November 23rd, 2015

A New Twist on End-of-Semester Evaluations

By:

student feedback

Those who write about teaching persona (the slice of our identities that constitutes the “public teaching self”) encourage us to start by reflecting on the messages we want to send to students. A dialogue with ourselves is a useful beginning, but for the last days of a semester another option might be more intriguing and revealing.

A teaching persona is communicated in formal and informal ways. The formal ways frame the learning environment—choices we make about the syllabus, policies, grading, curriculum, and assignments. The informal ways frame the learning experience—choices we make about the examples we use, the tone we convey, and the attitudes and opinions we communicate. Students experience learning through the interaction of both of these ways during a semester. If we discover details about the student learning experience, we can test the assumptions we’ve made about the environment and their experiences in it, and we can gain insights about our teaching identity.

Can we make these discoveries by asking students? Most student evaluation forms are summative, with a focus on teacher characteristics: “Was the teacher organized?” or “Did the teacher explain things clearly?” In Australia, they use what’s known as a “Course Experience Questionnaire” to gather information from senior students about their undergraduate program or course of study. Their use of the phrase “course experience” shifts the focus from asking students how they experienced a teacher to how they experienced a program. By using this approach but shifting the focus to a single course, we can gather student insights into those experiences and better understand our role in creating them.

What’s to be gained by asking the students? The teaching persona should be created from a series of choices made with the aim of enhancing student learning. By the end of a semester, we have a sense of how a course went and what activities and actions supported student learning. But through some painful experiences we’ve learned that sometimes what we thought happened was contradicted by what students experienced. Adapting the course-experience approach for the end of a semester makes possible a “learner sighted” view that adds to our understanding of the learning environment, including aspects of our teaching persona that have framed it.

How can this approach prompt insights? Whether online or in a face-to-face format, begin by telling students that you’re asking questions only they can answer. Explain that this is feedback that can help you become a teacher who helps students learn more effectively. Here is a sample note that introduces students to the concept of evaluating the course experience; we have also included examples of sentence stems that can yield useful information. Feel free to use them, revise them, or create others.

Your insights into your learning in this course can help me see our course from your side of the desk. Please respond to any three of the statements below (more if you’d like). Submit these anonymously; I will use them as I plan for my courses next semester.

In this course …

  • it most helped my learning of the content when…because…
  • it would have helped my learning of the content if…because…
  • the assignment that contributed the most to my learning was… because…
  • the reading that contributed the most to my learning was… because…
  • the kinds of homework problems that contributed most to my learning were…because…
  • the approach I took to my own learning that contributed the most for me was…because…
  • the biggest obstacle for me in my learning the material was… because…
  • a resource I know about that you might consider using is…because…
  • I was most willing to take risks with learning new material when… because…
  • during the first day, I remember thinking…because…
  • what I think I will remember five years from now is…because…

You can also add a query such as the following: What is something covered in this course material that you can do now that you could not do or did not fully understand at the beginning of the term?

What are good ways to gain insights from student feedback? Before reading the student responses, consider responding to the questions yourself. Just thinking about or jotting down responses to the prompts gives us as teachers sight lines that can be put alongside the learner-sighted view. Most of us do better understanding student responses if we put a bit of distance between the course and the feedback. It’s particularly beneficial to review the feedback when selecting course materials, developing assignments, and constructing the syllabus for the next term. Another option is to have a colleague compile the results and return them to you prior to your planning for the next term.

This instrument surprises students because it asks them to use their learning experiences to be their instructor’s consultants, and this can motivate the students to take the exercise seriously. Doing this also prompts student reflection, giving them a clearer understanding of themselves as learners.

The teaching persona is the conduit that connects the disciplinary content, learning environment, and learning experiences. If the mix is good, students thrive in our courses. At the end of a semester, we have an opportunity to learn from students about that rich matrix of factors that influences their course experience, and with that knowledge we can continue to make the choices about who we are when we teach so as to enhance their learning.

Linda Shadiow is a professor emerita and the former director of the Faculty Professional Development Program at Northern Arizona University. Maryellen Weimer is the editor of The Teaching Professor and a professor emerita at Penn State Berks.