that. I’m teaching intro psychology for the first time this semester. Most of the topics refresh easily — like memory, learning — but today we started biology. I am not a biologist. When I was in undergrad I took the minimal requirements for biological psychology and not a single concept more. I learned the material long enough to spit it out on the exams, and that was it. And here I am teaching it to people who have never encountered these ideas before — and to people who know some of the concepts much more deeply than this course requires.

Over the weekend I studied the material from the text, prepared my lessons for the week and felt relatively confident I could get through. As soon as my lesson started today, I felt like a fraud and it showed. I crumbled under the weight of this belief about myself that I don’t know biology. I stumbled and stuttered and read my notes quickly (my sympathetic nervous system in full force), I was tethered to my computer, the source of my slides (&, it seemed to me, my knowledge). I panicked and apologized and tried to save it with a (planned) demo and writing activities and still ended 10 minutes early. I left feeling horrified and embarrassed beyond belief.

Thankfully, a colleague was around to help me get through the initial horror and to brainstorm ideas about what to do now. She reminded me that just as one isn’t likely to learn this material the same way one learns other material in psychology, I’m can’t expect to teach it using the same methods I usually use. I can raise the level of abstraction a step or two (e.g, instead of “this is an fMRI” – here is a question we could examine using it) I could get some traction. I could own “this is the level we need to learn this at” and leave it there. I can bring in guest speakers to help answer difficult concepts. I can use comprehension checks for portions of the class so have time to address their questions before the next class. I can use TBL-style methods. And recognize that I just need time to really learn this well.

Then I got an email from a student who happens to know a lot about these processes and, very kindly, affirmed that I didn’t steer anyone in the wrong direction. This email reminded me why I teach — for the students who are there to learn and from whom I learn. So what do I take away from this experience today? Hope (and concrete ideas) for improvement in the future, gratitude for supportive people around me, and a hefty dose of humility.