Thursday, February 25, 2016

What Students Expect from their Teachers: Roles and Responsibilities of Teachers

Core of the following talk was presented at 3rd Conference of Deans and Directors of Business Schools organized by NBEAC at PC Lahore, Feb17-18, 2016. The talk was presented during the session Roles and Responsibilities of Business Schools' Teachers: Perspectives of Students.

This talk is based on my experiences of managing the expectations of students over the last 20 years as a teacher and predominantly as an academic administrator: During the late 1990s, I was managing scores of sections taught by visiting and permanent faculty as deputy director CCS at IBA. This was followed by my tenure as Dean and VP at PAF KIET from 2001 to 2012 during which I was managing hundreds of sections per semester spread over three campuses in Karachi, and across three faculties. For the last three years as Dean CBM and CES at IoBM I have been looking after over 500 sections spread over two faculties ranging from business disciplines to engineering disciplines and from bachelors up to PhD level.

Managing hundreds of faculty members teaching hundreds of courses every semester for the past two decades has taught me two things: First, never take lightly the complaints of the students. In Pakistani culture, students generally demonstrate a great patience in part out of respect but mostly out of fear of victimization and vindictiveness. They only complain when they are too much hurt or too much inconvenienced. Secondly, please keep an open door policy for the students. Make it easy for them to gain access to you at anytime and anywhere. Listen to them, even if it is for a few minutes.

I have seen students coming up with complaints formally or informally, directly or indirectly, through parents, through class representatives and through other intermediaries. I have seen students complaining together in groups, walking out with their feet from the classes, dropping the course en-mass and forcing the administration to drop the class or even forcing mid-semester change in the teachers. I have seen rumors about a teacher asking for money in return for giving a grade of choice being ignored one semester by the management, but turning out to be true next semester when a carefully designed sting operation was conducted. I have seen some faculty members who were closed friends colluding together in repeatedly failing a student who happened to get on the wrong side of one of them. I have seen some of these complaints turning into protests getting national coverage in newspapers (at IBA during my time as a student, and latter when I was there as a faculty member). As a student, I have come across vicious and vindictive teachers. One of them an extreme hard-task master, who used to single out a particular person in his class each semester and would drive this person to his breaking point, and who would fire below the belt with abandon. He once singled out a retired army major and humiliated him to such an extent in the class and pressurized him so much on the assigned project that the stress was written so clearly on his face the week before he died of brain hemorrhage during the course.  I have seen lenient teachers, tough teachers, teachers who do not teach but just pass the time, and of course teachers who may take you for a ride.

On the other hand, I have seen teachers greatly respected and admired by the students, held in highest regards, despite their exacting demands. I have even come across a greatly admired teacher who was respected even though he created an unfriendly stressful environment in the class with fans and windows closed in sweltering heat. I have seen teachers who taught with their heart and soul, who would never complain, who considered teaching as a missionary zeal, who would give as much time to the student after the class as much as they require and as much as they want. These are the real teachers who are the envy of the institution and envy of the profession; teachers who give the profession its nobility and attractiveness. I have seen students holding such teachers in great admiration several decades after their graduation, remembering them and their words with fondness and appreciation. These are the teachers who score high on the following roles and responsibilities.

Teacher as a Mentor: Counseling and Guidance

Students always yearn to know the relevance of the subject to their future. How it would help them as a person, as a professional, and as a member of community. They want to know how this course and this lecture will be of relevance to their professional careers and to their personal interactions and their future life. They want to know how the subject impacts the society and country. A teacher who enables this knowing is a mentor and a counselor.

"What is the duty of a teacher, if not to inspire!" Unfortunately many teachers think their duty is only to teach, it is then that they lose the connection with the students.

What is the biggest problem with the teacher? That they teach! (and do not inspire)

Motivation of student comes when they see the teacher assuming a higher moral ground on account of his character and his expertise. This happens when teachers assume the responsibility of impacting the lives of the students and hence their and our future. The teacher's role is to be the architect of the future of the lives of the students, future of the community and future of the country and future of this planet. A teacher who defines his role too narrowly and strictly as coverage of course outline loses out on bringing out the best from the students.

Teacher as a Practitioner: Course Relevance

Students expect that the teacher would make the content come alive in front of the class. Students expect that teacher would be able to give real life examples of what is being taught, make the context clear through personal examples or through convincing first hand stories embodying the subject lessons.

To enable this, teachers need to have a continuous engagement with industry and with organizations on business issues. This requires an on going societal engagement and continuous exposure to new books and new knowledge of the field. Students are not looking for just regurgitation or summarizing of text books but are expecting concrete experience. Either a teacher should have industry work experience or extensive consultancy projects experience. There is no substitute to experience. Even hard core researchers who can not covert the research into executive training interactions or consultancy assignments have difficulty in motivating the students. 

