“Overthinking” and other insights into the current state of education

In an earlier post, I mentioned that as an anthropologist I like to pay attention to clichés as little insights into the current state of education. I pointed out that the often-heard lament that “some students are not cut out for school” is a telling statement about the state of our schools (not so much our students) because school is designed for learning, and we would never say “some students are not cut out for learning.” Yet the lament passes without a hint of protest. It’s just something we say.

Today, one of my best students pointed out another poigniant cliché which he recognized as being reflective of our current state of education. (The student will remain anonymous unless he chooses to identify himself in the comments below.) He came across the cliché while discussing with a professor the questions he had missed on a recent exam:

“[The professor] responded with hardly a constructive comment. “You just over-thought the questions.” He proceeded to tell me that I might know too much and that my own intelligence was getting in the way of my performance on his exams. … Wait, what? …. So you’re saying that because I’m too smart, that I am going to do poorly on your exams? … When I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this guy, safe in his ivory tower of academia, I decided to leave. Not only was I pissed, but even more so, I was disappointed. Disappointed in the reality that this “teacher” wouldn’t even consider the opinions of his student. Wouldn’t consider making any exceptions or accept that multiple choice tests aren’t the best way to measure knowledge. His inflexibility with respect to his own pedagogy represents everything that is wrong with the state of higher education. The message is absolutely clear: listen, be quiet, obey”

It reminds me of the general attitude of professors toward teaching evaluations. It seems beyond argument that they are inaccurate and not to be trusted, but by extension aren’t we then saying that student opinions are inaccurate and not to be trusted?

I feel like a minority on this (maybe not on this blog), but I think teaching evaluations should be made public. There should be no room for a site like RateMyProfessors.com. We have much better data on teaching right here on campus, yet we fail to publish it. If we publish our own evaluations at least we can control the questions and we can stop worrying about how many chili peppers we have! We could even contextualize the comments with our own materials and teaching philosophies. Surely this must be happening at other campuses. Please share.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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23 Responses

  1. achilles3 says:

    A small defense of the “you’re over thinking”…
    As a former debate coach we place a very high value on the priority of what we know. The ability to sort and create hierarchies is paramount to commanding the evidence. So, though multiple choice testing is not the best way to assess all the information, all of the time, it is a tool that maximizes the amount of information that can be tested in a minimal amount of time.
    Is this the best…nope.
    Can it be useful…I think so.

    In my nine years of teaching I wonder how many students are so upset about not being right or not getting the points for being right???
    Are they pissed because they want a higher score?
    Are they pissed because they have grasped the information in a way that is hard to assess with THAT question?
    Are they just confrontational?
    Do they lack trust in me, my class, my methods, my procedures?
    Did they get drunk last night and wake up late?
    Did they study enough? Did they study the right thing?

    I’m not sticking up for the Prof here…I’m merely asking the questions that run through my head when a student is “pissed”.

    On Prof evaluations…
    The sad fact is (in my short experience), there are bad teachers, OK teachers, good teachers, and super teachers. What are the percentages within a given setting??? Not sure…BUT it’s still a job. And in that job the bad, OK, good, and super teachers all get paid and all get their classes sat because the school is still a REAL place working within (and sometimes around) the supply and demand chain. A place where people go to work even if they are only “OK” teachers.

    The crux…teachers will never be evaluated by their students because we all know what would happen:
    A. They would tell the truth.
    B. The institution would realize that the ratio of “good” and “super” teachers to “the rest” is NOT what they thought (or what they want others to think)
    C. The students would feel empowered to take classes only with the supers.
    D. Supply would not meet demand.
    E. The “bad” “good” and “OK” teachers would be super pissed and disgruntled employees invalidating student opinions with bull crap.
    F. We’d be back to start.

    It’s a shame but people that are bad at whatever they do still have to work and since teachers aren’t lowering profit margins or killing people on the operating table, it is VERY easy (and I would say encouraged) to hide.


