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Thursday, May 3, 2012

One Professor Goes Further For Feedback

Boston University professor Muhammad Zaman at Here & Now studios at WBUR in Boston. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Teacher evaluations are a hot topic in education. Students at virtually every college and university in America are asked to evaluate their professors at the end of each semester, and students often look to websites such as ratemyprofessor.com before choosing a class.

But critics say evaluations encourage assembly line teaching, and some professors worry that bad evaluations can be career ending.

Muhammad Zaman, a professor at Boston University has joined others in coming up with his own system of getting student feedback that evaluates instructors every two weeks, instead of once a semester.

“The evaluations are actually very simple,” Zaman told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “They ask the students how am I doing, sort of a numerical score.”

He also requests comments about what is going wrong or right.

“I ask them about the delivery of the material. If I’m spending too little or too much time on a particular topic. If I’m going too slow or too fast,” he said.

Zaman says he sometimes gets surprising feedback from students. When he taught at the University of Texas, one student wrote that he could not see the differences in color that Zaman was depicting on the board, because he was red-green color blind.

“I felt horrible. I felt disappointed in myself that I should have known and been more considerate and sensitive to these things. And nobody likes to talk about their disabilities, so these are the issues that come up,” he said.

And Zaman says he has gotten used to a certain amount of negative feedback from students.

“One of the things that I have evolved over the years is to have a pretty thick skin, and I think that’s part of the process. You do get students who think that I am either too boring or too difficult, or it’s too simplistic – you get contradictory feedback from students,” he said.


  • Muhammad Zaman, a professor at Boston University of biomedical engineering

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  • Acondesigns

    Teacher evaluation day was always bittersweet. I enjoyed being able to influence the instruction that students receive, but when it’s the last day of the semester, I always had the feeling “how would this benefit me?” I would have loved to have a professor ask for feedback more frequently so we could benefit from it while still in the class.

  • Elizalbota

    Here’s my issue with this: as a high school teacher and a mother, I notice that this generation is often trained to look to teachers, instead of themselves, to do the hard work of education: if something is “too hard,” they are more willing to throw up their hands and tell teachers they need to make it more accessible than they are to try harder to understand it. I worry that this training short-changes our children in the long run. We are taking away their power by teaching them to be helpless receivers of information, rather than active and powerful forces in their own lives.
    If this professor were the only one doing this, it would be innovative and potentially useful. But, because the message kids are receiving all over their lives — from the media and their parents and some teachers — is that education is the teachers’ responsibility instead of the students’, this sort of checking in, I think, is counter-productive.

    • Rksinternet

       A major  difference between teaching as a parent and teaching as a teacher is the number of students!  Parents get feedback almost instantly even if there are 10 kids milling about.  Teachers have 25 or 75 or 150 students in a classroom, and good feedback can be valuable. 
      Notice that Prof Z is only interested in HIS service to the students. His scaffolding of knowledge for the new class he was teaching by providing definitions and supplementary reading to handle the assigned reading differs only slightly from a dining room table homework discussion between parents and child or older sibling and younger sibling. And, unless my experience is different from yours, there are more opportunities to “remind” an individual child to tap his or her own mental powers than are available in a US classroom with course objectives and curriculum set by administrators and school boards who are not delivering the teaching service.


      • Elizalbota

        Sorry — I’m not sure I follow you. (and even though this is the internet, I do not mean that in a snarky way.) As I mention above, I am not just a mom, I am also a teacher of about 150 students per semester.  And here’s what I see: I see kids in my class in the past few (let’s say about three) years who are absolutely defeated when they don’t “get” something. It doesn’t even occur to them to try harder.  They seem to think that things that are hard are undoable. For example, if they encounter a bit of take-home reading that is harder than they are used to, they will just not read it. They will not ask for help or look up words they do not understand. They will come in the next day and say a variation of “It was hard, so I stopped.”  

        And these are wonderful, capable kids, of course.  And, of course I am not speaking of every child. But, there are a disturbing number of them that seem to have been conditioned to have teachers do so much of the real hard work of thinking for them that they are unsure of how to persevere if they find coursework challenging.

        Of course, as you say, this professor is only looking at his own class. But the students are coming from a lifetime of this sort of thinking: that if something is not immediately understandable, it is because of the teacher. My worry is that it is making for a generation of very reflective teachers but also a generation of students that is learning to be helpless.

  • A.Mar

    As a student at Oregon State University, where we are on a quarter system (each term is only 10 weeks), it is extremely difficult to inform professors if there is a problem with their teaching method. They do professor evaluations after the term has ended; so although the information gained may help the next class, it does nothing for you. I wish the university would implement a mid-quarter evaluation to let professors know what is going on with the students. Professor Zaman is on to something.

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