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05/25/2017

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Amanda

Thanks for the interesting post. Some of your criticisms seem directed not so much at student evaluations as such, but the way some evaluations are made. I have taught at multiple institutions, and I have found some evaluations much more helpful because the questions they ask are better. As long as there is going to be student evaluations, it seems there should be a collective effort to design questions which prove the most useful.

There is a problem with minorities and evaluations, especially women, or so the data I have seen suggests. But I don't think this is worth getting rid of evaluations altogether, for I have learned a lot from mine. Perhaps there needs to be a change in the way they are used for assessment, or there needs to be a consistent effort to keep in mind the biases that exist. I do think evaluations have made some professors excessively nervous and too willing to do whatever a student asks, but on the whole I am not sure whether they are a plus or a minus.

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Amanda,
Thanks for your comment.

Given, as you say, that they are not going away, I think it would be interesting to discuss better and worse questions and better and worse ways they are used (though, in my mind, the scale would be between bad and really bad). Can you say more about how they were used that were better? That might give a clearer sense of what we might want to advocate for.

Thanks,
Stephen

Amanda

Keeping them short and simple would be one of the first things I would advocate for. Most students simply are not going to take the time to do anything that requires more than 5 minutes.I think if we keep the questions straight and to the point we will be more likely to get honest answers. The questions I would include are:

What are this instructor's strengths?

How do you think this instructor could do better?

Is there anything else you would like to ad?

The above questions cover what we really want to know. And they don't get into weird biased questions about "enthusiasm" or other things that are often gendered. I don't really like the point questions - and I would be happy if all we had were the above 3 questions which are what would help me improve. But if we are going to do points I think a 7 or 10 point system is much better than 5. There is a big difference is giving someone a 4 out of 5 and a 5 out of 5 and I don't think the 5 point system allows for enough nuance. Again I would keep the point questions simple - and I think it would be great if the same questions were used across institutions. Here would be the ones I would use for philosophy:

1. I enjoyed this course (scaled 1-10)
2.I learned a lot in this course
3. This course made me a better writer
4. The course included interesting in-class discussions.
5. The professor was responsive, accessible, and helpful.
6. The professor treated students with respect
7. My overall ranking of this professor

I think those could be helpful but only if they are taken with a grain of salt and things like gender bias are kept in mind. I agree with you that questions about "clear goals" or anything more specific than they above are not helpful, because classes vary too much and what is good varies.

Stephen can say a bit more about why you think evaluations are such a bad thing? Do you not find the feedback helpful? What is it that you think is so bad about student evaluations as such?

Amanda

Oh, and as for how they are used. I think the primary purpose should be for the own instructor to receive feedback and improve their teaching methods. I think they should be used by administration only in extreme cases where there is an obvious problem with an instructor. I am on the fence with search committees using them. There are a lot of problems with institutional differences and biases. However, I think teaching schools do need someway to gauge teaching and when a search committee member is responsible teaching evaluations do provide insight. The risk, of course, is it is very easy to judge teaching evaluations unfairly.(Besides gender and race bias, some schools simply have students more likely to give high evaluations depending on the culture of the school.)

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Amanda,
As I suggested in the OP, I think they are bad because they are unfair and do not track well with student learning. Additionally, I worry that giving students better grades has an important impact on how students evaluate a course, and thus that this form of feedback encourages grade inflation, which I take it is bad for the students in terms of their own learning (if we do not offer them fair feedback, they will not learn as much as they might). Of course, if we are not given fair feedback, we also will have a hard time learning how best to teach. So, I am really, really into getting student feedback, but am not convinced that student evaluations of classes do that in a way that will allow us to learn what we need to. And, as I mentioned, I am really worried about the dual role they play.

At my school, we have two non-students resources for getting feedback as a teacher: the chairs/deans who evaluate us and our center for teaching and learning. And our center for teaching and learning refuses to be part of the evaluation of faculty: those who work in the center refuse to write letters of support for faculty as they go up for promotion/tenure.

