A guide to finding the best college professors.
- Rutgers University Press
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Excerpt from What Every College Student Should Know: How to Find the Best Teachers and Learn the Most from Them by Ernie Lepore and Sarah-Jane Leslie
Copyright information: http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/press_copyright_and_disclaimer/default.html
Each semester students register for classes without knowing anything about the people who will be teaching them. Rising tuition, heavy course loads, and long semesters merit more informed choices, but university curricula, especially in the first two years, are full of requirements, and students often figure that it doesn't matter who's doing the teaching. "Take the class and complete the requirement!" But it matters who is teaching. It matters a lot.
Imagine yourself, uncertain about your career plans, taking a required course whose subject matter is completely foreign to you-not an uncommon situation. Your first encounter with the subject may be your last. Discarding a discipline just because an uninformed choice landed you with an uninspiring teacher may be a great loss-a loss an informed choice might have prevented. Even if a requirement is your only taste of a field, it shouldn't be a trial. Good teachers stimulate interest. Your intended major, or even your career plans, could easily change because you fall in love with a subject. (In fact, one of the authors had no idea what she wanted to major in when she entered college. A string of great professors led her to a major she would never have predicted.)
These opportunities are too often lost because of poor teach- ing. Of course, you might not be in the market for new subjects, but it's still worth your while to find good professors. Though you(and your parents) remain certain that your destiny lies in medicine or law or business, why should you undervalue your time? Why should so many hours be wasted and boring, or, even worse, painful and exhausting? By picking an inspiring teacher, you'll enjoy your courses as much as the student who takes only courses that appeal to him will.
The question is how to find the right teacher. This task isn't an easy one, but it can be done, and success is well rewarded. But before we get to strategies, let's briefly examine other factors that should figure into your class selection.
Subject matter would seem to be the primary reason for choosing a course, but it can be overrated. Though it must be a consideration, it shouldn't be the final word on course selection.
When the teaching is poor, an appealing subject matter won't make much difference, but good teaching can inspire unexpected interest. Every year students discover and enjoy topics they knew nothing about before their classes began. Some students even enroll in courses exclusively on the basis of the teacher's good reputation. An excellent teacher is unlikely to teach a boring class; good teachers can breathe interest into just about any subject.
We're not telling you to major in Good Teachers (although individualized majors are fashionable these days); rather we want to emphasize their significance to you. In high school probably you didn't get to pick and choose who taught you. You chose subjects and were assigned teachers. But not in college. In most colleges, especially in introductory classes and required courses, you often have a choice among instructors.
Whenever possible, take advantage of this choice.
The purpose of finding quality teaching is to let you get the most out of the course. But great teachers aside, you're still going to have to attend class. A competent professor will give you a powerful incentive to attend, which is among the best reasons for finding one. But as you're choosing, don't dismiss scheduling considerations. If, for example, you know you're not the sort of person to get up for an eight a.m. class, registering for one is a pretty lousy idea. Of course, if it's a toss-up between a terrific professor early in the morning or a useless one later in the day, invest in a coffeemaker and haul yourself out of bed. But if the professors aren't so different, then why take a class you're sure to cut?
The importance of the class also needs to be considered. If you're trying out a new subject-one that is perhaps an untested candidate for your major-then it's worth doing everything you can do to land in the classroom of the best instructor. Wouldn't it be sad to dismiss a field you might have enjoyed just because you got a poor teacher early on? If that legendary prof teaches only at dawn or on Friday afternoon, make the sacrifice.
A Background Check
Okay. So you're pumped up, ready to find your good teacher. But how do you find out if a teacher's worth taking? You have several available options.
Suppose you're considering a particular class. Your first step should be to find out the instructor's name. Although you can go through an entire course without learning the professor's name-as happens at an alarming rate-we suggest that you don't even register without knowing it. Finding an instructor's name is usually easy, but sometimes a name is not immediately available when you register. Sometimes the instructor's name may not appear in the course catalogue or whatever other registration document is used at your college. If it isn't, the department that is offering the course will know who will be teaching it. Contact someone there and find out. (One of us only recently realized she could do this. It saves a lot of hassle.)
Once you've found out your instructor's name, gathering information about him or her is easier if you're a returning student, and still do-able if you're an entering freshman or a transfer student. Former students can vouch for a teacher's ability. Of course, you may not know any of these students straight off, but they won't be too hard to find. When balanced against the time-investment that a course requires, finding a friend-of-afriend is worth the effort. However, your information is only as good as its source. Students can often be unreliable judges. If their information seems questionable, move on.
Graduate students often prove invaluable. They are more knowledgeable than undergraduates about a professor's competence. They're also likely to be honest, especially if you promise confidentiality. The next best bet is another professor, or your advisor if you have one. Your advisor may only be able to give you limited help, though, unless she is from the relevant department. Most faculty and administrative staff at large institutions are unfamiliar with people outside their own fields.
Finding someone in the right discipline can help. Although professors have much to lose by denouncing a colleague's teaching skills, it's almost impossible for them to withhold judgment. There's no shortage of loose lips in universities! Listen carefully to what they say; their honest opinion lurks not far beneath the surface of their words, even as they're exclaiming that they cannotmake such assessments. (For one thing, ask yourself when they're more likely to protest that they can't make such a judgment call: if they think the teacher is great, or if they think he's awful. Which would you avoid saying?) These subtle assessments are great guides to choosing a professor. Collect as many opinions as you can.
An easy way for you to get a professor's opinion without putting her on the spot is to present her with a list of possible teachers. Could she recommend to you anyone on the list? Which would be the best section? This lets her subtly ignore poor colleagues without explicitly putting them down. If you aren't familiar with the professor you are asking, steer clear of questions that would require her to bad-mouth her colleagues. Students are a better source of negative information.
Student Evaluations of Teachers
Near the end of each term, teachers are usually evaluated by their students. Most teachers learn little from these evaluations, and it's unclear just who is supposed to profit from them and how.Commonwisdom is that they are essential for professional promotions (see theAfterword), but you'dhaveahardtime finding anyone who was denied promotion merely because she received poor teaching evaluations. (At least at large institutions; in this regard smaller institutions are way ahead of the pack.) The hope of most administrations is that these student evaluations will help your professors become better teachers, which is a very good aim. But the questions asked in these evaluations are usually vague and unspecific. In many institutions your evaluations either disappear or lie unexamined once a term ends.
Evaluations are not to be trusted unconditionally, but if you can get your hands on them, they can be a useful source of information. Consulting them might give you an idea of a teacher's abilities. In many institutions evaluations are available for student review, although few students take advantage of the opportunity. (The library is a good starting point if you don't know where to look for them, or you might try asking the de- partment directly if they can make past student evaluations available to you.) Take advantage of this resource and look over the impressions of fellow students of previous classes. Profit from your predecessors' misery!
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