Randy says that his number one goal in being a teacher is teaching students to “learn how to judge themselves.” He wants them to be able to recognize their own abilities and flaws, and be realistic about how others view them. Randy says that many old-school types complain that the current educational model feels like it’s all about customer service—that parents feel they’re buying a five-subject course load much like they would buy five pairs of jeans. Randy is fine with the customer-service model, but he prefers a different metaphor—college tuition, to Randy, is like paying for a personal trainer at a gym. If the professors are the trainers, giving people access to tools, then it is their job to be demanding. They should praise kids when they deserve it and criticize them when it’s honest to do so.
Randy believes that teaching and learning should be conducted with complete openness and honesty so that teachers can give their students the ability to “judge themselves” (to create their own feedback loops), which reduces students’ reliance on feedback and guidance from others. Randy believes that both criticism and praise should be rightfully earned, and no student is entitled to anything except for access to tools and an honest assessment of how they are doing.
Most importantly, Randy sees it as the teacher’s duty to get kids to “judge for themselves how they’re coming along.” Just like when you work out consistently at a gym, if you put effort in at college, the results should speak for themselves. It is the professor’s job to make students aware of their own growth, so Randy tries to come up with mechanical ways for students to listen to feedback and develop their own “feedback loops.” This was the hardest thing Randy had to do as an educator, and it saddens Randy that so many teachers have given up on it.
Again, giving students the ability to judge for themselves how their capabilities have grown is what Randy sees as the most important part of teaching and learning. This can be thought of as the process of creating and developing students’ own feedback loops. Once students have their own feedback loops, they have the tools to constantly assess and improve their own performance.
When Randy taught the “Building Virtual Worlds” class at Carnegie Melon, they did peer feedback every two weeks. At the end of the semester, Randy put together a spreadsheet, and each student could see where they ranked in 1) How hard their peers felt they were working, 2) How creative their peers thought their contribution was, and 3) Whether their peers found them easy to work with. Randy’s hope was that, when the bottom-end students saw how poorly they rated amongst their peers, they would change their behavior and improve how they interacted in groups in the future. Still, Randy says, many students were able to entirely ignore this feedback.
Because Randy believes that feedback is so important to the teaching and learning process, he makes peer feedback a required part of his classes. Still, Randy says, giving feedback isn’t always enough for it to sink in: the person receiving the feedback needs to acknowledge it, have a positive attitude, and make a concerted effort to change their behavior and attitude after receiving the feedback. If people simply ignore feedback, nothing changes.
For example, in one course Randy taught, instead of showing them the full list, Randy only told students what quartile they fell into (top 25%, bottom 25%, near the middle, etc.). When one Obnoxious Student sees he is ranked in the bottom 25%, he’s unfazed and doesn’t change his behavior. During a meeting, Randy tells this student that he isn’t just in the bottom 25%--out of fifty students, he ranks “dead last.” Randy says he has a serious issue, and the student is shocked. Randy tells him about his own past—that he was in denial about how people perceived him, until he had a professor that showed he cared by smacking the truth into his head. And here’s what makes Randy special: he listened. Randy says that he’s a “recovering jerk,” and that this student can become a recovering jerk, too. For the rest of the semester, the student keeps himself in check. Randy did him a favor, just as Andy Van Dam did Randy one many years earlier.
Here, Randy uses the obstacle of the Obnoxious Student’s attitude as an opportunity to give back the gift of feedback that Andy van Dam gave Randy when he was a college student. So, Randy gives this student the same advice Andy van Dam gave him so long ago: he’s an arrogant jerk, but he doesn’t have to be. There is a problem, but this student can rectify it and become a recovering jerk just like Randy. So, the student accepts this feedback, changes his attitude and behavior, and is better off for it. The cycle of teacher helping student continues, so that perhaps this obnoxious student might one day pass this piece of feedback along to a student of his own.