Are You as Good a Teacher as You Think?

One of the hardest parts about most of our work in academic technology is trying to figure out how to evaluate our progress. Every workshop could be tweaked to be just a little better. Every web site could be made a little more user friendly. Every class offers an endless opportunity to improve assignments, clarify explanations, or provide better feedback to students. How much is enough?

Paul Price, a psychology faculty member at Cal State, Fresno, has published an interesting essay that focuses on why it is so difficult for us to judge our effectiveness as teachers (or as people who support teachers). He begins by citing a study showing that 94% of faculty members at a major research university considered themselves to be better teachers than the average at their institutions. As a statistician, Price believes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% actually are better than average teachers–whatever that ultimately means. The tendency to overestimate our own abilities is perfectly natural: “…there is plenty of evidence from social-cognitive psychology that pretty much anyone who isn’t clinically depressed systematically overestimates his or her own traits and abilities in a wide variety of domains.” Social psychologists studying “social judgement” have documented the tendency in our assessment of friendliness, driving ability, health, and the quality of our work.

According to Price, college teachers are particularly susceptible to these kinds of errors because most faculty members work extremely hard, but they have unusual freedom to focus on things that are important to them. In research universities especially, faculty members decide what courses they teach, how to organize them, what materials to use, what exams and assignments to give. We work very long hours, but generally alone or with the students within our own classes. The fact that our colleagues are working just as hard seldom comes into our field of awareness.

Our ability overestimate our effectiveness is complicated by the fact that we can define good teaching in so many different ways and then use those self-defined definitions to rate our own competence. I might consider myself an excellent teacher because I engage my students in authentic learning activities while my colleague across the hall considers himself to be a truly outstanding lecturer who considers student involvement to be one of those hippy fads that will ultimately go away. Each of us finds security in our own definition of excellence.

Our ability is further compromised by the difficulty of getting valid feedback on our performance, in spite of the amount of time, energy and cash institutions invest in faculty and course evaluations.

As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, social feedback tends to be incredibly misleading. Social psychologist David Sears has studied what he calls the “person-positivity bias”—people’s tendency to evaluate other people positively in the absence of any good reason not to. In an examination of student evaluations of their professors at UCLA, comprising literally hundreds of thousands of ratings, Sears found that the average was 7.22 on a nine-point scale… As a result, these kinds of student and peer evaluations tend to confirm our inflated views of our own abilities. A better interpretation of your rating of six on a seven-point scale, then, is that you have no extremely obvious shortcomings. That’s a long way from being a superstar.The better-than-average effect extends beyond judgments about the selfto judgments about almost any individual.

Price acknowledges that a certain amount of self-deception is probably healthy:

scholars from a variety of fields—philosophy, psychoanalysis, and evolutionary biology among them—have argued that this kind of self-deception may be functional. One contemporary view in psychology is that being unrealistically optimistic about one’s traits, abilities, and level of control over the environment is an important component of good mental health

Doing justice to the complexity of teaching, however, requires us to look beyond the natural biases of our psychology by 1) learning more intentionally from our colleagues about their teaching, 2) reflecting systematically on our own strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and 3) communicating more creatively with our students about the substance of their learning. Price closes with the following thought: “When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were.”