  2. Prof Wesch says:

    Great response, achilles3. I think you have really started to capture what goes through a teacher’s head when confronted with a disgruntled student. Maybe this points to a deeper problem in the way we perceive the teacher/student relationship. And when I say “we” I mean both teachers and students. Together we create a relationship that fosters these types of interactions. Maybe if we could truly approach the learning experience as mutually respectful co-learners we could do better. I struggle to do this myself, but I am always confronted by pesky little social facts, realities, and certain expectations that students themselves bring to the classrom. Oh well, it’s worth it. On with the struggle!

  3. achilles3 says:

    I totally agree with the respectful co-learners view. I teach ESL in Korea at a small Art and Design college. I have started having them teach me a word or phrase in Korean each day to start off the class and the fact that we are both learning and teaching has created a very healthy dynamic…less of the boss/surrogate stuff and more of the hey we’re in this together vibe.

    Good stuff! On with the struggle FOR SURE!

  4. I’m coming up on my senior year, and I know I’ve run through the gamut of good and bad teachers. I never take a class just for the teacher, though. The subject matter has to interest me, and if I actually do have a choice of professors, I’ll then ask around as to who is a more engaging teacher, and that will affect my decision somewhat.

    I take my teacher evaluations seriously. I don’t know how often you professors actually read them, but I try to put in as much as I can say about the direction of the class, the style, and how things ran. These are all things that I’d have no problem saying to the teacher’s face, because if they actually care about their job, I would think they’d take all the criticism they can in order to be a better teacher. I like to think that I can make a difference with these things, but I figure these are idle dreams.

    I just dropped off a mid-term evaluation for my Japanese class, and I filled out a page or so of paper explaining my views on how the class has run, what has worked, and what has been missing. The front side of the paper was the usual 1-5 scoring in various areas, which I tried to blaze through as quickly as possible.

    I’ve had teachers tell me that those numbers are important for promotions, raises, and all other sorts of things, but as to what a teacher’s overall number is, I could care less. The written comments are what I feel is most important, because it gives an idea as to what students actually think, instead of choosing an arbitrary number to represent the teacher’s skill. When I took an Intro to Philosophy class, the teacher gave us a look at the student critiques he’s gotten in the past to help us decide on taking the class or not.

    Whenever I have one of these ivory tower-type teachers, and I run into a conflict with them, it automatically kills my interest in the class, and I’ll start skipping on the readings, homework, and attendance. I’ll make sure to pass the class, but it makes it torture. If the teacher will make the effort to reach out to me and actually engage me as a person, even in a class of 200+, then that makes them a great teacher in my mind.

    Not quite sure how this fits into the discussion, but I figured I’d toss in my two cents.

  5. Carl says:

    Having read the comment by DickMcVengeance I felt I had to leave a message of support.

    I am a teacher (lecturer) in a university in the UK and in my institution classes are routinely rated using a 5 point scale against a series of questions about the class and the individual lecturers and I hate it. The simple fact is that these numbers are useless because they are devoid of any meaning or context.

    I would be absolutely delighted to receive qualitative feedback of the type that you give. Without that level of engagement with the student voice I am left with introspection and navel gazing as my only choices for developing my classes and my teaching style.

    I have tried asking the students at the end of class to tell me (honestly and in a spirit of open enquiry) what they think about my classes and my teaching and how it can be developed. Yet all I ever get is positive feedback (oh dear how awful!) – Yet I know I’m not that good a teacher so it leaves me thinking that there is information out there that could be of immense use to me but perhaps the students are too polite to say, or perhaps they are disillusioned by the lack of response by others to their comments and thus feel that it isn’t worth the trouble.

    So what I am actually trying to say is – Dick good teachers will be delighted to receive balanced and constructive feedback whereas the bad ones will always ignore feedback in whatever format it comes. As a teacher I get the most gratification out of those who I really make ‘contact’ with in my teaching and they make the day to day teaching of the ‘blank eyed’ at the back of the class bearable. So your feedback will make a difference to some teachers and to me that makes it all worthwhile regardless of the number of times your feedback is immediately filed in the bin.

