Gordon F.M. Rakita
In 2010, Kevin Haggerty published an essay criticizing the state of teaching statements in academia . He argued that these documents fail because (1) almost all “authors profess to love teaching” and (2) writing an excellent statement only proves that the author can write such a statement, not that they are in fact a good teacher. In response to Haggerty’s first point I very much enjoy many aspects of teaching while there are other parts I enjoy less. I suspect many of us in academia feel the same way. What I can say universally about my teaching is that I take all parts of it seriously and I hold myself to the highest standards I can. Whether or not I like an aspect of teaching, I expect to complete all aspects of the teaching enterprise in an outstanding fashion. I use a variety of evaluation methods to check my performance and seek to effect improvements where possible. In response to Haggerty’s second criticism, I will not simply state that I am an excellent teacher, but will offer evidence that I feel proves that I am. I begin with a discussion of my teaching goals and general strategies.
I present my goals in each of my syllabi and naturally my goals vary across the different courses I teach and populations of students I work with. I teach some courses like Introduction to Anthropology and North American Indians designed for lower-division students who will probably not major in Anthropology here at UNF. These courses often fulfill general education, cultural diversity, and/or foreign culture requirements and focus on introducing students to the Anthropological discipline and how we seek to understand our world. In these courses my goals often revolve around low-level Bloom’s taxonomy outcomes such as knowledge of the basic terminology and concepts of the field. However, an important additional goal is for students to leave these courses being able to think like an Anthropologist. Therefore I often ask students to apply Anthropological concepts to unique situations. For example, in my Introduction to Anthropology course, I use short classroom assessment techniques (CATs) to assess student abilities to apply various concepts. An example from my spring 2012 course involved showing students pictures of craft production in two different setting and asking them to use the means and modes of production concepts to analyze the situations.
In contrast, my upper-division courses are typically for Anthropology majors. These courses are designed to move students from being students of Anthropology to beginning to be Anthropologists and often focus on higher Bloom’s taxonomy learning outcomes (e.g. evaluation, synthesis, and analysis of course material). Additionally, some of these courses are prerequisites for or are designed to be completed prior to other courses in our program of study. Therefore, in these courses my goals involve making students competent in the skills, methods, and theories of our discipline. For example, in my 3000-level, Seminar in Anthropology course I spend class time discussing the variety of scholarly writing that Anthropologists do and the class and I read through and dissect an example article. This activity is designed to prepare the students for the sorts of reading they will need to be able to do in our 4000-level courses. Alternatively, in my Archaeological Research Strategies class, I require students to apply two different theoretical perspectives to the same archaeological dataset, thus illustrating the varying conclusions different theories produce.
Of course I seek to create an environment where my students have improved communication skills when they leave my classes. In those classes where detailed feedback on writing is logistically difficult (i.e. when class sizes exceed 40-50 students); I tend to focus on oral expression. Students in my classes quickly learn that I do not accept one word answers or statements that are ungrammatical, imprecise, or unsupported. I make oral communication a more formal goal in my smaller classes where I can require presentations or give oral exams. Written work is an aspect of all of my smaller courses, and I frequently break down large writing assignments into constituent parts. While many students resent having to complete outlines, annotated bibliographies and rough drafts, I believe that many of them come to see their value later. In evaluating written work, I provide extensive feedback so that students can identify their weaknesses and improve in the future.
Along with communication skills, I seek to develop solid analytical skills in my students. Again, the way I approach this goal is different in different courses. In my lower division courses, I often present students with situations or data and together we work through how Anthropologists would analyze them. For example, in my Introduction to Anthropology course I show a chart that displays divorce rates in the United States over the last 150 years and ask them to explain what the chart shows and how we can explain it. In another lecture in the same course, I show the race and ethnicity portion of the U.S. census and we dissect why individuals are allowed to select more than one category and what this implies for our definitions of race. In my upper-division courses, especially my Quantitative Methods in Anthropology course, I expect far more nuanced analytical skills.
