Originally appeared in
The Red and Black,
2005 January 31.
Students Should Demand Good Teaching
Michael A. Covington
About 600 words
Michael A. Covington is associate director of the Artificial Intelligence Center. He graduated from UGa as co-valedictorian in 1977.
Dr. Adams and others are calling for increasing the “academic rigor” of the University. I agree. But this is not the same as just making the courses harder. Any fool can make a course harder by teaching it badly. We need to make our courses better. After 23 years of teaching, I’m convinced we’d have a better university if students spoke out about teaching quality and didn’t settle for second best.
A well-taught course is not an easy course. It’s a course in which your effort is productive, from which you emerge prepared for further work. But good teaching can make a course easier than it would otherwise have been.
Good teaching is a two-way interaction. A good lecturer doesn’t just talk to the air; he finds out what the students are and are not grasping, and adjusts the course accordingly. A good teacher will ask you questions in class and will give frequent quizzes or graded homework.
As a student, you have a right to feedback. You should get your quizzes or homework back with specific indications of what you got wrong, so you’ll know what to work harder on. In a large class, this feedback may come from TAs, but it should not just be scores that give no indication of what you missed.
A good teacher uses the grading system in the normal way. Good performances should get A’s and mediocre performances should get C’s. Actually, I think it’s reasonable for a well-taught course to produce lots of A’s and B’s, because that’s what you get when the students are well prepared and are learning the material.
I think fixed curves and grade quotas are a rotten idea because a class isn’t a horse race. Your grade should say how you did, not how your classmates did. And of course a grade is a certification of knowledge, not a payment for effort.
Finally, a good teacher cares whether you’re there. I don’t like to play games with the number of allowed absences or the precise penalties. You’re an adult, and you should know that when you’re not there, you’re missing something. If you didn’t need to come to my classes, I wouldn’t come, either.
What are some warning signs of bad teaching? Sadly, often there are none. It’s easy to convince students that bad teaching methods are customary in a particular subject. (This may even be true.) Nor will students say, on evaluation forms, what’s wrong with a course. They’re more likely to indicate whether they’re happy with their expected grades.
One of the biggest warning signs is that too many students fail a course or have to repeat it. The admissions and advisement processes are supposed to get students into courses where they can succeed. If a course is commonly flunked, it has the wrong prerequisites, the wrong content, the wrong teaching method, or something. And if a course becomes its own prerequisite – if repeating it is the normal way to pass it – then the curriculum has become like a snake swallowing its own tail.
Bad teaching is most common in subjects where students are extensively self-taught, so that they can pass even with a poor teacher, and in subjects where “there’s money in it,” so that students will endure anything because of the career prospects. And of course if you convince students they’re in a “weed-out course,” where only the most dedicated are expected to pass, then you can get away with anything. I don’t believe in weed-out courses; that’s what the admissions process is for. We don’t admit stupid people to our university.