The Hippo and the Panda Talk Teaching

Hippo: Hey, Panda, did you see this study that says that students consistently give lower teaching evaluations to hippos than to pandas?

Panda: How do we know that’s true? I’m very sophisticated statistically, not to mention ridiculously cute due to the fact that I am a panda, and I can tell you that that study has a lot of flaws.

Hippo: But there are a lot of other studies like this, so can we just assume for the purposes of our conversation that it’s true?

Panda: Ok, let’s make that assumption. So maybe hippos get worse evaluations because hippos are just lousy teachers—maybe you all need to learn how to teach.


Hippo: But my teaching style is just like yours. And wouldn’t it be kind of weird if hippos were universally worse teachers than pandas? I think it’s just that students don’t like hippos as much as they like pandas. I mean, I’m not all furry and cute like you.

Panda: True. I am ridiculously cute.

Hippo: Ok, moving right along. Anyway, since students are biased against hippos, I think that my low teaching evaluations shouldn’t count against me in the tenure process, or at least, shouldn’t count against me as much.

Panda: That doesn’t make any sense. Why should it matter whether students aren’t learning from you because you mumble and don’t give good examples, or aren’t learning from you because they don’t like hippos? The fact is, they’re not learning, or at least, they don’t feel like they are. Don’t we want this school to have good teachers?

Hippo: Yes, but why should I bear the burden of their bigotry?

Panda: Bear! Hee hee hee.

Hippo: Could you be serious for a second? I don’t see why I should have to be punished for their bigotry. Shouldn’t they be the ones who carry the burden of having an irrational dislike for hippos?

Panda: Because you’re not as—

Hippo: Yes, fine, because I’m not as ridiculously cute as you.

Panda: That makes me a little uncomfortable, because I thought our purpose was to teach our students. Maybe in day-to-day life you shouldn’t have to carry the burden of other people’s bigotry, but here in school, we take on, or should take on, a lot of things for our students. I mean, it’s a general rule that I don’t clean up other people’s messes, but when my son is sick (and by the way, if you think I’m ridiculously cute, you should see my son! baby panda!), I clean up after him. That’s my role in the parent-baby panda relationship. And our role as teachers is to help our students learn.

Hippo: Yeah, that’s true, but I think one of the things we should help them learn is how to accept hippos as teachers and in other positions of authority.

Panda: That makes sense—I guess I’m not here just to teach my subject area, tree-scratching. So how could we help them learn to like hippos?

Hippo: Well, if not all students are biased, and if classes are graded on a curve, people who don’t learn well from hippos will get worse grades than other people when they take classes from hippos. The bad grade will essentially be a correction for the bias, one of the rare settings in which discrimination can be punished without any action on anyone’s part. The student suffers from his bias against hippos, but, if we weight evaluations properly, the hippo does not. But the discriminating student can eliminate his disadvantage in the class by listening better to hippos. In other words, the student can improve his grades by changing his behavior (i.e., his not-listening-to-hippos behavior). So we should let students know that many people are biased against hippos, so that a student who gets a bad grade from a hippo thinks, “Hmm, maybe I can learn better and improve my grade if I get rid of this irrational bias of mine and listen carefully to this hippo.” And perhaps the student can bring this attitude with him out into society at large.

Panda: That seems kind of optimistic. And it still makes me kind of uncomfortable, though I can’t figure out exactly why.

Hippo: Well, let me know. I’m going to go wallow in the mud.

Panda: Yeah, I’ll think about it. See you later. I’m going to go eat some bamboo in a placid manner.

490539_sleepy_hippo.jpg smallerpanda.JPG

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9 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    (I think the hippo in that picture at the bottom is pretty cute. Not, admittedly, as cute as the panda, but still…)

    (What if students are learning fine from hippos, but they don’t realize it? Then, no grade penalty.)

  2. matt says:

    I had almost the same two thoughts as Paul: 1) I actually thing hippos are cuter than pandas, at least so long as the hippos don’t show their teeth too much since they are sort of scary. 2) more seriously, even if students report they learn less well or enjoy themselves less or whatever evaluations are supposed to tell us from “hippos” rather than pandas, should we assume that they _actually_ learn less well from them? Some might, because they refuse to listen, perhaps, but I’d expect many to learn just as well, since they are being taught not worse, but have a false subjective report of learning less well, since they are biased. Do you know if anyone has tried to tease these things apart with any success?

