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One of my former supervisors is upset about student feedback for her lectures. There are two problems:

  1. If she provides complete slides with information, students complain that she reads from the slides.
  2. If she doesn't provide complete slides with information, students complain that her slides are incomplete.

And

  1. If she provides webcasts of her lectures, students don't turn up to lectures.
  2. If she doesn't provide webcasts of her lectures, students complain she's a bad lecturer.

I know she's upset + it's directly impacting her medium-term happiness based on what she wrote on social media. However I have not talked to her about it. Should I? If so, what can I say? Both problems look generic enough that other lecturers must've dealt with them before. How?

EDIT: Thanks for the advice. Since there's little I can do, I liked her post and left it at that.

12 Answers 12

81

What should I do?

Honestly? I suggest that you sympathize courteously, but do nothing else:

  • She's a grown woman and an experienced academic, she doesn't need you to handle frustrations from student feedback.
  • You (likely) no longer work at the same university as her.
  • You're not a close personal friend of hers.
  • You don't have a good idea of what actually goes on in her classes these days, nor what the student body is like overall.
  • It is generally the case that students don't complain repeatedly and en masse about a course just for the sake of complaining and regardless of anything else. There's probably something that's wrong with the course (perhaps not even with her behavior) that you just don't know about.

An alternative to doing nothing would be: Suggest that she ask a relevant question here on academia.stackexchange.com. We could obtain more information which you don't have rather than help her via a third party.

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    "I suggest that you sympathize" Why exactly? Those are student feedbacks, there's always very subjective views, unrealistic expectations, wrong statements and a lot of destructive feedback. As a teacher you should know that and focus on the constructive feedback you get and things you can actually change. – DSVA Jan 26 '18 at 14:30
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    @DSVA: Sympathize as a courtesy, because she's upset, that's all. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 26 '18 at 14:33
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    I've never been a professor, but I'm sure after a few rounds of those reviews you quickly see what is naive students complaining and what is real actionable feedback. – corsiKa Jan 26 '18 at 15:38
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    @corsiKa: Maybe, maybe not; I'm just saying it's not OP who should be doing that. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 26 '18 at 15:39
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    @DSVA he means empathize – l--''''''---------'''''''''''' Jan 29 '18 at 13:13
60

Some comments about the situation first (even though you have not explicitly asked about this):

Let me rephrase what you wrote slightly: if the teacher gives the students all relevant infos beforehand they see no need to come to the lecture anymore; the only way to get students to come to the lecture is by explicitly holding back information, and then the students (rightfully) complain.

There is an uncomfortable truth hidden in these items of feedback - perhaps the lectures as they are given now are useless? Note that this does not necessarily mean that your collaborator does something wrong (although this may be the case), but I have found some materials are just not optimally taught in lectures. If the lectures are perfectly replaceable by podcasts or just reading the slides, then what's wrong with that? Give the students the material in advance, don't do a lecture, use the in-class time for exercises or quizzes, or re-structure the entire course and have less in-class time in general.


I know she's upset + it's directly impacting her medium-term happiness based on what she wrote on social media. However I have not talked to her about it. Should I?

That really depends on how close you are, what your relationship looks like, and if you are in a position to give advice on teaching-related matters. If you only know her situation from social media I would venture that the answer is probably "no".

If so, what can I say? Both problems look generic enough that other lecturers must've dealt with them before. How?

Something based on what I wrote above. However, as I said, this can come across as somewhat patronising and offensive, so I would not suggest giving her any feedback unsolicited, especially if you are not close or already a mentor to her. Especially note that there are a number of people who just like to use social media to vent - don't take a few random social media posts as ground truth that there is something terrible going on in her professional life that you need to help her fix.

