Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Miterm Course Evaluations

Today we asked the students in the intro lecture course the fill out midterm course evaluations. This was partially for our own informational purposes (ie, for the stated purpose of a course evaluation) and partially to give the students a sense of ownership in the course and combat what is sometimes a common perception in larger classes that we don't particularly care what they think or what they want to accomplish in the class.

The evaluation consisted of four fill-in-the-blank statements with three blanks each: 1) Three things I do to support my own learning in this course are... 2) Three ideas, concepts or skills I have learned so for in this course are... 3) Three things that I would like to do more of, less of, or differently are... and 4) Three things that I wouldn't change at all are... The purpose of the first two questions was really to remind students that they are partially responsible for their own learning and to remind them that they have actually learned things, thereby cutting down on responses along the lines of this course is useless or you make it too hard for us, responses that are neither constructive nor valid. We didn't completely eliminate those, but they were definitely not the overwhelming majority (or even close to it). I also got some really useful suggestions from a senior colleague about other ways to word those two prefatory questions that I'm anxious to try in the future.

The most useful outcome of this exercise was a number of comments that said that the class felt too much like parallel tracks and that aren't enough points of context between the Iberian and Latin American material. I think that that's a fair critique and something that can be modified in any of several ways for the rest of the semester and for future iterations of the course.

One slightly troubling thing was that several students wrote that to support their own learning, they google. I'm not quite sure how to handle that, except perhaps to spend more time teaching them about research resources and how to critically analyze pages that they find via Google. I'm really pleased, at least, that none of them wrote that they use Wikipedia. Small victories.

Some of the feedback was more typical student complaints and misperceptions of what this kind of course should look like. We got pretty consistent complaints about the amount of reading, which we'll address by telling them that 100 pages a week (and sometimes a lot less) is a completely reasonable amount for an introductory lecture class. (I'll not tell them that a friend of mine who is a high school teacher was outraged that our students would complain about that workload because she gives her students more than 100 pages to read per week.)

We also got a few negative comments about the fact that we both prepare written lectures and read them. I can't speak to why my colleague does it, but for me, it serves a lot of needs that allows me to be a better teacher: First and foremost, I stutter a little bit when I'm nervous. Having everything written out in front of me cuts down on that. It also allows me to model good rhetorical form. I like a carefully turned phrase, but I'm not one of those impresarios who can speak in purple prose off the cuff. Writing it all out allows me to be eloquent in a way that I couldn't be in speaking from notes. And the material that I'm presenting does have lots of moving parts: If I forget to explain what the caliphate is, the whole setup of the arrival of Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula is going to make a lot less sense. Writing it out means that I don't forget to mention any little details. I suspect that as I get more comfortable with the lecture format and with this set of lectures in particular I will be able to move at least partially away from the much more prepared format, but I'd definitely still defend its validity.

Overall, though, it's really good that they voice these concerns because it points out to us the places where we can offer a bit more meta-narrative and explanation . Ideal would be that we didn't have to do those things; but doing so isn't a bad mediation between our expectations and their perceptions.

In that same vein, though, we also got this gem (unedited for punctuation, grammar, etc.): "Why do you guys write an essay to lecture off of and read it verbatim. We would read the essay without a professor. Professors should lecture from memory if they really know what they're talking about." Where to begin even? Perhaps with the fact that this student couldn't read the "essays" without the professors because they wouldn't exist? Perhaps with the fact that if a student can't handle 100 pages of reading a week then, no, we really can't expect them to read another 20? Perhaps with the fact that writing it out keeps me from forgetting to mention something, not from forgetting it completely? Perhaps with excuse me??

I'm optimistic that the exercise will have served its purpose, but honestly, I'm a little bummed out, too, even if it was just one off-base, cocky, know-it-all comment.


  1. My question would be: would it really be so bad if you forgot to mention something? I tend to have notes with relevant points, and subpoints, but I don't write my lectures. And yes, I forget things, and when they come up, I just explain them.

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  3. [Took down my comment pending being able to give a more thoughtful and definitive answer. Right now, the gut reaction is that yes, it would be terrible.]