Teachers are expected to give original insights so that they have a moral high ground to teach. A teacher who does not have confidence in his knowledge often promises more than what he can deliver, and is often defensive in admitting to his lack of knowledge. Not knowing is not a problem, but defending what you do not know is quite visible to the students and often creates situations where the teacher becomes vindictive.

Teachers often complain that students are not motivated. I often tell the teachers, it is you who are not motivated. 

Responsibility of motivating the students lies with the teacher which can only come when expertise and knowledge of the teacher can command respect and is also visible in the class room interactions.

Teacher's Commitment: Expectations Mismatch

Based on my experiences I am forced to consider course outline as a contract through which a teacher makes a commitment with the students and the academic administration of the institution where he is teaching. 

Most problems arise, when teacher do not follow the outline (contract), modify the content or the methodology of course without informing. My advise to the teacher who needs to make a revision in methodology and content while the course is in progress, is that any change needs to be made well in time before the deadlines or examination dates, and the changes should be well communicated and handed out to the students in printed form and through email. 

Not following the like making a sharp turn in your car without giving indicator, well in advance, and results in mishaps and accidents and bad blood in class room similar to the issues created by such behavior on the roads. Contract is like an understanding of the driver with that of the traffic on the road that the driver would not drive the car recklessly, will follow the rules, and will not jeopardize the interests of others on the road and beside it. 

Often there is a mismatch in the intensity of exam vs the intensity of the classroom. That is, examination paper is made too tough, too exacting and too detailed, where as, the class room interaction was too loose, too informal, and too unstructured. There needs to be a balance in what the teacher expects from the students and what the students see the teacher delivering through the class room interactions. 

There is often an expectation mismatch of a student before graduation and after graduation. Often a lenient teacher who appears to be good during the studies because he gives grades easily, starts appearing as a bad teacher after graduation. Before graduation, typically an average student is looking for an easy way out. However, after graduation the student finds out the ruthlessness of the practical life and yearns for more of the strict teachers who forced a habit of hard work in the student during the studies.

Perception as too strict (course dropouts) or perception as too lenient (easy grades) is often at root of many of the issues resulting in en mass dropping of the course or walk outs. 

Unpredictability about what would come in the exam is also a source of discontent. Good teachers make explicit to students quite clearly what is expected during the exam, how much detail is expected, and what rigor is expected. Teachers that are not liked by the students are those who typically spring a surprise. Responsibility of clearly communicating the expectations is with the teacher. The communication in the form of the outline is necessary but not sufficient. The teacher must clarify, remind and put in context his expectations repeatedly during the sessions and should adhere to them through his exams and tests and other feedback mechanisms. 

Teacher as a Judge: Transparency and Fairness

Teacher is supposed to be fair and should be impartial. I am inspired by the example of great Dijkstra and to understand my view on this subject you must go through my blog post, Fairness in Grading: A Lesson by Dijkstra
Students expect that the sessional marks of quizzes, mid terms hourlies and class participation should be aligned with final exam marks. Any drastic mismatch between the two is problematic especially if the mismatch is towards the worse from a student's point of view. Justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done.

It is therefore of paramount importance that sessional marks are posted on time and given promptly allowing the students to absorb the lessons and verify the marks. Problems arise typically with teachers who keep on hoarding the sessional marks of quizzes, mid terms, hourlies, and the student gets the surprise of failing the course when the teacher posts them together with the final exam.

A major grievance of student is based on perception of gender discrimination and favoritism.

Often problems arise from teachers who think that grading is a stick and is a measure of learning or as a mechanism for technical knockout of students. These teachers do not understand the subjectivity inherent in all grading processes. I think the whole concept needs to be considered ab-initio. We must move from Degrading the students to De-grading as explained by Alfie Kohn.

The solution for grading transparency problems is to augment the teacher grading with self assessment by students and with peer assessment. See for example the wonderful example given in Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

Teacher as an Instructor: Methodology and Pedagogy

From the perspective of students, following is found to be most problematic:
  • Overuse of multimedia. Teacher looking towards the slides during the lecture. Using the slides as a lecture instead of a teaching aid. 
  • Teacher's use of "grading" as a tool for forcing the students to study. Teachers' not owning their responsibility of making sure that the student understands, and restricting their responsibility to only covering the outline irrespective of whether the students has understood the contents or not.  
  • Too much bookish teaching is also a cause of problem. If what the teacher is doing is just reading the book, then that is much easily done by the students at home. Why should the student come all the way from home to attend the class if the only thing he is going to get is reading from the book. 
  • Teachers whose only expectation is a photographic reproduction of the contents of the book are also problematic. Reliance on rote learning/regurgitation of assigned text gives rise to many of the issues leading to de-motivation of students. 
  • A teacher who does too much flip-flop on the contents actually tells the students that he has not planned out the course well. 
  • Not understanding the pressures on students and making unreasonable demands without communicating and motivational techniques also creates many of the issues. 

See also:

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