The Logic of Darkness

Teaching the Dismal Science


Economics departments in universities hire new professors mainly for their abilities in research. Usually these professors teach a course or two during a semester. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a correlation between being a good researcher and a good teacher. But, what exactly is "good" teaching?


Let's start with examples of bad teaching. The teaching here is restricted to the undergraduate level. This one aloof professor would walk in the class, a few minutes late, and then promptly start writing on the board without any notes. In a few seconds, you realized that he is re-writing the same material from the week before. And he made two new mistakes.


You have your second test coming up. Assignments 4 to 8 should be covered for the test. The day before the test the teacher hands back the marked copies of assignment 3. You pick up the rest of the marked assignments after the final exam.


There was this one case where the teacher simply refused to "teach". We should answer the questions by ourselves. Never mind that we came up with different solutions. We simply didn't know who was correct or if we were all wrong. During office hours, one student went to this professor for help. The reply; you should've known that a month ago and, yes, do that yourself.


Sometimes, we just don't understand the professor. The meaning is lost in translation. English is not their first language or second. This is more often the case with tutors.


Names will not be mentioned to protect the innocent, or rather the guilty.  One exception though. William Scarth. He is the quintessential example of an excellent teacher. I once missed the first class in one of his courses but made it to the second one. The next day, I met him at his office and told him the situation. My God, he replied, you missed half the course. He then photocopied the notes for me and gave me the lecture as well which took about 45 minutes. I have come across only two other teachers in my life who teach with such care and consideration.


So, a good teacher is well-organized, doesn't repeat himself, gives assignments and tests back on time, does in fact "teach", and speaks crisp english. The only tool used to see how good a teacher is, is the teacher evaluation at the end of the semester. One major flaw exists in this method. The teacher can teach fluffy material throughout the semester and get high marks by the students at the end of the semester. These students suffer, however, when they reach upper-year courses and are not very knowledgeable.


How do you differentiate between good and bad teachers? A proactive student can point that out. Also, an environment where students can anonymously tell the department about such matters would help. Bad teachers are present everywhere. A student, quite publicly, pointed one out at  Harvard University. That teacher was soon replaced.


Other aspects that should be taken into consideration: marks on assignments, tests, and exams, and especially peer review. The peer review minimizes the chances of a teacher teaching fluffy material. This way of evaluating a teacher will, of course, require time and effort but quality always does.


Further reading:
World's Greatest  University, World's Worst Teachers by Arianne R. Cohen.

August 17, 2004.


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