Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Teacher Performance in Law Schools

Sidharth Chauhan has this piece out in Bar & Bench on assessing teacher performance in law schools. As he points out although there are many excellent law teachers in Indian law schools there are also many many sub-par ones. The thrust of his argument seems to be that student appraisal of law professors should be considered more in the assessment of law faculty by the administration. It is hard to disagree with this general point - I think more it's a question of how much these assessments should count and in what situations.

As Chauhan points out there are clear limitations to student assessment. I remember an economics teacher I had in college that was an entertaining and thought-provoking lecturer and received high marks from students. It was only later that I realized how much he was trying to indoctrinate his pupils into a certain kind of economics and never exposed us to key counter viewpoints. Maybe this made him less of a teacher. Maybe not. But I certainly wasn't in the best position to appraise him at the time with my limited knowledge of the subject. I remember another professor who ruthlessly marked up a paper I wrote - exposing all sorts of shortcomings (in reasoning, in the structure of the paper, in grammar). The gloves were off. I appreciated the criticism at the time, but I also felt the style of his criticism had been harsh and don't think I marked him as highly as other professors. In retrospect, his style probably was indeed harsh, but I learned more from that assignment than from many other professors who put lots of supportive comments that boosted my self-esteem and who I likely assessed higher. Life is full of unforgiving criticism and sometimes it's on point - A useful lesson and one that understandably students aren't always immediately receptive to.

And then there is the perennial problem that Chauhan describes of bad teachers who grade lightly (or give light assignments) so as to endear themselves to students and so get high marks in their appraisals. (Chauhan's suggested solution to this problem - to have students give their appraisal before they receive a final grade - is at best a partial answer as many classes have assignments/exams in which grades are given during the semester and in general I have found better teachers grade more harshly on assignments during the semester than the final in order to push students to work harder while they are still taking the class.)

I think the takeaway is that students are rather good at figuring out who are absolutely horrible teachers - those who put little effort into instruction, don't know the topic, don't have office hours, don't seem to care, are continuously rude or disrespectful. Pinpointing such teachers from student appraisal can be a helpful tool for the administration. Student appraisal can also potentially be useful for professors' self-improvement - although having read many appraisals of my classes I can say that I can only take so much away from comments that read "Amazing Class!" or "Boring . . . " (to be fair, I never knew what to write on those things as a student either). Instead, what seems more important is creating a culture in which good teaching is part of professors identity and they strive to make their classes better for that reason. Student voted awards for "best professor of the year" can be useful. So can comments from peers in the faculty and administration who approvingly pass on positive feedback they heard about your class. Sessions where professors share teaching techniques or innovative curriculum design may also build up pride (and more knowhow) amongst faculty about their teaching. In the end though you have to make sure that there are talented professors being hired in the first place. If they are talented, they will want to improve at teaching - they spend so many hours doing it - or at the very least be considered competent (maybe they fancy themselves a terrific researcher instead). One of the great joys and rewards of the academy is teaching students and seeing how in some small way you might have impacted their life. If you are hiring professors that had the option to go into other lines of work, but eschew the higher pay and other perks to go into teaching instead, they will certainly want to reap these benefits of their chosen profession - or they would be silly not to.

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