Ahhh…it’s that time of year when teaching evaluations from last semester are sent to me. I tell myself I’m not going to read them, but then I go ahead and take a peek anyways.
Why do we do these? Well, I suppose it’s not all bad. They provide some insight into student thinking. I guess the real question is this: why do we place significant value on student teaching evaluations? We already know that these are typically not valid and reliable measures of teaching. I’ve said before that when I was new I found them helpful in terms of identifying areas to improve in, but not so much now.
So here’s what I think: Go ahead and use them. But let them be for personal growth and reflection. Stop making me report my numbers year after year. If you’re so concerned about how I’m doing as a teacher then we better find a different and more reliable way to determine it.
I say all this with the caveat that my teaching evaluations are just fine. In some cases, they are outstanding and off the charts amazing. I want to be clear that I don’t have any problems here, and yet I think the system we use is awful.
But let’s take a closer look at what gets my goat. In one class, I had average scores. You know how many people responded? Three (33% response rate). And one of them clearly did not like me and/or my class. In my other class 10 people responded (which is a 76% response rate). So….out of 13 people what exactly are we supposed to conclude about my teaching? When is that a reliable number to judge me in any capacity good or bad?
I did get some written feedback, and it was fine. But my favorite quote is this one:
“I thoroughly enjoyed this course and learned a great deal. The amount of optional activities was sometimes overwhelming. It was hard to get a firm bearing on how I was doing in the class at times.”
Recall I gamed both my classes. No one seemed to have any issues with that (which, honestly, surprised me). But the idea that you don’t know how you are doing in the class? What does that even mean?
Consider that each student had a spreadsheet that I created during the first week of class. This spreadsheet was updated once a week (usually on Mondays and sometimes on Tuesdays). Our wiki had a leaderboard where the total amount of points (XP) that you earned were posted – also updated once a week. I even had the grading scale underneath the leaderboard so you could see how you were progressing. And, at the top of the leaderboard, I posted the date and time it was last updated. Couldn’t get any clearer.
So if this person is talking about grades, then there is no excuse for this comment. I couldn’t be any more on point unless I personally called each of them once a week. Yes, I made mistakes now and then, but I corrected them ASAP and they were few in number.
If the student is talking about learning the course content, well, that’s a different story. If this person is saying they don’t know how their learning was progressing then that’s a separate question. It’s one that should have been brought to my attention when I could have done something about it.
So when I see comments like the above, I have no idea how to interpret them. And they piss me off. Because at no point in the semester did a student come to me and say they were confused about how they were doing in the class and ask for assistance in that area. And yet students are allowed, and encouraged to write whatever they want AND we are supposed to take that seriously. However, with a bit of context comments like these break down, and it becomes unclear what they truly mean.
Nothing bad (or good) is going to come out of this comments or those like it. I know at the end of the day I’m stuck in an evaluation system that simply does not work. There’s no move to change it. I also think it’s fine to have evaluations like these from students, but they don’t tend to offer a whole lot in terms of getting me to think deeply about my teaching.
Let’s Solve This Problem Already
So what to do? Well, on some level I think I (we) should be perfectly capable of reflecting on and evaluating our own teaching. I think we should be able to, at the end of an academic year, write a short piece where we self-evaluate our teaching and offer up one-two goals for working on in our teaching next year. For example, right now a goal of mine is to figure out how to use twitter in a way that supports learning.
At the end of this semester, I could write up what happened in relation to my goal. I don’t have to succeed, but I should be able to show that I worked on it. Failing grandly at it should be ok as failure can be used to learn. I could even make a 3-5 minute video on what I learned which could be shared with the faculty (or put on You Tube and shared with everyone if I chose). If I wanted student input, I could ask them to complete a short survey (I design) related to my teaching goals. I would have student work related to my goals that I could use as evidence. And, possibly, I could identify someone who has some general knowledge about my goal and ask them to review my work and provide me with some input.
There we go. That’s way more meaningful than having students fill out the same survey with the same questions over and over again each semester. It takes more work on my part, but it’s far more useful to me as a teacher.
I’m not suggesting we trash the current model and move to another standardized one. Ok – in part I am suggesting we trash the current model because it’s far too narrow and limited in helping us understand anything about our teaching once we move past the basics. But, in tossing out the current model I am not saying we should implement one where everyone submits the same things. I do think we should be articulating goals on a regular basis. I do think we could show how we worked on those goals. How we show it could range, and I think compiling a list of options would be acceptable (offer six and choose any three for example).
So what do you think? Anyone want to give this a try?