Course Evaluations

I’ve written at length about assessment — the assessment of students by teachers. Today, I turn around and focus on how to maximize the benefits of student feedback in course evaluations.

Early in my high school teaching career, I was given a form that my students were supposed to fill out. It had a long list of questions, most of which struck me as unhelpful to me as a math teacher. All these years later, the only one I remember is “Did the teacher explain things clearly?” Even then, it was obvious to me that even the clearest explanations may not support student understanding. (There were no questions like “Did the teacher get you to engage intellectually?”)

In any case, over time I found that I got much better information by not trying to come up with a detailed list of criteria. Instead, my course evaluation form consisted of just three questions:

– What did you enjoy?

– What helped you learn?

– What are your suggestions for improvement?

The first two questions were intended to help students realize that well, those are different questions! Certainly, it’s good for me to know what they enjoy, but let’s not lose track of the fact that the goal is to learn. Some students listed the same items in response to both questions, but most were quite clear on the difference. Typically, the first question elicited mentions of hands-on activities, while the second included things like “going over the homework with my group” and “working on test corrections”.

As for the third question, I often got responses that canceled each other out: go faster / go slower, more quizzes / fewer quizzes, and so on. But sometimes there was a preponderance of similar feedback, and then I knew it was worth attending to the issues raised.

One thing I liked about this form was that it implied my students and I were on the same side. The positive tone helped generate feedback I could use. The wide-open nature of the form sometimes resulted in surfacing issues I had totally missed. Naturally, it’s more effective to do such a survey around the middle of the term, although I admit I usually forgot to do it then. More often, I waited until the end of the course, when students have less at stake, and in any case when it’s too late to implement any changes. Still, better late than never: the feedback was useful in future iterations of the course.

That said, it is not realistic to rely exclusively or primarily on student input. It is best to complement that with classroom visits from a colleague — especially if you feel something is amiss. Such visits are most useful if you ask for specific feedback: what is going on among the students during whole-class discussions? do some groups seem to be off task? Or even: do I explain things clearly?

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