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princeton review credits Cal-Tech has the worst professors!

eternity_hope2005eternity_hope2005 Registered User Posts: 524 Member
edited August 2005 in Engineering Majors
Princeton review ranks cal-tech #1 for having students give professors the lowest marks.

http://www.princetonreview.com/college/research/profiles/rankings.asp?listing=1023684&LTID=1

why is this? At such a top institution, aren't the profs supposed to be the best?
Post edited by eternity_hope2005 on
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Replies to: princeton review credits Cal-Tech has the worst professors!

  • eternity_hope2005eternity_hope2005 Registered User Posts: 524 Member
    the site unaccessible to non-members (you can sign up for free)
  • molliebatmitmolliebatmit Registered User Posts: 12,374 Senior Member
    Very intelligent people are just like any other kind of people -- some of them make superb professors, and some of them don't.
  • dr_reynoldsdr_reynolds Registered User Posts: 536 Member
    At many of these top instituions the professors have little time to actually teach and prepare lessons. Teaching is not highly valued at these places and their advancement and promotions have little to do with what happens in the classroom. Hence, a lower quality of teaching. Of course there are still some good teachers, but there will be plenty of them that just don't care. I saw this for myself at Purdue.
  • sakkysakky - Posts: 14,759 Senior Member
    At such a top institution, aren't the profs supposed to be the best?

    The key word there is 'best'. What do you mean by the 'best'? Like dr_reynolds said, profs at research universities are rated almost exclusively on their research. Just because a guy is a great researcher doesn't mean that he's a great teacher. In fact, often times the opposite is true - the more time you spend on your research, the less time you have available to put together coherent and interesting lectures and be available to help students who are struggling to understand. Furthermore, if you're a brilliant researcher, you may feel frustrated having to explain what you think are basic concepts.

    I've said it before many times - if you want to get top undergraduate teaching, you will tend to find more of that at the LAC's and the LAC-like universities.

    One thing I did find interesting (but not surprising) in the PR rating is the disproportionate number of 'Institutes of Technology' that have such bad teaching. I think there is something to the notion that technical subjects are often times poorly taught, hence contributing to the lack of interest among Americans in studying technical subjects (along with the other factors I have mentioned such as the preference among many American students to be consultants and bankers).
  • 4thfloor4thfloor Registered User Posts: 849 Member
    "One thing I did find interesting (but not surprising) in the PR rating is the disproportionate number of 'Institutes of Technology' that have such bad teaching. I think there is something to the notion that technical subjects are often times poorly taught ..."

    I am surprised you did not return to a theme you often made, that the rigorous, quantitative courses tend to be grade deflated, while the "fuzzies" tend to be grade inflated, and that students, sitting at the receiving end of this transaction, return the favor when they assess the quality of teaching. This correlation does not hold in every single case, but when you aggregate over large populations, it is surely highly significant.

    It is just like in high school, where the most popular teachers are most often the English teachers, who give out the most A's.
  • sakkysakky - Posts: 14,759 Senior Member
    I am surprised you did not return to a theme you often made, that the rigorous, quantitative courses tend to be grade deflated, while the "fuzzies" tend to be grade inflated, and that students, sitting at the receiving end of this transaction, return the favor when they assess the quality of teaching. This correlation does not hold in every single case, but when you aggregate over large populations, it is surely highly significant.

    I didn't return to it because I was waiting for somebody else to say it. I knew I wasn't the only one who's noticed this.

    What I've never been able to adequately deduce is twhy this is. For example, why don't tech professors, in light of the bad teaching assessments they receive, simply start handing out inflated grades just like the nontech profs do? Why is it that tech disciplines put up with low grades and low teacher assessments, and nontech disciplines don't?
  • NumericalMethodsNumericalMethods Registered User Posts: 14 New Member
    Liberal arts subjects are often very subjective. If a student gets a lower grade on a paper, he/she can argue with the prof that he/she was right. And consequently, profs have to allow a lot of leeway in grading to acccomodate such situations resulting in higher grades. Contrast this with technical subjects where there are right and wrong answers. If a problem is wrong, the prof can do so without having to worry about subjectivity. Hence, the harder grading.
  • sakkysakky - Posts: 14,759 Senior Member
    I've heard this argument so many times, and it's a gigantic red herring and excuse. As I've said before on other threads, the mere fact that liberal arts subjects are subjective does not automatically mean that you have to adopt easier grading.