  6. Martin says:

    Carl, it’s good to hear about this in your comment. I’ve had varying degrees of success in giving feedback to tutors in the past. Some, like yourself, are delighted to hear what a student thinks and they invite the two-way discussion. It has resulted in certain changes for the better, which can only be good for students and teachers alike.

    Other tutors find it difficult to handle honest comments and treat it as if the student didn’t understand and just got ‘pissed’, as is mentioned above.

    I always advise students that if they’re not receiving the teaching and guidance they deserve, they need to ask why their comments aren’t being taken seriously. And, if necessary, take the matter further. It’s never wise to ignore a problem, neither is it sensible to think that grades are going to be marked down because you’ve ‘made a nuisance of yourself’ when it’s perfectly valid to seek better treatment.

    I recently gave advice about getting feedback on my blog. It’s especially important when you consider the fees students pay toward their education:

  7. Adam says:

    I also agree with the notion of teachers as co-learners. And, having taught some myself, I don’t disagree with the sentiments of achilles3 regarding the curiosity of whether or not the concerns of my students were legitimate or whether they were just afraid to admit their own lack of trying. And also being a student, I see this frequently in my peers. But this whole situation makes for an interesting (and frustrating) dynamic between the professor and students like myself who tend to have legitimate concerns over their own performance and the professor’s teaching methods.

    More often than not the professors I’ve come across seem to assume that all students are trying to get by with as little effort as possible (i.e. that students, no matter what, hate learning and aren’t willing to work). Just the other day, in one of my classes the class average on an exam was terrible. Instead of reflecting on his own pedagogy, the professor blurts out “Wow, you guys really didn’t study for this did you?” I was more than mildly offended. Unfortunately his statement embodies much of the thinking of the professors I come across. Poor academic performance is *always* the student’s fault, never the professor’s.

    This kind of stuff scares me because I look around me at a generation of students who are being taught with antiquated methods, and in such a way that hardly reflects the “real” world. Granted, I feel those in my generation are more apt to actively seek out information on their own, having grown up with computers and the Internet, so perhaps not all is lost. But I don’t see this sort of active learning environment being represented within the “walls” of the university (it’s sad that I can still effectively use that metaphor).

    It also frustrates me tremendously that when I make a point to ask a question regarding a teaching method, or if I question the structure of the learning environment, I become a pariah amongst my peers, a subverter of the social order or something.

    I’m not saying there’s an immediate solution to these problems, but opening up discourse between students and teachers in an atmosphere of cooperation would be a *very* nice place to start. Sadly, I don’t think many professors would be apt to listen

  8. Stian Haklev says:

    As a student and a Teaching Assistant, I have reflect upon this often. In my experience the number grades are not very useful because of the different people taking the class – there will always be people who are hyper-motivated and want to learn as much as possible, others looking for an easy grade, because it’s an obligatory course etc. Some of my most amazing courses at this university – lecturers who inspired me and in some cases almost changed my life – I talked to other students who had given that particular lecturer very low grades because they actually expected something of their students, gave complex readings etc.

    The qualitative comments are useful, however too many students don’t bother, and the instructor only gets them after several months. They are moving to put the evaluations online, so perhaps that will have people write more (many people just don’t enjoy writing by hand these days). In fact I am just coming from the final tutorial of the course I have been TAing for this term, and I tried to spend twenty minutes – in smaller groups, because it’s a tutorial – discussing how we can make the course better next term. I got some good feedback – but there were also many that were completely contradictory, so you cannot please all. I try to be very open and continuously ask for feedback throughout the term, we also have a class intranet forum which is used a lot, where people can comment more easily. However I think the best feedback I get is when I meet students in the dining hall or on the bus home and we have a chance to get to know each other better, and have a conversation about their lives as students, their interests and learning experiences etc. Because of that, the simple fact that last year’s class was at night, and everyone took the bus home (our campus is in a suburb) afterwards, I’d almost always talk to several students for half an hour – compared to this year when it’s in the morning and people have classes afterwards, means that I felt much more ‘connected” with the students last term.