Of course, each of the aforementioned goals pertains to my students. I also have goals of my own. I seek to present well-organized courses in which requirements and expectations are clear and assessment is transparent and I make myself available to help students when they need it. My syllabi are one of the key ways I accomplish these goals. I treat each syllabus as a contract with my students. I try to give them as much information as possible about how the semester will progress and what are my expectations. I try to be as explicit as possible in my assignments and I develop grading rubrics directly from my assignments so that I ensure that I am assessing students on what I asked of them. I provide copies of my rubrics to students with their graded work so that they know precisely how I arrive at their grades. I also use rubrics to make sure that my assessments are consistent across students. Another objective I have is to present the course material in an organized, comprehensible fashion. I spend time at the beginning of each semester planning out the topics, readings, assignments, and activities for each class period. I use a course preparation form each week for each class that reminds me what we will be doing. In subsequent semesters I review these course planning forms as I plan out my courses. These forms allow me to stay on target each semester and allow me to adjust my semester schedules when I find that I have scheduled too much or too little time with course topics. I also keep a file for each course called “For Next Time” where I make notes about what is working or not working and changes that I wish to consider. Finally, I make myself available to help students as they progress through my courses. I hold regular office hours, often have open lab hours when students can work with course materials or seek out my help, and I do my best to respond to student e-mails within 48 hours.
I do my best to follow as many of Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education as I can. For example, I communicate to my students that I have high expectations for their performance in my classes. I usually grade assignments on a 10 point scale and I indicate to students (often explicitly in my syllabus, rubric, or the assignment) that students will not receive a 10 out of 10 unless their work is truly exceptional. I build my rubrics such that if students merely complete the assignment correctly they will receive a grade of 7 or 8. My students know that to receive truly exceptional grades they must produce truly exceptional work. I have built a collection of 10/10 assignments from past classes (with student identity removed) that I provide as examples of what I am expecting. I also hold myself to similar high expectations and I believe that my students realize that I expect nothing out of them that I do not expect of myself. Modeling high standards promotes an environment where we are all striving to be our best.
I recognize my students are quite diverse in the ways they learn, their academic talents, and in their educational goals. I try to provide students with information in a range of modalities and media. For example, in my Introduction to Anthropology course, students are required to complete weekly readings, listen to audio clips, watch video clips, and attend lectures where we discuss topics. In some of my courses students take traditional tests (with both objective and more open-ended questions). In other courses students give oral presentations or take oral exams. In some they write papers; in others they may complete research projects, lab work, or data analyses. I try to tailor information delivery and assessment to the level of the course and the nature of the students. I also try to provide students with multiple ways to demonstrate their varied abilities in each class.
Collaborative learning in which students work as a team to complete assignments and learn course material can be a powerful educational tool and I use it when appropriate in my classes. Several times in my Junior Seminar in Anthropology course, I have students write essays and go through the process of peer-editing each other’s work. Students gain a better understanding of good writing by seeing how other students completed their essay and seeing what works and doesn’t work in theirs and their peer’s work. Similar collaborative learning occurs in my Quantitative Methods in Anthropology course. This course is essentially a statistics for Anthropologists class. As such it requires students to not only learn the statistical techniques, but also learn how to run the analysis in the software package we use. I encourage students to work collaboratively on their assignments and take-home exam, and have found that those students who form working groups often have fewer problems and higher scores.
Collaborative learning is also part of my courses where I have students actively engaged in learning. While not all active learning is physically active, in my laboratory-based courses it is. For example, students in my Introduction to Forensic Sciences and Principles of Physical Anthropology courses complete laboratory activities and write-ups as a significant portion of their graded work. I find that students both enjoy exploring the physical lab materials and applying what we are learning in lectures and readings to actually analyze evidence. That students work in groups and collaborate on their lab work only adds to the effectiveness of this strategy.