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    And I daresay that complaining on social media about student feedback is really a bad, bad move that can further damage the reputation of the professor among them. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 25 '18 at 18:07
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    @JeffE While it's very fashionable to say lectures are useless, I think it misses a very very important point: showing up to lectures provides motivation. As has been said above, many students to not actually use materials provided online, they just tell themselves that they will. – Jessica B Jan 26 '18 at 7:41
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    @JessicaB I'm not claiming that all lectures are useless. I'm concurring with the suggestion that these particular lectures may be useless. Showing up to useful lectures provides motivation. (And if students aren't consulting materials provided online, perhaps those materials are also useless!) – JeffE Jan 26 '18 at 15:02
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    @JeffE You're still making the judgement of usefulness independently of whether the students attend. I am saying that the process of showing up to the lectures is itself useful, so long as the lectures are basically on the topic at hand, whether or not the students consider them suitably entertaining. – Jessica B Jan 26 '18 at 18:23
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    @JessicaB You are making the assumption that useless lectures simply do not exist. I am disagreeing with you. – JeffE Jan 27 '18 at 2:21
12

This one is a piece of cake.

Have her create two sets of slides.

  1. Lecture slides - slides with less info so she doesn't read from her slides and with more graphics for the spacial/visual learners out there
  2. Notes slides - slides with everything that she talks about on them that she can read off in front of the class.
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    PowerPoint will actually let one project "slides" and read "notes pages" from the monitor. However, someone qualified to teach a course shouldn't really need those "notes pages." The abbreviated material on the slides should be enough of a reminder. – Bob Brown Jan 25 '18 at 18:11
  • @BobBrown: Minor caveat: notes slides require a two-monitor setup. E.g., my institution put in video splitters everywhere to save money, and hence notes slides don't work. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 25 '18 at 22:55
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    But notes slides can be printed as such and distributed. +1 for recognizing different learning styles. – RudyB Jan 26 '18 at 8:21
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    @BobBrown "However, someone qualified to teach a course shouldn't really need those "notes pages." " - Very strongly disagree. I use the notes pages extensively even for my own research talks, for which I am certainly more qualified than anyone else to present. It can be a good place to put reminders about what your audience needs to hear, or extra information that you might not recall but may come up in questions. If you are in any field that changes substantially over time I think it is quite limiting to present only material you have completely memorized. – Bryan Krause Jan 26 '18 at 18:47
  • @BryanKrause OK... you have convinced me that you are correct. – Bob Brown Jan 27 '18 at 0:54
4

This is called "being between a rock and a hard place"...

All of those strategies are valid : complete slides / incomplete etc But the direction chosen has to be made clear on day 1 and kept to.

So, information is available X hours / days before the lecture for those who want to read up etc.

Webcasts : well if it is an online course then fine, if the course is not online then it is up to her but not always necessary : the idea of turning up to lectures is to have the opportunity to ask questions (sometimes).

And, as for feedback, some students will say "great", others will not - I find that there are always some students who show maturity whose opinion you can ask for, and get, valid feedback : positive or negative but what they say you can discuss with them. If they say that X is good but can you do Y? you can find out why they want Y and then offer something that suits your goals and theirs.

2

Should you talk to her about it?

The answer to this depends very much on your relationship, her personality and the nature of the social media post. It is probably advisable to err on the side of caution and to assume that the post was simply letting off steam rather than a serious attempt to solicit advice and to not say anything, unless advice is explicitly being asked for or you know her well enough to be sure that it would not be taken in a negative way.

That said, if you do feel able to talk to her about it, I think there is some useful advice that can be given.

What should you say?

Different students have different preferences and learn in different ways, so it is not uncommon for their aggregate feedback to be highly contradictory. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. However, that does not mean that this feedback can be ignored and there is still usually an optimal path that can be taken which will somewhat satisfy both extremes.

Ideally, slides shown during a lecture should present the same information that is being spoken about, but in a different way. There are several reasons for this:

  • Again, different people learn in different ways and will respond differently to two different explanations of the same topic - you thereby increase your chances that at least one will be understood and retained.
  • The spoken word and visual media each have their own strengths which can be played to (for e.g. spoken explanations can be more verbose and rely more on nuance of emphasis to get the point across, while slides can include illustrations and diagrams).
  • Simply reading out what is on the slides can be actively distracting and annoying as it is typically much faster to read something to yourself than out loud. Students will be spending half of each slide waiting for the lecturer to 'catch up' with what they have already read and so will become bored and disengaged.