  9. Michael says:

    I am a senior at a private liberal arts college with one month left before graduation. Of course, attending a college with less than 1,700 students affords me certain privileges, such as taking several courses with the same group of professors and developing strong and honest relationships with the faculty and administration.

    I have been in situations where the professor’s reason for being here was to write a book or to use this college as a stepping stone. As a result, those courses were DREADFULLY boring. I have also dealt with ivory-tower ideologues who prefer to hear themselves talk over anything. Of course, we hate filling out course evaluations because we know that tenured professors will not be affected. Though, when we have “newbies,” we tend to take them more seriously because the department uses them to determine that faculty member’s fate when contract renegotiation time comes around. I have found that some of my friends don’t take them seriously because of this. There is no sense that there is a system of accountability in place.

    I have not, however, ever been told that I was over thinking or too smart. Instead, I have always been encouraged to undertake further reading and/or research projects. Of course, I do tend to take courses in the humanities (Anthropology and Art History mainly), and there is a certain appreciation, if not expectation, that students in these areas will abstract ideas ad infinitum.

    With regard to antiquated methods, I have a few thoughts. It’s not a problem of methodology, it’s a problem of curriculum. The curriculum shapes methodology. I have been in classrooms with old-school “life-term” professors that use nothing but the chalkboard and their voices, and I have been in classrooms with “newbies” that love to use YouTube in class. I respect the diversity of styles because it is important for a student to develop the capacity to appreciate, function and survive in different environments. This respect emerges mostly from the manner, in which the professors used their methods to ENGAGE with and to a degree inspire the class.

    With regard to methods and technology, however, I have deep concerns. It seems that PowerPoint’s omnipotence has made educators think that they need to use more and more technology in the classroom because its an expression of “modernity”, and also younger generations are more technically inclined. Be that as it may, my experience tells me that the use of technology in education is an atrocity. My case-in-point is most certainly PowerPoint and digital slide shows in general.

    Furthermore, institutions do not have consistent/uniform technology accommodations from classroom to classroom, educators rely to heavily on what is on the screen rather than what is in front of them and students increasingly lose their sense of agency and responsibility. My advice is that educators really consider the implications of using technology in the classroom. What purpose do you have in mind? Does the technology serve your purpose? How will this technology impact the entire learning environment? Do you know how most effectively to use this technology? Can you realize your goal without using technology?

    I did an entire research project this summer examining IT in learning environments with the purpose of developing more engaging classroom materials. As I prepared to co-present the project at ASIANetwork last month, I realized that technology has a profound impact on the learning environment, one that effectively alters the relationships between student/audience, professor/presenter and subject matter. Often, all three become distanced from each other. Think about it: When you have a screen behind you with your lesson, where is a student’s attention? When the student pays more attention to the screen behind you, what parts of the material does he or she miss out on due to increased concentration on copying the words displayed behind you? If knowledge is handed wholesale to students like this, what brand of appreciation and desire to learn more does this create? It is a tragedy when a classroom is transformed from a dynamic, truly interactive learning atmosphere into a vegetable garden.

