Tuesday, December 01, 2009

course evaluations

by J J Cohen

The fall semester trickles to its end, and such is the perversity of the academic calendar that the time has arrived to think about the spring, with its vigorous new crop of students, papers, and grade complaints. I'm teaching the newest course in my rotation, Myths of Britain, and as a prelude to tinkering with its syllabus have been rereading the student evaluations from last spring.

Mostly, the evaluations are quite strong -- and I'm pleased that students responded favorably to a challenging course that offers literature they mostly would not otherwise have read. Although some of those who take the class go on to become English majors, the majority do not: the course was for them a way to satisfy their Humanities or Writing in the Disciplines requirements. Predictably, therefore, most of the negative comments were pleas to make the course easier, to not require attendance, to grade on a curve or with reduction in rigor, to assign less writing. Many student comments were negated by their peers: "Remove Shakespeare from the syllabus!" on one evaluation form, "Teach more than two Shakespeare plays!" on the next. Beowulf was likewise a lightning rod. Quite a number of students stated they were tired of reading it, and quite a few observed that they had never been assigned the poem before. Some student comments are incredibly sweet; some make me feel naked under the cold glare of their observing eyes; most are filled with an enthusiasm that makes me eager to teach the class again; a few are meanspirited; some give me a chuckle. My favorite: "Prof Cohen is adorable and knowledgeable. It is so entertaining to watch him lecture even though at times the content can get tedious." Um, yeah. I'm happy that I can be amusing despite my dull content.

Taking lessons away from the evaluations is not easy, especially when there are so many of them and the comments are contradictory. Perhaps after two decades of teaching I am also just comfortable with my style -- though, then again, I do try to add new components each time I teach a course. In Myths of Britain, for example, I intend to call on more students at random, to have them read aloud and then be "interviewed," and I will perhaps walk the room a bit more (the class takes place in a fairly large space, since it enrolls 90). I'll likely repeat course objectives regularly and relate assignments back to these objectives, and add a lecture-end summary, since those things were requested. I've swapped a few readings as well (out: Lear, Malory; in: Mandeville, Song of Roland), but not because of student feedback.

So what about you? Do you find course-end evaluations useful? How do you use them -- or do you use them -- in planning your future teaching?


Karl Steel said...

Sadly, I think a lot of proffies (to use the bitter parlance of rateyourstudents) affect to disdain student evaluations.

That said, I get a lot out of the evaluations. Sometimes it's just laughter. For example, for my Spring Chaucer class, I see, in answer to
Apart from the instructor, what are the strengths of the course?

"I'm not sure how to answer this. If the instructor structures the course and guides the class, how can he be obviated? What is the course without him? I just don't understand this question."


"The kids were able to get into it as well and express all the off the wall crud they had bouncing around in their old beanos."

Sometimes I just end up confused:

" Apart from the course, what are the strengths of the instructor?"

"Clarity- he knew how to explain the material. Time management- his kept the class rolling. Individualized attention- he didn't just orate he also allowed us to say what we are thinking and ask questions. if he didn't have the answer he'd look it up and get back to us."

But compare this to:

"How can the course be improved?"

" Professor Steel could lecture more often. I got tired of hearing students talk when we really don't know very much about the subject. Slow down a little in going through material."

Another student likewise said "Try not to be so patient with dumbs."


So, I should keep the class rolling, but slow down, lecture more, but let the class say what they're thinking and ask questions. ....ok.

Nonetheless, there have been patterns. My theory students in F08 didn't like Bennet and Royle, so I'm not using it again. F08 said my presentation was enthusiastic but jumbled: I've fixed that with better lecture outlines. Many S08 Chaucer students wanted to have had many short student presentations to make participation grades easier to come by for what we might call the bashfuls. Next time, I'll do that. And one F08 Comp Lit student complained "Either more diverse readings and perhaps not so many 'similar' stories. It gets a little hard to keep track of things": so I dropped the anthology The Romance of Arthur and gave this semester's crop of Comp Lit students maybe too much variety.

Joseph P. Fisher said...

Since Rate Your Students was invoked, I'll link us to this thoughtful entry from that site. I think it sums up at least one major problematic with the course eval process.

Personally, as an adjunct (whom my students readily know is an adjunct), I do truly loathe the evals, mostly because I always feel the pressure of oh-my-God-I-need-another-class-next-semester. If I try to be really rigourous, like I want to do, I always fear the onslaught of "This class was way too hard," "Prof. Fisher is unreasonable," etc. comments, because I do want to lose the opportunity to teach during each subsequent semester. As with so much of academe these days, it's a systemic problem.

Karl Steel said...

JPF, thanks for that reminder that there's a world of difference between those evaluations that can hurt our employment and those that can hurt only our feelings.

Eileen Joy said...

