OPINION: Ask What You Can Learn


By Daniel Yearwood

Harvard Kennedy School is the world’s leading school of government and public administration. The institution attracts and develops thoughtful leaders in an unparalleled range of disciplines related to statecraft, policy making, business and non-profit management. This notwithstanding, in the interest of continuously enhancing both HKS as an institution and the experience that students have while here, it is important to periodically assess the performance of the faculty and administrators to find areas where improvements can be made.

One of today’s opinion pieces comments on a review of recent HKS course evaluation data and posits that some teachers at HKS are in need of remedial training in the art of pedagogy. The piece builds on work done by the HKS Progressive Caucus which notes that one in seven professors teaching classes of ten or more students received a course evaluation score of less than 3.5. Categorized as poor performance, this is subsequently attributed to the lack of formal teaching requirements for HKS teachers and an overemphasis by HKS on publishing experience and public service in teacher selection.

It is difficult to understand how such a sweeping conclusion regarding the need for improved pedagogy can be drawn on the basis of aggregate course evaluation data. Course evaluations reflect students’ overall opinions on a particular course. Assuming that this sample is representative, which may perhaps be a stretch, students can form unfavorable views on a course for numerous reasons unrelated to the professor’s pedagogy such as an aversion to the subject matter.

For a moment, let us assume that dissatisfaction with the professor’s teaching ability is the primary factor motivating course evaluations and that the students completing these evaluations have done so bearing the key tenets of pedagogical criticism in mind. What objective benchmark are we expected to use to assess these course evaluations against? Is 3.5 the widely accepted metric used to determine acceptable teacher quality? If so, is the fact that one in seven professors fall below this metric an alarming statistic? How do both of these measures compare to course evaluation data at other graduate schools at Harvard or at other leading public policy schools? These questions among others remain unanswered in the “analysis” presented by those arguing that some HKS professors are in need of remedial training in the theory and practice of learning and teaching.

The aforementioned shortcomings of utilizing course evaluation data to draw conclusions regarding pedagogical acumen have not been lost on the study’s patrons. The author rightly cites alternatives such as peer reviews and other assessments of learning outcomes which are required in order to properly evaluate individual professors. This makes the claims regarding the required need for remedial classes in teaching all the more puzzling and sensationalist at best. The author goes on to lament the supposed tendency of HKS to allocate finite resources to initiatives that increase the institution’s fame and prestige over initiatives that improve educational outcomes as the root cause of the allegedly unsatisfactory state of pedagogy. On what basis is this claim made? Which other examples of this institutional bias toward prestige at the expense of pedagogical excellence are cited? Very often professors at HKS are able to draw on their public service and publishing experience to provide vivid examples of theoretical concepts in practice; a plausible case exists for the argument that these experiences improve educational outcomes.

There are a wide range of course options for us here at HKS, catering to the diversity of backgrounds of the student population and the myriad ways we each plan to enhance the public good upon graduation. Instead of mechanically shunning professors and courses that fall within the tail end of the course evaluation distribution, examine the course content and class format to determine if the course is a good fit for you and your career plans.

Ask yourself if the professor’s research or professional experience could provide you with added insight that is not adequately captured within the course description. Ask yourself if the knowledge or skillsets you learn in the course would help you advance the public good as you embark on a career of service. Ask yourself what you can learn.

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