  10. Kevin says:

    I think it is right on that the situation often created in the classroom is one in which the students and professors are pitted against each other. It seems to be very difficult to create an environment that is conducive to both parties working together to learn. It also seems that grades are a very strong factor in creating this divisive atmosphere. And, it also seems that one way of curing some of these problems is to create a more fluid and circular communication/feedback system that functions to help shape the very structure of the class/education. But, what I find is often missing in discussions such as these is a sense of hierarchy. In this case, Mike’s student is clearly coming from a postconventional perspective. I mean this to say that he is not simply complaining about his grade or complaining to get the professor to raise his grade, he is actively abstracting and making a commentary on the very structure of the education he is receiving. This is something far different from the student who comes to see the professor but is just complaining about the grade and perhaps projecting his own emotion about being wrong and wanting a higher grade, a preconventional student. With these two types of students it gets quite tricky because both the postconventional and the preconventional students appear to be the same, namely they both come in to talk/complain about their grade. However, these two are indeed coming from vastly distinct places. Between these two students, and in sharp contrast to, lies the conventional student who simply accepts the grade/situation/system/education regardless of how bad he does on the exam. Only, the conventional student you never see because he never comes into the office to complain.

    With this simple breakdown it is clear that there are at least three distinct types of students in the class and it seems that a prudent pedagogy would attempt to create a healthy learning environment for all three. To the preconventional student the teacher would demonstrate the value of hard work, preparation, and most importantly the ability to succeed working within the structure. To the conventional student the teacher would help to break down the structure of the class, push the student to question the purpose of the education, and demonstrate the problems with grades. To the postconventional student the teacher would frame the class to create a healthy environment in which the student can follow his own interests, to allow the student to shape the class in a unique way, and to allow the student to generally flourish by providing support and guidance. It seems to me that the majority of professors teach to the preconventional student, a handful teach to the conventional student, and very few teach to the postconventional or a combination of two or more. With this outline it becomes possible to start to account for the distinct patterns that are available to us and convert them into useful educational strategies. And at the core of this idea is, at the very least, a willingness to entertain a simple and non-value associated (very important!) natural hierarchy .

  11. MK says:

    I have been there myself, during my university years I was always getting into such arguments with professors, some of them chose to reward me with marks for tests that I left blank :) and some of them chose to complain to the department head that I was not behaving in the class … but the department head was in my opinion more sensible, and fired at least one of teachers for complaining about me :) … that was an eye opener for the rest of them … unfortunately, the department head did not last very long … but fortunately, I passed through the university years unharmed despite not giving in to the “listen, be quiet, obey”

    I think that in the education system there are real teachers still out there who actually teach and not just read the book … but I think that this breed is fast diminishing … at least in the country where I live, (no I am not from the US). From my experience, I think that the best classes are those, where you are allowed to think out loud … and the worst are those where the teacher fails you in the test for not following the “method” to solve the problem as was taught in the class … how can anyone “learn” if the minds are closed to new ideas? even if the ideas seem foolish to some?

    In the prevalent education system, the emphasis is on the GPA, rather than learning or education.

  12. Adam says:

    @MK – I wish some of the professors I’ve had would complain to the dept head about my “difficult” behavior in class. At least discourse would be opened up between more than 2 people. It’s almost worse when a professor chooses to write you off as a “complainer,” “subverter” or anything else.

    I understand all too well the pitfalls of the “method” you speak of. I ask myself often what am I (and others) suppose to be learning in college (or an any educational institution for that matter)? Am I learning to be an adaptive learner, a free-thinker, a dynamic thinker? Or am I just learning how to take tests, stay within the lines, and do what I am told? If it is the latter, I fear we are in big trouble.

  13. “Some students are not cut out for learning.” I like that one!

  14. Meg Backus says:

    My understanding of the word “overthinking”–and it fits the context of test questions–is that it means something similar to Not seeing the forest for the trees. I think the interpretation of it as meaning that a person is burdened by an excess of intelligence is an interpretation of the accused. There’s a romance to believing ourselves too smart for our own good.

  15. While I solicit and encourage student rating of my performance via my web site (and also get it via the university’s official student evaluation process), I have learned that there is little value in anonymous evaluations. As a professional, I am very familiar with my weakness (which are many) and my strengths.

    It is very telling that opinion and ‘polls’ are becoming part of the disciplining mechanism and management model — some of the least reliable methodologies used to manipulate the consumer and the citizen are now adopted in the name of quantifiable efficiency… Words are reduced to numbers, and numbers reified to represent truth.