I find that students often respond positively and perform best on assignments and activities that are authentic. By authentic I mean assignments that are similar to the sorts of work they will be required to complete outside of university. Therefore, I try to incorporate many of these types of tasks in my classes. For example, in my JAX Deathscapes course (a community-based, transformational learning version of my Anthropology of Death course) the students and I collected data from gravestones, conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey looking for unmarked graves, completed preservation assessments and mapped cemeteries. Students also worked in groups to complete their own research projects which they presented at our departmental student symposium. Likewise, in both my Quantitative Methods in Anthropology and Archaeological Research Strategies classes I ask students to analyze actual anthropological datasets. Students in my fall 2011 Introduction to Forensic Sciences course were split into three groups and conducted a trial related to the assassination of President John Kennedy. One group served as judge and jury, one group advocated for the position that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and one group argued for a conspiracy. The various groups had to develop trial procedures, put forward their cases with evidence, cross-examine the opposing team, and write-up their case reports and the final judgment. These sorts of authentic assignments resonate with and engage students.
Consistent student-faculty contact and prompt feedback on student efforts are valuable pedagogical strategies. I make it my practice to return student work within a week of collecting it. I also try to identify students that I can mentor and provide them with the opportunity to work with me in my lab and in the field. In my years at UNF, I have overseen twenty-three directed independent studies or honors thesis hours including six as part of UNF Undergraduate Research / Student Mentored Academic Research Team (SMART) Grants. Eight of these students have gone on to graduate school. From 2006 to 2009 I oversaw a UNF - Transformational Learning Opportunity grant that funded nine student fellowships in the Anthropology labs. Several of these fellowships have led to presentations at both UNF’s annual research symposium and presentations at national meetings and four of these fellows have gone on to graduate school. In 2009, I mentored four of our Anthropology students through their own research projects, which were presented in a poster symposium at the Society for American Archaeology meetings. In order to “institutionalize” such opportunities, I have established a laboratory research team (similar to those found in the STEM fields), and I meet weekly with my team to review their progress and advise them. Two of these students completed honors theses (the first two for the Anthropology program here at UNF). Both of these students shared the annual Outstanding Student Graduate award for the program. My students are well-respected within UNF and in the discipline. For example, one of my students was invited by the director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research at Arizona State University to complete her chemical analysis of human bone samples in the laboratories there at ASU. Another of my students was selected to be a lab intern at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado. I was pleased to be awarded our department’s faculty mentor award in 2012.
Evidence of Teaching Effectiveness (Indirect Measures)
As indicated by Marsh (2007 ), student evaluations are “relatively valid against a variety of indicators of effective teaching.” I am pleased to see that my scores are at the high end of the scale. For question #8 (Overall rating of the instructor) my course averages never drop below 4.13 and are frequently much higher. My question #8 average for all courses is 4.57 (or 4.53 weighted by number of respondents). Every semester I review my ISQ scores for each question and make adjustments to my teaching in subsequent semesters. My ISQ scores show that students believe they are being challenged and that they are very satisfied with their experience in my courses.
This observation is also supported by the students’ discursive comments. For example, one summer 2012 ANT 3312 student wrote: “This is my 3rd course from Dr.Ratita [sic], his classes are both challenging and difficult at times. However, he keeps the class interesting and worthwhile. He is a[n] extraordinary professor and I will continue to take his classes for as long as possible.” One fall 2012 ANT 4115 Archaeological Research Strategies student stated: “Dr. Rakita is an excellent professor and choses his course materials well. The course was challenging, but I have learned a lot in a short time. I am looking forward to taking more courses with this professor.” A student in my spring 2083 ANT 4083 Quantitative Methods course wrote: “Dr. Rakita is by far the best Professor I have ever had! He is tough, the classes are challenging and he always makes time to help his students.” From my fall 2011 ANT 3740 Forensic Sciences course a student commented: “Dr. Rakita seems like a tough professor at first but he pushes you and expects you to do your best, always provides help to students and is always enthusiastic about topics in his class.” Finally, from spring 2013 an ANT 4025 JAX Deathscapes student says “Great class. Hands-on application is awesome. Reading load is heavy but when I actually do them they apply directly to the course work & exponentially enhance my learning experience. I also find it remarkable how much you make yourself available to help us.”
Since the spring of 2009 I have regularly used a survey instrument of my own to assess my performance in my classes. I find that the more feedback available to me, the better I am able to adjust my teaching habits. I deploy this instrument as an anonymous survey via Blackboard often requiring participation as part of an assignment due near the end of the term. Twelve of the questions I use are drawn from a survey Texas A&M University uses to evaluate professors for salary bonuses. The results suggest I am strong instructor that sets high standard for his students, presents material in an engaging and organized fashion, and provides prompt feedback.