I can certainly empathise with her displeasure at students not turning up to lectures - it can feel like something of a personal affront! However, it is typically not meant that way by the students and provided they are indeed watching the recordings it is not necessarily a problem. If the ultimate reach is the same then it doesn't matter if the live audience is five people or a hundred people or no people!

However, she may feel that this is sub-optimal for her students and that their preference for this could simply be laziness to their own long-term detriment. In which case I would say she is under no obligation to provide webcasts of the lectures so long as she does provide some other form of reference material and can safely ignore the complaints. An intermediate option would be to record the lectures, but only release the videos after a suitable period - perhaps only at the end of the term. This will emphasise that these recordings are only for reference and that attendance at the lectures is still expected. I would especially recommend this approach during the second year of running the course - that way the students will have access to the previous year's recordings in case of emergencies, but will be aware that they are not getting the latest material and so will feel more inclined to turn up to the live show.

2

It's perfectly possible to put up slides with the information on them, and then talk about that information. You don't have to read the exact sentences from the slide. In the corporate world, that's the biggest reason for death-by-Powerpoint. You bullet-point the information on the slide, but you fill in the details, justifications, implications, and help people to understand that information.

As for the webcast versus not - if she's delivering a series of lectures and students are expected to attend, then why webcast at all? The answer to that complaint is simple. This is a university, and you attend courses to learn. If you cannot be bothered to attend courses, the lecturer is not obliged to spoonfeed you with webcasts to let you watch the lecture from your bedroom.

A key thing to remember in all reviews is reviewers can be wrong too.

2

Okay, given this situation it's really not clear whether you should do anything except offer sympathy and support, and other answers have this covered. This answer is assuming that you are interested in how it might be possible to address the students' complaints.

These are the four problems you list:

  1. If she provides complete slides with information, students complain that she reads from the slides.
  2. If she doesn't provide complete slides with information, students complain that her slides are incomplete.
  3. If she provides webcasts of her lectures, students don't turn up to lectures.
  4. If she doesn't provide webcasts of her lectures, students complain she's a bad lecturer.

One potential solution to at least three of these (possibly not #3) might be to use a flipped-classroom approach. In other words, she provides recorded seminars with complete information but at the same time makes it clear that the students are expected to watch them at home before attending. Classroom time will be used for discussion, taking questions and other organised learning activities. I have not yet had a chance to try this myself but know several people who have and feel it has gone very well.

The only issue that this might not solve is poor attendance, so some thought will need to be given to how the benefits of attendance can be made obvious to the students. I would also recommend discussing this with the course organisers and checking that they are supportive of it, but in this case showing them the current feedback might help make the case.

1

There are not just 2 problems. There are 2 problems reported (in social media).

She is upset and a bit of a rant. What she posts is the inconsistent feedback.

If you had access the actual feedback I suspect there is a wide range of praises, complaints, and suggestions.

I don't think you should try and help her based on this limited second hand information. For sure don't try and help via social media.

0

From my experience as a student, I recommend what my favourite lecturer (who has also won the department award of favourite lecturer several years running).

Use slides to backup your lecturers but do live examples. Sometimes reading from them is appropiate but it shouldn't always be like that. Then provide a set of comprehensive notes covering all the topics on that module. This way students can focus on listening instead of trying to quickly write down everything that is said. This also means that student won't fall behind if they miss a lecture.

Provide webcasts if you like, there is nothing wrong with more options. However I would say that a good set of lecture notes should be a must have. If the lecturers themselves are not monotone then students will show up (I know most of us did). The lectures should be dynamic, live examples, oppertunity to ask questions, not scribbling down notes before the slides change.

0

About five years ago, I saw a video where a professor at Stanford University said that after developing his first MOOC he realised that his previous 28 years of "teaching by lecture" had been ineffective. (I think he said "a waste of time" or something similar.)

The professor was talking about what he had learned as a result of using the "Flipped Classroom" - teaching method where students study "the material" on their own before they meet in a classroom. The classroom session is used to discuss "the material" - no lecturing.

Sorry but I could not locate the original video, but here is a 57 Second extract from a 1 hour video produced by the same group at Stanford.

