I’m going to present two observers’ accounts of a classroom observation that took place on April 24, 2018 beginning at 9:30 am. The class was an introductory astronomy class with eight students on the roster, five of which stopped attending without withdrawing (faculty are now forbidden “by law” from withdrawing students) and three of which attended, but not always regularly and not always on time. One observer was the chair of the physical science department and the other was the chair of the English department. I will call them A and B but will not divulge which is which. I will let you do that.
The second observer was present at my request because I noticed some irregularities in last year’s observation. Among other things in four and a half pages of writen notes supposedly generated during the visit, I was told that students not attending class and student tardiness were bad reflections on my classroom teaching and professionalism and that instilling a sense of responsibility to regularly and promptly attend class is my responsibility. My impression was that I was deemed deficient, and I have a recording of the meeting with my chair in which this discussion transpired. A few weeks ago, I emailed the dean sincerely asking for specific guidelines, including relevant citations from our policy and procedure manual (knowing full well there are none), on how to address tardy students when they arrive to class (i.e. do I interrupt class or continue on, am I to recognize them individually or as a group, how much class time should I spend on this, and what to do in case a student complains of being openly shamed for being tardy if I am required to address each one individually). As of Friday, I had received no response to my inquiry. I suppose either the dean thought I wasn’t serious (I was quite serious) or doesn’t take the concerns raised by my chair seriously. Either way, I am still in the dark.
The classroom observation instrument has ten questions. I will present each question with both observers’ responses. I have no idea how this instrument was developed, but I strongly suspect it was simply made up in-house.
1. Did the class start and end on time and was attendance taken?
A. Class started on time and attendance was taken visually. At 9:30 am, when one student was present, the instructor asked the student if he had seen two other students by name. When the student replied no, the instructor said, “I guess it is just the two of us.” The instructor sat at a table with the student and began question and answer session. At 9:34, a second student arrived. A third arrived at 9:43 am. A break was not announced for the class until 10:40 which was past the official 9:30 to 10:20 classs time. AST151A-101 is held in the same class immediately afterwards. The ten minute break occurred at a good stopping point.
B. Yes, and because only one student was present at the exact starting time, the instructor waited a couple of minutes before beginning. He took attendance on a legal pad after two other students joined the class.
2. Did the faculty member use effective verbal and non-verbal communication techniques?
A. Yes. The instructor provided good analogies and explanation. simple diagrams of shadow and cone cross-sectiosn were drawn on the board.
B. Yes, the instructor was articulate; he used visuals — manipulatives — to illustrate principles; he managed silent pauses well to allow time for students to think, he used the whiteboard to clarify verbal description of sphere shadow patterns.
3. Did the faculty member use instructional strategies that encourage the development of critical thinking, problem solving, and/or technical skills?
A. Yes. The activity with paper circles to try to replicate lunar phases from Earth’s shadow involved a lot of thinking and analysis. The goal was to have the students develop the understanding that the Earth’s shadow was not the cause of Moon’s phases becuase of the shape of the shadow cast. Correcting a previousy existing misconception involves a great amount of critical thinking.
B. Yes, to an outstanding degree; through the instructor’s questioning skills (open and closed questions, recall and comprehension, funneling to lead students to discovery through application and analysis, re-direction and probing in higher order inferencing, rhetorical questions in ethical issues in current astronomy) the lesson covered all six areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
4. Did the faculty member use technology if applicable to support instruction when available and appropriate?
A. Yes. The instructor did an excellent job of using low-technology light bulb, ping pong balls and paper circles to model Moon’s phases, Earth’s shadow and eclipses.
B. Use of technology was unnecessary in this lesson plan; although, the instructor referred to websites the students could utilize on their own time.
5. Did the faculty member use student responses to gauge understanding?
A. Yes. There was a fair amount of speaking by the students. When one would provide a reply that was not correct, the instructor would say, “Oh really. Show me.” The goal was to get the student to realize the error during the process of trying to show the instructor.
B. Yes, significantly. He shaped questions based on student responses, guiding them to draw conclusions; he allowed students to make their own discoveries based on work with the manipulatives; he did not give answers — he illuminated points after the students did their own thinking.