While I like the more general questions you ask, I often want something much more precise. When I teach a new course, I do want general feedback. But often, I want something much more specific. For example, I have taught What Can We Know? a dozen times; when I implement a specific change, I really want to know about that change (and may or may not learn much if I ask for more general feedback). And so, while I don't disagree that they are sometimes helpful and that I do learn from them, I don't think their value comes close to the overall harm they cause. And, again, I want a fair and honest assessment of teachers and teaching, and think that student's perceptions and their experiences matter a lot. I just don't see how student evaluations, done once a semester, under the pressure of comparison across a department and across a campus, without any real way of taking account of biases, is the right answer.

Best,
Stephen

commited teacher

Hi Stephen
I think it is important that people talk about evaluations, their value and how they are used. Thanks for raising the issues. There is a way to get feedback that serves some of the purposes you want served. In the middle of a course, after students have finished at least one substantial writing assignment, I often ask them a series of questions which they are at liberty to answer anonymously. They include: what has helped you learn in this course, how should I change things for the remainder of the course, what should I continue to do in the class?

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Committed Teacher,
Though it took me longer than it should have, I learned to do that too. Can you say a bit more about how you use what you have learned? How you distinguish the real take-aways from the less important issues? And how you then use them to shape your classes? I know people use them differently, and it would be interesting to open up the "what do I do with it now?" conversation.

Stephen

commited teacher

Quick reply ...
What is most useful in student feedback are recurring patterns. Or you may find something that worked well with one class in the past, group discussions, for example, are not constructive experiences for another class.
The other thing worth mentioning is that we set the tone in our class. In my "standard" evaluations, the students really do just raise matters related to learning and teaching. Others get comments about inside jokes between the professor and the class, or ridiculous stuff that should not be put on an evaluation. Part of the reason is that I have an ongoing discussion about pedagogy. This engages them in metacognition, thinking about their learning. Obviously to do this you have to be learning and reading about learning (which I do).

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Committed Teacher,
What I like so much about the approach you discuss is that it is both directly beneficial to the students (helping them understand themselves as learners is a really important goal for their learning), and help them secondarily by providing you with better information so you can further help them by understanding them better.

As a follow-up, can I ask what you have been reading about learning that has had a real impact on you as a teacher? And I would love to hear what others are reading about teaching and learning, as well, that has had an impact on them, if you all are willing to share.


Stephen

commited teacher

Make it Stick was a recent book I read. It is by two neuroscientists and a journalist. They are drawing on research in neuroscience to aid educators in their job. They have three simple points: (1) engage students' metacognition (this has proved to enhance learning), (2) undermine the narrative that some people are naturally smart (too many students are paralyzed by this, and think they cannot learn something if it does not come easily to them), and (3) encourage students NOT to keep rereading material they do not understand (instead, they should take notes on what they have read to figure out what they do understand. This more active approach has proved successful).

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Committed Teacher,
I haven't read that work... I find the third point particularly interesting. Can you say more about why re-reading is discouraged and what advice they give about note-taking, if any?

Thanks,
Stephen

Amanda

That's interesting. Rereading has always proved incredibly helpful for me. I could have almost no comprehension the first time I read a paper and then the second time, for reasons I can't understand, it all starts to make sense.

commited teacher

When students reread a piece they just keep going over and over it again, with no new insight. Consequently, they never develop a deeper understanding. When they try to take notes on what they have read - a brief summary of the main point, for example - they discover what they do not understand. Then when they reread the piece their reading is directed by what they do and do not understand.

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Committed Teacher,
Do you have a way you explain this to students (a hand-out, maybe) that you might share?

Stephen

commited teacher

Stephen
I do not use a handout. I do not find that the most effective way to reach students.
In the first class I begin a discussion about effective learning and pedagogy. I tell them I participate in workshops on campus where such issues are discussed. I tell them what I learn, including these three "sticking points."
When I give assignments back I remind students that they are learning AND learning to learn. And I remind them of pitfalls.
When students come to my office to discuss assignments, in particular, how they can do better, I inquire about what they do, that is, their reading and writing practices. Usually something is said that reveals a problem. Then I urge them to try something new. Make a three line summary after you complete a class reading (before you attend the lecture). I even offer to read these and give feedback. (not for a grade, though)
Part of my concern is to get students to stop focusing on the grade. Grades are crude instruments for modifying their behavior. More important than the grade is whether they learned or not, and how much.

Stephen Bloch-Schulman

Thanks for explaining, Committed Teacher. I will have to think about how to enact this in my classes!

Best,
Stephen

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