  3. Dana Nguyen says:

    Sarah Lawsky is officially my favorite guest blogger at the Co-Op. This is a brilliang and interesting post. I like both hippos and pandas, so what does that say about me?

    There are a few cognitive psych studies about priming and the correction of bias. Once aware of prejudice, people can prime themselves to be aware of that tendency and correct I am of the Tetlockian school of slight skepticism about the IAT as a measurement instrument of implicit bias, but the priming/correction literature is promising. I will try to dig up some cites and forward them to you!

  4. Dana Nguyen says:

    I have no idea what “brilliang” means, and so I suspect I meant “brilliant.”

  5. Ace says:

    Why are we to assume a correlation between a student getting good grades and giving a good evaluation. Anecdotally, I earned an A in the class taught by the worst law professor I have ever had. I was able to recite basic stuff on the exam but didn’t really learn anything. “Learning” material and exam grades are worlds apart. “Bias” and “learning” are even further apart.

  6. anon says:

    Ugliness in humans, I think, seems to be a more complex phenomenon than ugliness in hippos or pandas. One either finds hippos cute or not, as commenters have made clear. But one might find one’s teacher “ugly” because he isn’t inspiring, looks ugly, is sloppy, treats people badly, is unclear, is unfair, shows up late and smelling of alcohol, has three hairy moles on his nose, or for a host of other reasons. Some of these, I take it, you think are “bigotry” while others are not — maybe they are even legitimate reasons to think someone ugly (are there any such reasons, or are they all irrational ‘I like pandas better than hippos’ kinds of reasons?). How would you disaggregate all the bad stuff from the good in a nice neat, rational formula, such as the one your rational hippo cottons to?

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    I agree with Dana Nguyen about your guest-blogging stint, despite not knowing whether you are a panda or a hippo.

    I’m not in the teaching biz, so please permit me some dumb questions: is the real issue here student evaluations and their impact on tenure decisions? Do they have any impact? And are there really studies such as you suggest? For what are “panda” and “hippo” code words, in that case — gender, ethnicity, &c., or qualities like charm vs mumbling?

    Looking back, I’d have to say that of these factors (a) liking the prof, (b) liking the subject, (c) attending the class after the second week, (d) getting B+ or better, the only ones that were positively correlated for me were (b) and (d). Condition (c) obtained very rarely during my 2d and 3d years, anyway, regardless of factor (a). I can think of only one subject where (a) might have positively influenced (b), which was tax, you’ll be happy to hear; but it wasn’t a life-changing event. In at least one case, non-(c) caused (d); that’s because I’d studied based on the syllabus, and was able to prepare adequately for an exam question that was 50% of the exam. The prof (who was both a hippo and a turtle) didn’t get to that topic until the last 20 minutes of the last class, I later learned.

    Now, that was in the dark ages of the Reagan era. My profs were incredibly non-diverse: all male, none openly gay, only one Asian-American, and only two others Jewish, both of them over 65 and born outside US. In the UC system in San Francisco, no less. So if you’re talking in code about a gender/ethnicity/ etc.-based bestiary, my experience won’t account for much. If you’re talking smart/funny/pompous/alcoholic/ etc., it’s much more relevant. Still, that shouldn’t discourage you from being concerned about the quality of your teaching. That way you may at least connect with some of your students some of the time.

  8. Em says:

    There’s a nice review here:

    http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2006/fischer.html

    Highlights:

    * students’ ratings correlate positively with students’ expected grades

    * ratings taken after students have received grades or during a final examination period tend to be lower

    * although findings on the point are mixed, instructors’ female gender has been found to affect student ratings negatively.

    * Students …rated highly a speaker they had never heard and a film they had never seen

    * Students “give high ratings in appreciation for lenient grading.”

    * Instructors are diluting course rigor out of concern about student evaluations.

  9. Em says:

    There’s a nice review here:

    http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2006/fischer.html

    Highlights:

    * students’ ratings correlate positively with students’ expected grades

    * ratings taken after students have received grades or during a final examination period tend to be lower

    * although findings on the point are mixed, instructors’ female gender has been found to affect student ratings negatively.

    * Students …rated highly a speaker they had never heard and a film they had never seen

    * Students “give high ratings in appreciation for lenient grading.”

    * Instructors are diluting course rigor out of concern about student evaluations.