Student comments have been most helpful to me when they are related to issues like whether or not particular assignments are working [or not] and to what students like [or don't] relative to required readings and the like. A lot of comments end up focusing on personality-type issues, which may or may not have anything to do with effective teaching. I myself have always believed that one does *need* a personality in order to be an effective teacher since, after all, teaching is on some level a performance, and sometimes teaching evaluations can tell you if that performance has been effective or not in motivating students to *want* to learn beyond the course materials themselves. My favorite comment in that respect, when I was teaching a survey course of ancient and medieval world literature was when a student said my enthusiasm for the "Iliad" made him actually want to read it, so *after* the course was over, he planned to do that. Hysterical. Some people might think: outrageous! this kid isn't even doing the reading so his opinion is meaningless. But what I thought to myself was: mission accomplished.

Anonymous said...

I just heard today that the course I've currently got is being junked next year, so I guess it matters little what the students come back to me with except for general remarks on how I'm currently coming over in a classroom. If I get any such evaluations, that is; I never have had on any of my previous courses. As so often, I think the USA just expects more of its teachers than the UK structure does. It's just as well I don't rely on this for employment, innit.

Anonymous said...

Oh no - tenth - I am just about to dish out the feedback forms for the 3 small-group modules I am teaching this term - and force them to fill and return them (and write the reports on the 48 tutees in them) - and I'm fairly sure that is pretty standard practice in the UK. How does your place do its QA otherwise?

In our place all GTAs on the big core courses would get such feedback too - and then the faculty lecturer/mentor would go through them with them. That may be less standard practice, I don't know.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Hi Joseph, thanks for posting here. As the person who actually reads your evaluations and is (as you know) in charge of hiring the few adjuncts GW English employs, let me state for the record that -- and I say this as someone who reads hundreds upon hundreds of evaluations each semester -- no sane person in charge of hiring bases this decision on whether students like the instructor for his or her easiness. As Eileen states, it is important to have a personality: and that means rubbing some people the wrong way. We're not doing our jobs if we don't piss a few people off, I think, at least when it comes to challenging them properly. No sane evaluator of evaluations is going to see student complaints about rigor and high expectations as a negative.

BUT when your employment is semester to semester and is often impacted by forces outside your control, I understand why evaluations loom: they are one thing that seems controllable in a world where the conditions of your employment can make you feel like the ground may shift without warning.

Liza Blake said...

If I can ask a more practical question, I'm teaching for the first time this year, and all us TAs were told that we should begin drafting our own personalized student evaluations now. Any tips on what to put in an evaluation?

Karl Steel said...

Liza, personalized evaluations? I've never heard of such a thing. Weird. I'd ask them "How awe-inspiring is the instructor? Select one: a) off the charts, but in a good way; b) seriously more awe-inspiring than any grad student has a right to be; c) just awe-inspiring, but that's enough."

Here are the questions my school asks. The following are all yes/no or numerical rankings:
1. Did you receive a written syllabus during the first week of class?
 2. The instructor's ability to organize ideas and materials for class
3. The instructor's ability to stimulate interest in the subject
4. The instructor's ability to encourage independent thinking
5. The instructor's ability to generate effective class discussion
6. The instructor's ability to communicate clearly
7. The instructor's openness to students' comments, questions and viewpoints concerning class topics
8. The instructor's knowledge of the subject matter of the class
9. The instructor's ability to keep to the time and schedule requirements for the class
10. The instructor's availability to students outside of class
11. The clarity of information provided about the course requirements and assignments
12. The promptness with which tests and assignments are graded and returned
 13. The number of assignments/projects/creative works in this class
 14. How challenging the class assignments/projects/creative works were
 15. The usefulness of assignments/projects/creative works in this class
 16. The difficulty of examinations in this class
 17. The fairness of examinations in this class
 18. How likely are you to recommend this instructor to a friend?
 19. How much general knowledge about the subject have you gained?
20. How much ability to analyze and solve problems have you gained?
21. How much ability to find and use information on your own have you gained?
22. How much ability to express your ideas verbally have you gained from this class?
23. How much ability to develop and express your ideas through artistic/creative means have you gained from this class

THE following questions ask for short written answers:
Question: Apart from the instructor, what are the strengths of the course?
Question: How can the course be improved?
Question: Apart from the course, what are the strengths of the instructor?
Question: How can the instructor's teaching be improved?

Anonymous said...

Sarah, both of these things are supposed to happen, and someone is supposed to sit on one or two of my classes and give me comments, but the department is short-handed, admins have been ill, my course organiser is on unexpected leave, it's just all fallen through the cracks. My teaching gigs are usually cases of emergency so this has been quite usual for me.

On the other hand, and in defence of my original foolish assertion, as an undergraduate or graduate I never saw anything as developed by way of feedback forms as the one Karl's just quoted. My graduate school had a single sheet with requests for comments under four headings, not really the same league.