    It would be foolhardy to manage a career or change teaching techniques based upon opinions of indeterminate worth. We live in the high age of punditry dominated by the widespread assumption that everyone has a equal right to an opinion on everything. That is no basis for sound self reflection.

    I value most the in-person feedback I get from students at the end of a course. I have no time for the 30% or more of students who cannot be bothered to attend class or read course material or study nor would I give their opinions a second thought. Encouraging (and requiring) anonymous feedback is just one more way of encouraging a lack of accountability — one must be accountable for ones opinions.

    Not all opinions are equal and data without context is junk.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Strangelove

  16. Dustin Keltner says:

    Along the same lines, I got a teaching degree from Kansas State and we’d frequently sit in huge lecture halls of several hundred students and hear a lecture for an hour and a half about how lecturing is not the best way to teach. I didn’t learn much in that class, which proved his point very effectively.

  17. a new earth says:

    i look forward to the day when someone creates an education system / infrastructure which will allow human beings to be taught what we’re actually here to learn (as a race we are still trying to work out what that is exactly) – instead of focusing on and getting lost within our own thought patterns, which is ultimately our own egos.

    a new earth. by eckhart tolle.

  18. Peter Hanley says:

    “Some students are not cut out for learning.”

    While people might be reluctant to say it, it is unfortunately true. Some (many?) don’t seem to enjoy it at all, and don’t even seem to understand why you would want to learn at all.

    Of course, it’s also fair to say “some teachers are not cut out for teaching,” because that is unfortunately also true.

    But then, is the problem that some people don’t like learning, or that we’ve built a culture where there’s no good place for them? I love learning myself, but is it right to make everyone have to love it?


    “i look forward to the day when someone creates an education system / infrastructure which will allow human beings to be taught what we’re actually here to learn (as a race we are still trying to work out what that is exactly) – instead of focusing on and getting lost within our own thought patterns, which is ultimately our own egos.

    Well, I guess first we need to work out what it is we need to learn. However, without our thought patterns it might be difficult to do that work. Of course then we get lost in them. Hm. Something, egos?

    I too wish for a day when someone else takes the responsibility of making things better/perfect for me, although I can’t define what I mean by that.

    Leggo my ego. Thrill-kill Buddha on the road, you blew my mind (out).

  19. ok says:

    good site ulmopy

  20. joan says:

    As a teacher in a self-contained behavior/emotional disorder classroom, my opinion (for what it’s worth) is: The problem with our schools these days is that our students are no longer being made to suffer consequences for bad behavior. And by this, I mean that when a student is given a detention or suspension for inappropriate behavior, the parent calls and complains (and threatens to sue) that their child is being picked on. If the consequences are dropped or minimized, the student feels he/she can do no wrong and that bad behavior is okay because the parent will get them out of trouble. A contributing factor is that when an infraction is severe enough to make the detention or suspension stick, parents are not giving their children consequences at home. Therefore, my students like being suspended because they know they will get to stay home and play video games all day.
    All this leads to teachers having to do the parents’ job as well as their own teaching job. Unfortunately, this leads to very little time available for academics.

  21. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I do feel which you ought to write read a lot more about this subject, it will not be considered a taboo subject but typically every person is too few to communicate in on such topics. To one more. Cheers

  1. April 5, 2008

    [...] Digital Ethnography » Blog Archive » “Overthinking” and other insights into the current state … In an earlier post, I mentioned that as an anthropologist I like to pay attention to clichés as little insights into the current state of education. I pointed out that the often-heard lament that “some students are not cut out for school” is a telling statement about the state of our schools not so much our students because school is designed for learning, and we would never say “some students are not cut out for learning.” Yet the lament passes without a hint of protest. It’s just something we say. No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  2. April 8, 2008

    [...] is some great conversation going on about this topic over at mediatedcultures.net.  Come share your [...]