‘This Achievement Certainly Motivates Me’
The results of the 2022 student vote for Best Teachers of HSE University have been announced. This year, there are more winners among international faculty than ever before. The HSE News Service talked to 2022 winners Cemal Eren Arbatli and Arnab Roy Chowdhury about their attitude to students’ assessment of teachers, their experience of positive and negative feedback, and the challenges of teaching online.
I have been looking forward to this recognition since I took the Assistant Professor (Sociology) position in 2018. Over the years, my course ‘Methods in Comparative and Historical Sociology’ has received good feedback for its innovative design and teaching from the students and was selected in the ‘Best Course for New Knowledge and Skills’ category, along with another course that I co-taught with Lili Di Puppo, ‘Sociological Reasoning: Journal Seminar', that was selected for the ‘Best Course for Broadening Horizons and Diversity of Knowledge and Skills’ category.
However, recognition for teaching remained elusive until now, and when I finally received it in 2022, it gave me immense confidence for the first time as a holistic scholar who can claim to be good not only at research and supervision (of theses, internships, and projects), but also at teaching.
This achievement certainly motivates me.
I have tried to improve my teaching skills and techniques through my experience of teaching undergraduate, masters, and PhD students over the last couple of years, and I am happy that my drive for betterment has been recognised.
At the same time, I realise that I should strive to keep my teaching standards high and try to bring in new pedagogic themes, techniques, and styles and update my knowledge regularly to remain relevant to the students, and I try to do that continuously.
Cemal Eren Arbatli
Associate Professor, Department of Theoretical Economics
Best Academic Supervisors (based on the results of the Student Research Paper Competition), 2022 — Faculty of Economic Sciences
It feels great to see that all the time and effort I dedicated to guide my students' research paid off. I am very proud that my students produced high quality research, and very happy that I was able to inspire most of them to work hard on their projects. I can definitely say that such recognition makes me want to do even better next time.
Pros and Cons of Student Assessment
Dr Chowdhury: The students' assessment of teachers’ work at HSE University is a valuable and much needed practice. It is helpful because the students comment on the course, on the seminar, and on the quality of the course and teaching, and also give a grade on a 5-point scale evaluating us across a number of parameters. For me, these grades have been quite high and the comments mostly positive.
I think the student assessment mechanism is a form of feedback that is necessary for the improvement of our pedagogical style and quality.
Dr Arbatli: I strongly believe that student opinions should be an integral part of teachers' evaluations. However, there is also some research suggesting that student evaluations contain systematic bias (eg against women and people of colour) and should not always be taken at face value. Perhaps there are ways for universities to structure their surveys so as to prevent such biases from affecting the outcome. In any case, teacher assessments should also take into account other metrics, including peer evaluations.
How to Take Advantage of Negative Feedback
Dr Arbatli: In the past, I have received comments that were negatively critical of my performance. One such comment was rightly complaining about overly difficult assignments. I thought the student was right. A common mistake teachers make is to overestimate the average competence and knowledge of the class. Such student feedback helped me realise that sometimes it takes longer for students to reach the desired level, and instructors should increase the difficulty level of assignments only gradually.
Dr Chowdhury: The teachers’ reaction to negative feedback should be to stay calm, read these comments carefully, and take this criticism with a pinch of salt—but not underestimate it.
I try to understand the context in which it was made and try to ponder over the criticism to determine which parts of the criticism are true and can be improved and which parts are just the result of a particular student, in a specific situation, in a particular context, who might have expressed their personal and subjective views about the lecture and that can be ignored.
I never faced any harsh criticism. But, in teaching feedback over the years in various courses, I have been told that I have a more interactive session rather than long lectures, that some find the course difficult because of the use of difficult English words in the lecture, that sometimes I have text-heavy slides, that sometimes I speak English faster than I should speak, and that I ignore the questions in the chat-boxes that come from students who are online. I pondered over these statements, trying to understand how I could learn from this feedback.
I do realise that sometimes I speak faster, because my lectures have lots of ideas that I like to share within a limited period of time, but I will try to slow down.
The difficult English words that I used in the course are actually concepts, which I define first and then use or vice versa. Many students understand them clearly. Some don’t, but if they read the course readings and attended classes regularly (which many do not), they would be able to understand it easily. I can work on my slides and make them less text-heavy. I surely faced difficulty simultaneously managing the online students with the rest of the students in hybrid classes, and that might have made them feel neglected. So, I have decided to do in-person classes whenever possible.
Therefore, I take the feedback seriously and it does challenge me to transform certain aspects of my teaching.
Online Teaching: Challenge Accepted
Dr Chowdhury: Taking classes in the pandemic period has been particularly challenging. Initially, with the online classes, there were problems with voice modulation, the internet, and learning how to use the multiuser online teaching platforms.
There has been a gradual acclimatisation to the entire digital environment.
However, in 2022, when the classes became offline at HSE, COVID-19 continued, and many students could not come to class. I decided to offer a hybrid mode class, which is simultaneously online and offline. I didn't want the students who could not attend in-person to miss the class, so it was a personal choice but a difficult one.
New problems emerged, as lecturing in-person to half of the students who were present and answering questions from the other half while they were online, as well as searching chat-rooms for online questions and answers, made it difficult, and I frequently missed questions from the offline students. It made the lecturing sessions longer and somewhat chaotic. For the time-being I managed this by later answering all the questions from the online chat-room through group emails directed at all the students.
I realised that when the classes are officially offline/in-person, I should avoid delivering hybrid mode lectures.
Dr Arbatli: Most of my teaching last academic year was online. This poses certain challenges. It is harder to monitor student learning, to make lectures interactive and maintain student attention and keep them motivated. This was less of an issue for my research supervision, since I mostly held one-to-one meetings with my project students.
I tried to overcome these challenges by running some real time polls and tests during the class and rewarding active class participation more than before.
On July 24, the results of the Best Teachers 2017 competition at HSE were announced, with more than 500 teachers from across the university being recognized by students, 80% of whom voted in this year’s competition. While the financial reward for recognition is certainly attractive, the teachers who won appreciated the support of students, as well as the opportunity to reflect on their careers and what has made them successful.
The Best Teachers 2017 competition at HSE recently reached its completion. Although the overall procedure this year was the same as it was in 2016, the financial terms changed – the bonuses for the winners have been increased. Vadim Radaev, First Vice Rector of HSE, told us about the vote and some of the perks for all of the winners.
Several HSE instructors recognized as ‘the best’ in their fields would like congratulate students with the start of academic year and hope that they don’t give in to procrastination, take advantage of all opportunities available at HSE, have a good sleep before exams at least once, and remember that teachers are humans too!