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Will There Be Anything Else?

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One of my colleagues has a teaching philosophy that contains the following principle:

If you do a lot for your students in terms of providing 'extra' materials (study guides, lecture notes etc.), they will ask for more and more and more and be unhappy. If you don't provide them with much -- maybe just some review materials before an exam -- they will be content with what little you give them.

This is a bit cynical, so I hasten to note that my colleague is a great teacher. When he teaches a large intro science class, students applaud at the end of the last lecture. Sometimes when he is in a near-campus coffee shop, former students have the barista send drinks and treats to his table with their thanks. Students know he cares about the course, even if he pours most of his energy into the in-class part and not so much to other parts.

I have always disagreed with him about the "give them an inch.." hypothesis, but I must admit that every once in a while there are some data (or a datum) to support it.

At the moment, I am thinking about a comment on my recent teaching evaluations.

First consider this: After each class, I post questions that cover all the main topics of that day's lecture and I provide a pdf of the presentation file if I showed images during class. During the term, I give the students all the exams from the previous year's class. And, in a new development for me this past term, just before class time I post a file with the images I will show in class that day. I annotate the images in class, and the students who bring electronic devices to class can do so as well if they want. For those who don't access the image file in class, I suggest that they note down the slide numbers in their notes so that they can later match images to notes.

What I don't do is provide the image file well in advance. I am typically tinkering with the images until the last minute, and I explain this to the students when I describe what course materials I provide/don't provide and why.

And yet, despite providing quite a lot, one student wanted more. Not only did this student want me to provide the presentation file (with images) well in advance, but s/he also wanted me to print out the file each day and distribute a copy in class so that students could take notes directly on the images on paper.

OK, no problem. Just let me know how many images per page you would like. Should I print the pages in color? Don't worry about the cost. One-sided or double-sided? Of course I will collate the pages, but would you like them stapled or unstapled? If stapled, do you prefer the upper left corner or the upper right? Just let me know if you want me to punch holes in the margin so it will fit in a 3-ring binder. And just so no one feels bad about all the paper this will require, please rest assured that I will try to find paper made with a significant component of post-consumer waste.

And will there be anything else? Oh yes, OK, sure: I will highlight the points that will definitely be on the test. No problem.

This post is an example of how we focus on absurd little comments that are kind of (or very) negative in our teaching evaluations, even if the overall evaluations are positive. In the class I taught last term, 100%* would recommend me as an instructor! 100%* find me approachable and respectful! 100%* think I know my subject well and present it clearly! All of this makes me happy and I am grateful to my nice students who took the time to do the evaluations and express their satisfaction with the course.

Clearly, even the student who wished that I provided handouts in every class was overall happy with the class, so in this sense my colleague is wrong: students may ask for more, but it doesn't mean they are dissatisfied.

So, my typical approach to these situations is to consider all suggestions as constructive criticism, seriously ponder whether the suggestions are feasible, and use those that are and ignore those that are not. I may get ideas for how to explain my teaching philosophy in a different or more complete way (in this respect), even if I don't change what I do. To the extent that these evaluations by students are any use, for me, this is a good use for them.
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