Feature

When it comes to judging their professors' teaching skills, students are most bothered by faculty who skimp on organizing and planning and whose teaching mechanics and style inhibit learning--poor use of visuals is one example, dreary, monotone lecturing is another. Also bothersome are faculty who give tests on material not included in the text or lectures.

That's what the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, recently found when it sought to unearth students' pet peeves about teaching. Professors Baron Perlman, PhD, and Lee McCann, PhD, conducted the study to help faculty target and fix their teaching problems.

The means of data gathering was simple: On the first day of class, instructors passed out index cards to nearly 700 undergraduates, who wrote down and anonymously submitted complaints about teaching behaviors they've observed across all the courses they've taken. The approach may seem somewhat unorthodox, considering that the traditional approach to evaluating teaching is to formally solicit student evaluations of each professor's teaching--and to also assign teaching observation by peers--to make decisions about tenure and promotion.

But the researchers say that their more anonymous assessment offers benefits that traditional methods don't. For one thing, the entire faculty sees and benefits from the results, whereas traditional teacher evaluations are shared with individuals only. For another, the index-card criticisms are general and don't threaten anyone's job, says Perlman. Nobody feels personally attacked because students don't name professors, just behaviors, and most faculty welcome the feedback.

Also, collecting feedback from students makes them feel heard and appreciated--it allows them to voice their concerns without making individual professors feel anxious or defensive or jeopardizing their careers as traditional evaluations might, says Perlman.

And, perhaps most importantly, the assessment encourages faculty to try minor teaching changes that, he says, "make a big difference."

Since his department's assessment in the spring of 1997, almost all faculty--11 of 13--say they've tweaked their teaching, including the researchers. Perlman has slowed down his speech rate in lectures, and McCann has added overheads for visual spice.

"Faculty look at the results and say, 'Aha, so that's what's been bothering my students," says Perlman. "If I just wait until most of the heads are upright when they're taking notes, more of them will get the material. If I just add a break in that 90-minute class, they'll be fresher."

Can peevish be impolite?

Faculty often aren't conscious of their most grating habits, which include telling unfunny jokes, repeatedly making the same point or keeping students past the end of class, says Drew Appleby, PhD, who almost a decade ago studied bothersome teaching behaviors at Marian College in Indianapolis. Appleby, now at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, found similar peeve results as Perlman and McCann.

Now other psychology faculty are considering trying the assessment. Joyce Alexander, PhD, secretary for APA's Div. 15 (Educational) says she'd be interested in applying it where she works--the department of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University.

"It's one more thing we can do to improve teaching," she says.

The only potential problem she foresees is that the request for peeves could open the floor to rude or mean-spirited responses. But then again, so could more traditional teaching assessments. And outright rudeness really wasn't a problem for Perlman and McCann. Any student responses that weren't constructive were mostly humorous, they say.

For example, some students teasingly nit-picked about faculty with bad haircuts, bald spot "comb-overs" or tacky clothes, while others kidded that all the male faculty wore blue sport coats.

Top peeves

Most of the responses, however, proved substantive. And, once culled and categorized, many revealed concerns about lecturing behaviors--including relying too much on films and videos, blocking the blackboard, not using enough visual aids and speaking too softly or rapidly.

Neither that nor the other top category of peeves--lack of course organization--surprised Perlman or McCann. Students are attuned to course planning, says Perlman, because it's highly visible. Students want to know when assignments are due, what's on the test and how they'll be graded.

"Students are expected to be organized, and they expect the same of faculty," says Perlman.

Students' Top 10 Complaints About Their Teachers

Students in the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, recently wrote down what annoys them about their professors' teaching. The most irksome items:

1. Poor course organization and planning.

2. Poor teaching mechanics (for example, poor use of the blackboard or speaking too fast, softly, or slowly).

3. Lecture style and technique, including being too wooden or long-winded.

4. Poor testing and exam procedures.

5. Negative mannerisms, including attire and verbal and nonverbal tics.

6. Monotone voice.

7. Poor use of class time (for example, coming in late and stopping early).

8. Intellectual arrogance--talking down to or showing a lack of respect for students.

9. Being unhelpful and not approachable.

10. Unfair or confusing grading process.

Further Reading

  • Appleby, D.C. (1990). Faculty and student perceptions of irritating behaviors in the college classroom. Teaching of Psychology, 8, 41-46.

  • Perlman, B. & McCann, L.I. (1998). Students' pet peeves about teaching. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 201-202.

  • Rallis, H. (1994). Creating teaching and learning partnerships with students: Helping faculty listen to student voices. To Improve the Academy, 13, 155-168.