My Stanford MOOC experience in 2012 and 2013 (organisational analysis & databases) caused me to research the question "What is learning". After several years of research, I have concluded that "learning" is just a name for the process of "creating new synaptic links in your brain".

Furthermore, the learning process may require that you have to actively suppress "old" synaptic links that could be said to represent "Fake knowledge".

So, my working hypotheses are:

(1) The popular belief that: "Long lectures (whether supported by PowerPoint or not) are effective in helping people to learn." is false - in today's terminology this belief is fake knowledge

(2) Learning requires action - passive listening is not effective.

If my hypotheses are true, then a lot of today's "PowerPoint lecturers" are going to have to go back and study modern pedagogical practices so that they flip their thinking before they flip their classrooms.

So my answer to the question about the "upset professor" is "Send her back to (modern) pedagogy school!"

As a milder social response, you could try to engage her in an open discussion about pedagogy.

-2

Only she can solve her own problems, not you. If she's aware of that feedback then she needs to use it to make improvements to her courses.

First of all, she needs to always provide slides with complete information and train herself to stop reading from them.

Second of all, she needs to find a way to provide webcasts for student review without giving them the benefit of using it as a replacement for showing up to class.

Option 1: Grade on attendance

Option 2: Don't post the webcasts until a week after the date they occur or the very last minute before an exam

Option 3: Give a short 5 or 10 question quiz at the beginning of every session based on the material covered in the last session.

Option 4: Some combination of all of the above.

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    Option 1 is a terrible suggestion, and has the same issue as the answer in general. These are people considered capable of driving, drinking, shooting, having sex, and studying. Let them handle their needs for actual presence on their own. Option 2 starts okay but then goes to terrible advice, posting materials for the purpose of learning when there is no time to actually learn from them is a waste of the educator's and students' time and effort, leads to worse results than making them available much earlier, and defeats the purpose of having such material. – Nij Jan 26 '18 at 12:38
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Assuming webcasts are something desirable, a technical solution to the latter problem may be:

  1. Provide webcasts protected by a temporary (or better yet limited use) password

  2. Explicitly announce that to get access to webcast, a specific student registered for class must contact the instructor and provide valid reason to need the webcast (e.g. they were sick that day in class).

  3. Explicitly note that webcasts are limited to such use; and if someone abuses this by disseminating the password to other users (as detected via different IPs using same login/password), the webcasts would not be provided again to anyone, with offending student being publicly outed as the reason.

  4. Offer webcasts with open access with meaningful delay (4 weeks after the lecture?), this way people can refer back to them if they need to revise material for tests; but can't use that as a crutch to help avoid attending lectures.

(a weaker form of #3 would be to protect webcasts with students' university login/password if that's an option the university systems offer - but that is likely to be abused - people even share login/password in workplaces, never mind college).

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    "I'm studying the course." Oh, look -- everyone has a valid reason! I find it really hard to consider witholding educational materials from students while teaching in a university. It seems to be the exact opposite of the point. – David Richerby Jan 26 '18 at 0:42
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    Your proposal is to produce the videos but then deny students access to them. The videos exist so they are "materials". They exist for the purpose of education, so they are "educational materials." You are denying students access to them, so you are "withholding educational materials". – David Richerby Jan 26 '18 at 9:01
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    If you'd put all the effort into making a worthwhile online resource, there's no justification for preventing its use by any student in the class,and good reason to make it more widely available wherever possible. The idea that attendance at lectures should be mandatory, let alone enforced and assessed, is about control, not about education. – Nij Jan 26 '18 at 12:32
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    I'm well acquainted with the purpose of Stack Exchange. Firstly, the question doesn't mention attendance at all, second it doesn't imply or suggest or require that this be mandatory, and third even if t did both, "you don't" has always been a legitimate answer to "how?", Academia in particular recognising the XY problem exists. @DVK – Nij Jan 26 '18 at 20:31
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    There is a difference between caring about something and making it mandatory. Can you figure out what your point is and then make arguments for it, rather than the confusing switch you've done here so far? Here's mine: it doesn't matter what the question is looking for, this answer gives bad advice, and is therefore exactly what should be downvoted, whether or not it answers the question being irrelevant. – Nij Jan 26 '18 at 21:03

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