The winners of HSE University’s Best Teachers competition were announced last week. Five teachers won in all three categories: the student vote, the graduate vote, and the results of the Student Research Paper Competition. HSE University Life spoke to the winners about what the competition and student assessment mean to them.
Winning in three categories for the first time was a very pleasant surprise! I tried to understand what happened and realized that I’m just lucky—lucky with my students, graduates and colleagues. It would be a lie to say that the results of the vote don’t mean anything to me. Working at ICEF is a major part of my life, and I value my relationships with everyone.
Almost all the feedback has been useful in one way or another. Some of it is a reminder of things I’ve done well (and not so well), and some of it just lifts my spirits. Students diligently and happily coming to class at 9 am on a Saturday morning is the real honour! And when I read feedback that refers to me as ‘Esau-love’, I can’t help but smile. To me, student teaching quality assessment is a great opportunity to hear from students and graduates. It has been especially important over the last two years—we’ve had to teach in constantly changing circumstances, so you aren’t always aware of how well it’s working out.
I have been working at HSE University since 2004. I’ve won Best Teacher many times, and won in multiple categories several times, but you can’t let these things go to your head. My colleagues and I currently run three courses, all of which are time-tested and developed to a level I’m happy with. But that doesn’t mean they’re set in stone. We are always developing them further, adding to them, and enriching them with the latest literature and cases. Of the three categories in the competition, the most significant for me might be the Student Paper Research Competition. Two of my students won this year’s competition, and there is no other feeling like it. Working with students individually is a serious challenge, and there’s no room for self-delusion—you’re either capable of teaching them everything they need, or you’re not.
It is both right and necessary to get feedback from students. It helps us to make the course better, more interesting, and sometimes more challenging when students want more. Naturally, there are points of contention and discussion, and passions are always going to run high here. For example, we’re always debating the issue of censorship—whether it’s necessary, whether students should spare their lecturers’ feelings when giving feedback in ‘colourful’ language, shall we say. This hasn’t happened to me, but I can imagine that it isn’t pleasant. Some questions are also difficult for students to answer. For example, how can a first-year student know whether a particular course is useful in their future career? They can’t always know if a course is beneficial in terms of employment, or broadening their perspectives, what kind of outlook they need for their career or even what kind of career they will have. Of course, student feedback isn’t the only factor we consider when creating a course. Students’ desires and needs change from year to year. Working on a course is a complex and multifaceted process. We make the decisions, but it is still invaluable to know what students think about them.
There is a lot of ambiguity in a lecturer’s work. We have to make decisions about course content, the nature of assignments, and the relationship between different topics and the format of work. Teaching is a matter of practice. There’s not a single teaching course that will tell you exactly what works for a specific course and a specific set of students. You’re never sure what the end result will be, which is why student feedback has helped me to understand that some students have found my course interesting and useful.
Of course, winning the Best Teachers competition is important and satisfying, but it doesn’t mean that you can rest on your laurels or that the people who didn’t win have done something wrong. Psychometrics and probability theory show that these kinds of assessments rely not only on the quality of my work, but also on the number of programmes I’ve taught in in different departments this year, as well as random measurement errors. Based on the results of the last ten years, my likelihood of winning in at least one category is 0.7—though this is the first time I’ve won in all three at the same time.
It was very unexpected, as this was my first year of giving lectures in a remote, asynchronous format. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to rework the course, improve the examples, and record videos in two languages. There have been a lot of difficulties and there are a lot of improvements to make in order to make the course available to everyone, so I was pleasantly surprised that the new format worked. In addition to student ratings, there is also a behavioural indicator: the course ended in March, but views of the key fragments have continued to grow over the holidays. This goes to show that even for a first run, distance learning was a success.
All student feedback is useful in one way or another—particularly when it concerns problems. Some of these problems are evergreen. My course is a part of several different Master’s programmes for researchers, practitioners, psychologists with a basic knowledge of mathematical methods, and humanities students who haven’t heard of a standard deviation before. As a result, some find the lectures too difficult and with an excessive workload, while others want more detail and more advanced topics. The fact that the critical feedback is so diverse tells me that I’m on the right track—people with all kinds of backgrounds can get something new and useful from my course.
Another problem area is the transition to remote learning. Student feedback helps us to understand what’s lacking and what to do about it. In my case, this was to develop new test assignments, more clearly differentiate between the core and supplementary materials for different programmes, and create discussion forums on SmartLMS. I’m somewhat amused by complaints along the lines of ‘we weren’t told exactly how to do things’ or ‘we had to learn independently.’ Once you start writing research articles, you’ll realize that’s how it’s always going to be!