    Look at the situation this way. Why aren't doctoral dissertations in the liberal arts easy to complete? Take an English doctoral dissertation. English faculty doctoral committees don't adopt the attitude that just because English is subjective, they are just going to accept any old dissertation before they award the doctorate. Not even close. Completing a dissertation that will be accepted by the committee usually takes many years, with with a draining and tortuous years-long process of edits and re-edits. Yeah, English is subjective, so you could 'argue' that your dissertation is correct until the cows come home, but it doesn't matter. No doctoral committee adopts the attitude that just because the field is subjective, they are going to give doctoral candidates the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they give them "anti-benefit of the doubt", meaning that if there's any question as to whether your disseration is acceptable or not, then they will not accept it. Only when there is no doubt that the dissertation is acceptable will you finally be awarded the doctorate.

    The point is, this proves that you can judge subjective fields very harshly if you wanted to. Liberal arts faculty members do it all the time when they sit on the doctoral committees. So if they can do it there, why is it impossible for them to do it in their undergrad classes?
  • 4thfloor4thfloor Registered User Posts: 849 Member
    Excuse me for a pet peeve, but there is a distinction between "liberal arts" and "humanities".

    A true liberal arts education should include BOTH the humanities and the sciences. An education that only teaches the humanities but leaves out the sciences is a very poor education and does NOT qualify as a liberal arts education. You will find that many of the best liberal arts colleges offer a balance of humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Dartmouth, for example, graduates as many science as humanities majors.

    I think you meant that "humanities" subjects are often very subjective. And perhaps you are questioning the basis of grading -- and perhaps scholarship -- in the humanities altogether?
  • eternity_hope2005eternity_hope2005 Registered User Posts: 524 Member
    Yeah. For example, getting an undergraduate chemistry or biochemistry or biology degree at many colleges is a B.A. (not a B.S.). It's more a bachelor of arts than science for this reason - it encompasses many social science, english, lit. courses along with the core, pure science topics.
  • karthikkitokarthikkito Registered User Posts: 1,387 Senior Member
    Another example of this is psychology - at many schools the student can choose between a BA or BS.
  • sakkysakky - Posts: 14,759 Senior Member
    4thfloor, I am well aware of what liberal arts is, technically speaking. I was just using liberal arts as a metaphor for subjective fields.

    I don't question the scholarship of the humanities. There is no reason why any humanities field couldn't be just as rigorous and difficult as any other field, including engineering. And in fact I would submit that getting a doctorate in a humanities is probably equally as difficult as getting an engineering doctorate, if not more so.

    My question is, at the undergraduate level, why is it that humanities courses (and to a lesser extent, the social sciences) are easier, on average, than the natural sciences or engineering courses. Now of course, there are a few humanities courses that are a beast, and a few engineering courses that aren't exactly rigorous, but I'm talking about what the averages are. Let's face it. The average undergrad humanities course requires less work and grades easier than the average engineering course. Why is that?
  • FrodoFrodo Registered User Posts: 40 Junior Member
    "The key word there is 'best'. What do you mean by the 'best'? Like dr_reynolds said, profs at research universities are rated almost exclusively on their research. Just because a guy is a great researcher doesn't mean that he's a great teacher. In fact, often times the opposite is true - the more time you spend on your research, the less time you have available to put together coherent and interesting lectures and be available to help students who are struggling to understand. Furthermore, if you're a brilliant researcher, you may feel frustrated having to explain what you think are basic concepts."



    How can a researcher be bored with basic concepts? Engineering and sciences need the basic concepts to create new ones. Sometimes scientific problems can be solved by reanalizing basic concepts. Knowledge itself is interesting, you dont need "interesting" lectures to make it more interesting. And about helping students who are struggling, if you want to be a great engineering, you have to learn how to learn by yourself sometimes.
  • sakkysakky - Posts: 14,759 Senior Member
    How can a researcher be bored with basic concepts? Engineering and sciences need the basic concepts to create new ones. Sometimes scientific problems can be solved by reanalizing basic concepts. Knowledge itself is interesting, you dont need "interesting" lectures to make it more interesting. And about helping students who are struggling, if you want to be a great engineering, you have to learn how to learn by yourself sometimes

    I diametrically disagree with that. First off, it is unbelievably easy to get bored trying to explain basic concepts. In fact, I've found myself getting bored explaining concepts that I thought were basic to me, and I'm not a great researcher. The problem is that at the basic levels, you can't really explain what is truly going on, so you just have to use basic models as pedagogical tools. However, if you're an advanced researcher on the topic, you don't want to use those basic models as teaching tools because you know they're wrong. They're simple, they're easy to understand, but they're wrong, and you know why they're wrong. The problem is, if you don't use those basic models, none of the students will have any idea what you're talking about.