Evidence of Teaching Effectiveness (Direct Measures)
While student evaluations and surveys are excellent indirect indications of student learning, I have also endeavored to collect direct evidence of student learning. Below I describe that evidence for several of my classes. For example, in the fall of 2010, as part of the Anthropology program’s assessment of two of our learning outcomes I examined improvements in my students’ understanding of the comparative perspective and ability to produce clear, logical, arguments supported by evidence. The documents shows an increase in students exceeding expectations. I believe these results indicate in a concrete way that my teaching had a measurable, positive impact on student learning.
A second example is drawn from my summer 2012 ANT 3312 North American Indians course. In all my courses I expect written work that follows standard grammar rules, along with other grading criteria such as correctness and quality of answer. Over the course of the semester I expect to see improvements in my students’ performance on these aspects of their writing as they receive feedback from me. An examination of the percentage of students exceeding expectations for these criteria from their first to their last written assignment indicates that quality of student writing and content improved.
A third example comes from my ANT 3514 Principles of Physical Anthropology course. For the fall 2012 semester I required students to give a brief final presentation on a topic related to Physical Anthropology. I also required students to complete an electronic portfolio (using the university’s iWebfolio platform) of examples of their work in Anthropology. For each piece of work students were required to develop a reflective statement that either explains how the work demonstrates their proficiency at one of our learning outcomes or how they developed that proficiency. The rubric results show that by and large students are excellent in terms of their use of sources, having their slides prepared and ready, their ability to answer questions about their topic, and their ability to stay on topic. Similar positive results are shown for the e-portfolios.
Finally, for my spring 2013 ANT 4083 Quantitative Methods in Anthropology course pre- and post-tests show marked improvement for all questions and in students’ comfort level working with the two software packages. The exam grades show similar results.
Self-Evaluation and Improvement
Given the importance of teaching here at UNF, I work diligently to improve my pedagogical skills. Each academic year brings with it natural opportunities for me to pause, evaluate my teaching, reflect on what is working and what is not, and make improvements. One of the most important is during the preparation of my annual self-evaluation document. As part of that process I gather together information about my teaching like that summarized here. Often these are times when I add significantly to my “For Next Time” files for each of the classes I taught. I make note of what worked well, what did not, and ideas for changes to the class that I think will have a positive impact on student learning. Thus at the beginning of the summer, I have a retrospective period of self-evaluation. The beginning of each semester, on the other hand is a prospective period in which I revise and re-craft syllabi for my upcoming courses. While preparing my syllabi I consider my “For Next Time” notes. I also have begun to practice two checks on my course planning. First, I review each course with a list of Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles to make sure that I have developed courses that facilitate me meeting those principles. The second check is a more explicit focus on the correlation between course learning outcomes and course activities and assignments. This second check follows Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005 ) recommendation for what they refer to as “backward design” of courses in which the instructor considers first what outcomes they wish to achieve, then what evidence is necessary, and finally plans learning activities.
I also seek out opportunities to learn from others. Throughout my career at UNF I have participated in pedagogical workshops and courses. For example, this past year I attended the workshop our department arranged the director of UNF’s Office of Faculty Enhancement (OFE) to lead on developing measures and evidence of learning. In the summer of 2010 I participated in OFE’s Course Redesign for Effective Learning Workshop. In the summer of 2011 I not only completed the Center for Instructional and Research Technology’s online teaching course but also two online teaching certificate programs by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) for Professional Development. Finally, I was a participant in the community-based transformational learning workshops our department attended in our capacity as a CBTL-engaged department.
Kevin Haggerty, Teaching Statements are Bunk, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19th, 2010.
Arthur Chickering & Zelda Gamson, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 1987.
Herbert Marsh, Students’ Evaluations of University Teaching: Dimensionality, Reliability, Validity, Potential Biases and Usefulness, The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: An Evidence-Based Perspective, 2007, pp 319-383.
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (expanded 2nd Edition), Pearson, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2005.