6. Did the faculty member use techniques to foster active inquiry, collaboration, and supportive interaction in the classroom?
A. Yes. A good portion of the contact time was spent in active inquiry mode utilizing the paper circles or the light bulb and ping pong balls. When one of the students replied, “I can’t.” to some question, the instructor gently replied, “Sure you can.”
B. Yes, he began the lesson with a review of pervious material; the students contributed as a small group their different ideas regarding the principles taught; the students responded to each other’s comments; the instructor effectively introduced new terminilogy in the context of the lesson activity; the instructor employed a natural storytelling element to illustrate points also.
7. Did the faculty member treat all students in a fair and equitable manner?
B. The instructor displayed cordiality and related to the students equally; good faculty-student interactions were observable.
8. Did the faculty member create and maintain an environment conducive to learning?
A. Yes. Students were engaged, interacting and asking questions.
B. Yes, the classroom astmosphere was open and inviting with a non-threatening ambience; the students were encouraged to question, and they spontaneously asked questions stemming form the class discussion as they thought deeper about the topics; the instructor used humor effectively.
9. What were the most positive features of the class?
A. This class was very effective. Simple models were used to teach the material and correct prior misconceptions and lead the students to their big “a-hah” moment regarding eclipses vs. phases. The class was conducted almost exclusively wiht the Question and Answer approach. Emphasis was placed on the significance of half of the lunar disk being illuminated and the shape of the terminator. Both critical basic concepts.
B. The most positive features were the investigative approach of the instructor in teaching the principles; the hands-on student experimentation; the instructor’s questioning skills, content expertise, and passion for the subject.
10. What specific suggestions do you have for improvement?
A. Try to time breaks that match official times better. When class starts with, “Did we do eclipses yet?” it could give the students the message that you did not prepare for the class. Set expectations that students will attend promptly and regularly at the beginning of the semester. Reinforce that as needed.
B. None, this was an engaging, well-executed lesson; the students remained engaged and contributed well.
How would you describe the two observers’ accounts? I see a significant difference between them. Specifically, one account seems much more objective than the other, even aside from the fact that some of the things asked for have nothing to do with teaching but are administrative nuisances. I strongly resent mixing the two. Neither observer has a background in either astronomy or physics, and yet one seems to want to establish otherwise. Neither observer knew what was going to happen in class beforehand.
Observer B seems to have focused more on actual teaching, at least to the extent that this instrument allowed. I, and at least two other faculty members with whom I shared this, agreed that observer B remained true to the spirit of the instrument whereas observer A editorialized and added some subjectivity and deviated from the spirit of the instrument.
I am very concerned that observer A noted precise arrival times for students. That is entirely out of my control and is not related to my effectiveness as an instructor despite the farcical claim to the contrary. I vehemently object to student attendance being linked to teaching effectiveness. Administration, last year, directed that faculty are no longer permitted to withdraw students for poor attendance and as usual, faculty bear the brunt of that policy failure and I will not be held accountable for it. Observer A’s comment, to me, implies once again that I do not sufficiently emphasize the importance of class attendance, which is quite ridiculous because I do and I have recordings to prove it. Beyond a certain point, I do not feel obligated to treat college students like children as I am sometimes expected to do. This is college, and I expect to behave as a college instructor and not as a high school instructor (no offense at all intended to my high school colleagues).
I am also very concerned about observer A’s comment about my asking whether or not eclipses had been discussed. This particular section of astronomy began on February 6, a full month AFTER the other section began. The two sections were perpetually out of sync, and one of the observers knew that (and was responsible for the scheduling).
I fail to see what the timing of breaks has to do with teaching effectiveness, and again I strenuously object to those things being linked.
If institutions want to attempt to measure teaching effectiveness, then fine, but I don’t think this is the way to go about it. If institutions want to measure the extent to which faculty perform classroom administrative tasks, that’s fine too but they need to be accounted for separately and objectively, not subjectively.
If you have feelings one way or the other, comments, or any other feedback leave a comment!