Student teaching quality assessment is unquestionably useful, and it’s widely used all over the world for a reason. Critics say that the results of such assessment aren’t related to the real knowledge obtained, and that the practice encourages students to lower requirements to keep students happy. There is some truth in that, but it’s important to remember that the outcome of a course isn’t just about learning formulas and practices—it’s about getting an idea of your opportunities for development as a specialist in a specific field, and gaining the motivation to make the most of these opportunities independently. To me, student feedback is a better reflection of the impact on inner motivation and self-development that’s vital in the long-term, rather than the ability to memorize simple facts—which are often forgotten after exams despite the lecturer’s best efforts to hammer them into students’ heads.
Just like any other instrument, student teaching quality assessment isn’t the be-all and end-all. You must always look at it in the right context to get the most benefit out of it. Rather than improving the practice itself, we should improve what we do with the results. At the end of their courses, lecturers in British universities write a short reflective note about student feedback, the aspects of the course that worked well (and not so well), the topics of critical feedback, whether anything needs to be changed to improve future students’ experiences, and what specific things they intend to do differently next time. It would be great for us to adopt this kind of practice not simply as an exercise in writing a report for its own sake, but as a way for lecturers to share their recipes for success, their mistakes, and their approaches to fixing them.
In my opinion, it is vital not to undervalue student feedback. No matter how well a course goes, there will always be critical feedback from students—and there always should be. There’s no shame in getting critical feedback. On the contrary, a total lack of detailed feedback should give lecturers pause for thought. Higher education presents us with very complex challenges, and we have to solve them however we can. And the best way to do that is to listen to students giving honest accounts of their experiences.
Colleagues from our school are named Best Teacher quite often, and I believe this is a result of the special structure of our teaching model. In our school, theorists such as myself accompany students throughout their whole four-year programme and into their Master’s programmes. In the first year, we give students a base course in art history and design. From the second year onwards, we offer a wide range of courses in various aspects of culture, so that students can choose to study exactly what they need and what interests them. Subjects include the histories of cinema, architecture, furniture, landscape design, comic history and contemporary popular culture.
The HSE Art and Design school has always positioned itself as being practice oriented. Our students primarily focus on their projects, and this naturally requires them to learn specific things about the history of their field. We’ve prepared lots of building blocks for them to use to construct their own theoretical knowledge and research skills. It is lovely to see how they grow into specialists as a result of this focused approach. Some members of our school teach one or two subjects, others teach at all four undergraduate levels. I accompany students along their whole journey, from base courses to visual research for their theses. Perhaps that’s why I was awarded in all three categories.
Student feedback is one of the most useful mechanisms there is. And it involves precise analytical work on their part—their responses aren’t based on fleeting emotions or matters of taste, but rather they speak objectively on matters of substance. That’s why the system works. Even when they say, ‘That teacher is so strict—it’s awful’ about one lecturer, and ‘That teacher is so strict—how cool!’ about another, we know what they mean. Feedback is like a tuning fork for us. We adjust our work based on student feedback, especially when we receive precise technical feedback like ‘the requirements aren’t clear enough’ or ‘it was hard to see the presentation.’
For example, this year we put a huge amount of extra effort into making sure our requirements were as clear as possible. We also explained many times what our approach to accountability would be, albeit without any feedback—it was a difficult year. It is much harder to maintain contact with students remotely outside of a lecture hall. Nevertheless, we managed to do it. We increased the number of subjects in the second and third years in order to reduce group sizes, strengthened the seminar programme, and developed a system of small weekly assignments to make sure everyone stayed sharp. It works almost perfectly, and if there are any adjustments needed, we’ll hear about it in the next round of student feedback.
I first won the Best Teachers competition in 2015, and this year marked my seventh win. Of course, winning in three categories matters to me! It is a huge honour and a pleasure. Student teaching quality feedback is a well organized and highly effective tool for assessing faculty and encouraging their continuous growth. I am very thankful to the organizers of the competition. Winning in 2021 is especially significant given that the majority of courses were held online due to the pandemic, and it was important to me that the quality of teaching remained as high as before.
The support expressed by students in their comments on my work helps me to understand which areas to focus on, and what to strengthen and develop in our existing courses. I consider all feedback to be valuable, important and useful. Thank you, dear students, for voting for me! You are all so different and so talented, and our time together has been very interesting. I wish you every success in your careers!