While this is a low-content post, it’s stress season for students, so I just wanted to share a helpful resource with a few tips on managing stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, click on the link below. If nothing else, they’re always good reminders.
Think back to some of your least favorite/least informative classes you’ve had in your undergraduate and graduate careers. What is the common denominator? Is it the subject matter or the instructor?
When I reflect back on my least favorite courses of my college career, two immediately come to mind: plant biology and macroeconomics. Why? Being a horticulturalist, I looked forward to taking plant biology, and economics has always been interesting to me. Thus, a disengaging subject matter was not the problem. Unfortunately, for both courses, the professors’ incompetency in teaching ruined my learning experience. But, that’s not what bothers me the most. What’s worse is that both professors are still teaching those same courses, ruining plant biology and macroeconomics for hundreds of students at a time. It sounds harsh, and I confess that I do not have hard evidence to support my accusation. While all online reviewers of these professors share my viewpoint, student evaluations don’t tell the whole story and shouldn’t be used to gage an instructor’s effectiveness (see “Student Evaluation of College Teaching Effectiveness: a brief review”). That being said, the one thing I believe should change in higher education is quality assurance in teaching.
I am passionate about teaching and truly believe that teaching is equally important to society as research. In fact, I would argue that many times these teachers are the inspiration for students who pursue research careers. Thus, I would say that if more instructor roles were filled by effective, passionate teachers, research would advance concurrently. So, how do we ensure quality teaching in higher education? I don’t think that teachers should only teach and researchers should only research, for research can improve the effectiveness of teaching and vice versa. However, I don’t think brilliant researchers should be given teaching positions if they are terrible teachers (by the way, both of my aforementioned professors are exceptional researchers). If they are brilliant researchers and terrible teachers, their time would be better spent doing research! So, I would suggest two ways to help resolve this problem: 1) to require all new instructors to be peer-evaluated by other faculty unannounced throughout the semester and 2) to increase compensation of full-time instructors.
As I perused through the case summaries on the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) website, I tried putting myself in the peer reviewer’s shoes. Although in some instances, the evidence for research misconduct was blatantly obvious, most violations would have been difficult to detect. How do you catch these errors as a reviewer? Fortunately, ORI provides several great resources that serve as guidelines for reviewers.
If you go to the ORI website and click “RCR Resources,” then “Peer Review,” the ORI lists four useful resources for peer reviewers that can facilitate detection of misconduct. The third resource in that list (“Ethics of Peer Review: A Guide for Manuscript Reviewers” by the Yale University) seemed particularly helpful. While this document has a wealth of information on peer reviewing, I’m going to share just a few of the described peer reviewer responsibilities/considerations that are good reminders for all of us.
Is the work you are asked to review too close to your own?
If you are asked to review a manuscript in which the research overlaps your current study or a study you are planning to perform, there is a definite conflict of interest. By reviewing that manuscript, you’re putting yourself in a lose-lose situation. If you give the manuscript a solid, ethical review, “you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” Assuming the manuscript is published, you could hinder your chances of publishing your own study. Obviously, if you choose to review the manuscript in the alternative manner to get an edge on your competition, prepare to receive the consequences. Remember, you’re better off just letting someone else review it.
Do you have the time to review the article within the time frame requested by the editor?
Agreeing to review a manuscript within the editor’s deadline and submitting it late is unethical (or at least frowned upon). However, doing a slapdash review is also unethical. Deciding whether or not to review a manuscript takes a little bit of forward thinking and realizing that you are not super-man/woman. In the case that you are too busy, by declining the review, you are doing yourself and the author a favor.
The average adult attention span is generally considered to be approximately 20 minutes. At Virginia Tech, class duration ranges from 50 minutes to nearly 3 hours. Since lectures aren’t likely to be reduced to 20 minutes, instructors (at least the good ones) implement various active learning strategies to maintain student engagement. A few of the more common active learning techniques include, discussion, group activities, in-class writing assignments, and question/answer sessions. However, Hackathorn et al., (2011) reports on an often forgotten, yet effective, strategy that may require little to no effort in execute: humor.
In the study, “All kidding aside: Humor increases learning at knowledge and comprehension levels,” (Hackathorn et al., 2011) humor is evaluated as a teaching tool for improving students’ knowledge, comprehension and application. The instructor utilized puns, riddles, jokes, personal anecdotes and multi-media as sources of humor to deliver the course material for a social psychology course. Assessment quizzes indicated that humor improved students’ overall exam performance and was especially beneficial for improving knowledge and comprehension. Why does humor work? The authors of this study use the following example to suggest one possible explanation:
“‘Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?’ is a play on words that is related to a famous psychologist, but requires students to remember who Pavlov is and remember his work with conditioning in order to understand the humorous twist. Thus, recall, retention, and comprehension skills are practiced while decoding the pun.”
In addition to improving exam performance, it is my personal belief that the appropriate use of humor in the classroom can help establish a constructive instructor-student relationship. When the instructor and students laugh together, it seems that a personal connection is formed that fosters a more participatory classroom. In other words, the instructor seems more approachable for questions and discussion.
When conducting my plant identification labs, I’ll occasionally make up silly puns involving the plant names. Sometimes I’ll get a chuckle; however, many times—after hearing crickets—I have to explain my own joke after which I may hear a few forced giggles out of pity. While I personally enjoy trying to be “punny” from time to time, students do seem to feel more comfortable answering and asking questions after having the chance to laugh at or (more commonly) make fun of my bad jokes.
Please share your personal experiences with classroom humor, and for your entertainment only, I’m going to share one of my favorites for when I teach the white ash tree.
As my students and I approach the aforementioned, enormous tree, I’ll say:
“Look everyone! There’s a big ash tree! Actually, it’s a big white ash! It’s so big, I’ll bet you can even see it at night…if there’s a full moon.”
(If you don’t get it, say “big ash tree” fast and out loud)