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Student evaluations again

February 26, 2008, 9:59 pm

One of the reasons I brought up the notion of getting rid of our current conception of student evaluations is that I’ve had too many courses in which things seems to be going just fine during the semester, and then I get comments on student course evaluations about things that I cannot even recognize as having happened in the class. Something minor happens, for example, in week 5, and it goes unchecked, and grows ineffably until what the student sees is some huge shortcoming on the course’s part — on my part — and I get hammered on the evaluations for it, even though when I read the written comments I cannot even usually fathom what it is the student is referencing.

So this semester I decided that I needed to do something about this, namely just simply paying more attention every week to how students are doing, generally, in my classes. Especially in the freshman classes, where the expectations for college are still being calibrated and the emotions about grades and coursework run high — and where the probability of the evaluations described above is highest — I need to be more intentional about getting student feedback. And so I gave out an informal evaluation  to go with our “quarter-term exam” in my calculus courses. Here’s the form: quarter-term-course-feedback.pdf

The first page is just some questions about how the course structure is working so far. But the really interesting information-gathering part of the form is on the back. In the syllabus, I laid out a set of expectations for students in the class, and for myself. And so I just asked students to review those expectations and assess how they are doing on each one, and what plans they have to improve. And then they do the same for me. It’s been fascinating to watch people’s responses to these questions and I am learning a lot about how students are approaching the course.

I am also catching several of those minor problems that end up exploding in my face. For instance, one student said s/he felt like I was not respecting students’ time because I was always holding them over late after the class period has ended. I was puzzled because I am pretty sure I never do that. But then it dawned on me that the clock in the classroom is 3 minutes fast, so when the class lets out at (say) 3:30, it reads 3:33. If you didn’t realize the clock was fast, you’d think I was holding people 3 minutes over time. I’ve mentioned the fastness of the clock before in class, but I guess I wasn’t clear enough about it.

These voluntary course evaluations aren’t rocket science, and many of my colleagues do this on a regular basis, and so did I, once upon a time. So I don’t want to break my arm patting myself on the back here — I’m just pleased that I’m getting good information from my students in a time frame where I can work with it.

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