    For example, take basic quantum mechanics. At the most basic levels, you learn about energy states and simple orbitals and all that stuff. Advanced researchers, however know that things are far far more complicated than that in reality. The problem is, at the beginning levels, students just don't have the advanced math and advanced physics backgrounds to understand what is really happening. So, you, as an advanced researcher that has to teach the intro class, are forced to use basic models that you know are wrong.

    It gets worse when you as a super-researcher, have to explain what you think are basic math and physics concepts. For example, I remember my physics prof becoming visibly frustrated when he realized that a lot of students in his class didn't know what div and curl were. To him, these are basic vector calculus concepts that everybody in his class ought to have known. But many of them didn't. It was an intro course, after all. I'm sure that he was thinking something like "I could be in my lab right now discovering something that might win me the Nobel and unravel the mysteries of the universe, so why am I standing here trying to teach basic vector calculus to a bunch of kids?". Finally he just blurted out something like "Go read your math book, it's not my job to teach you this stuff". He clearly didn't want to be there teaching what he thought was beneath him.

    And about knowledge being interesting, well, that's a pretty utopian way of looking at things. Maybe you should go talk to some engineering students, and even the strong ones - heck, even the strong graduate students - will all admit that they are parts of engineering that are EXTREMELY BORING. And yes, you absolutely need interesting lectures to make it interesting. Plenty of engineering students don't understand why there are learning certain things and absolutely cannot see the relevance of various lectures and to them, it just turns into one big mush of numbers-crunching and numbers-manipulation with no apparent rhyme or reason. Just think of Ben Stein in the movie Ferris Bueller (you know, the teacher who said "Bueller, Bueller, Bueller"), imagine having him as your teacher, and ask yourself how much you'd learn, and think about how, in the movie, how bored all the students were. That actually happens in real life in many engineering classes today.

    I do agree that if you want to be a great engineer, you have to learn by yourself. But I think we can all agree that it would help tremendounsly if you had a good teacher. Just think of it this way. Caltech engineering students are not stupid people, not by a long shot. In fact, they are some of the best engineering students in the world. Yet they are complaining about bad teaching. Why? Because they're unable to learn things themselves? I don't think so - if you're good enough to get into Caltech and survive Caltech engineering courses, you're clearly good enough to learn things yourself. So clearly they can.

    The question is, why should they have to? Or put another way, if you look at the PR ratings of schools with the best teachers, you will notice that HarveyMudd is one of those schools. Both Caltech and HarveyMudd have brilliant engineering students. So the question is, why should the HarveyMudd students get good teachers, and the Caltech students get bad teachers? Is it because the HarveyMudd kids can't learn anything by themselves? Obviously they can. Are Mudders being somehow "hurt" because of good teaching, so they never learn how to learn anything by themselves? Keep in mind that 40% of HarveyMudd alumni hold PhD's, which is one of the highest, if not the highest PhD attainment rates of any undergrad school in the nation (I think that rate is even higher than that of Caltech). So it looks like HarveyMudders know how to learn by themselves pretty well. If Mudders can enjoy good teaching quality, there is no reason why Caltechers can't too.

    I have to say, Frodo, I don't want to be harsh, but your attitude betrays exactly the magnitude of the problem. A lot of engineering students, present and future, have not only become used to bad teaching, but it's gotten to the point that they think bad teaching is actually a good thing. That's ridiculous. Keep in mind, you are paying the school for an educational service, and you should expect good customer service for your money. I can't think of a single company out there that has managed to convince its customers that not only is bad customer service normal, but that they should actually WANT bad customer service. If you go to a restaurant and you find a dead cockroach in your food, you don't just shrug your shoulders and keep eating, and you certainly don't go around saying that it's good to have a dead roach in your food. It mystifies me that students will not only wilingly put up with bad teaching, but actually take the position that it's a good thing.
  • FrodoFrodo Registered User Posts: 40 Junior Member
    So you are saying that a roach in your food is exactly the same as a bad teacher who is a super researcher. Now that makes perfect sense. You are right about expecting good teachers for the enormous amount of money you are paying though. But knowledge being exciting, that is not utopian at all. Maybe if you get into a carrier for money, or for family pressure, it will become boring, but not if you find passion in it. I know, sometimes, topics in your major might get boring, but it shouldnt be most of the time, otherwise maybe you chose the wrong major.

    I would choose a research university over a small college for my undergrad because I consider that engineering must have research as a learning tool. That is why they are considered "applied" sciences. If you have a bad teacher (and i think there arent that many at caltech) then grab a book, ask a roomate, ask another professor, and then after you grasped the concept, go and apply it into research. But thats just me though.
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