Why I strongly agree/strongly disagree with student evaluations

This is a bit of a follow up on my previous post about my experiments with General Psychology, but mostly about my thoughts about student evaluations in higher ed (using this class as an example).

With every class, I try to take a breath a little short of halfway through and ask students how the class is going. I give them a 3×5 index card and ask them a few questions. Depending on the course I ask a few numeric likert style survey items (how fast is the course? How difficult is the course?) as well as three open ended questions for the back. The three questions are taken from my time at the Teaching Resource Center at UVA. What is helping your learning? What is hurting/standing in the way of your learning? What can we do to address the issues?

I like these quick midsemester evaluations for a few reasons. First, they give students a little time and space to rant, but still confines them to the back of a 3×5 index card. They have to decide what is important to fit there. Second, it models the importance of metacognition as supportive to better learning (thinking about their own thinking). I hope to guide them to think more about what makes some classes or techniques or assignments more interesting, or useful, or effective. Finally, I like how this affords me an opportunity to show them what kind of teacher I am, but also what kind of person I am. I use these midsemester evaluations to model some qualities that I think are crucial for a good college experience. I see accessibility, transparency, honesty, and a desire to improve without being scared of failure as qualities in a teacher that help students become more open themselves to intellectual maturity and growth, not merely adding more content to their bag (although that is still an important part as well). 

For general psychology this time around, I got many interesting comments that I thought I would share with you. 

I think a few of these illustrate a good general theme that runs through my thinking on students evaluations. I think it is very important to take seriously what students say about their courses and their own learning. Their thoughts and opinions matter. However, it is just as important not to take them at face value. Students often do not know what makes them learn best. They often confuse (sometimes willfully) learning, enjoyment and grades . Finally, sometimes they are all too willing to renounce any responsibility they have for their own learning and blame (or sometimes cheer) the professor for his or her important role in dictating what the students learn. So, how do I handle this?

After giving out the evaluations, I try in the next class to go over the results (this also has the benefit of letting me talk about the science of psychology. “See, it’s DATA!”).

I first give a breakdown of the data: Here are the numbers
1) Pace of the course (1 = too slow, 3 = just right, 5 = too fast) Class average: 3.0
2) Difficulty of the course (1 = too easy, 3 = just right, 5 = too hard) Class average: 3.1
3) Effectiveness of the textbook (1 = ineffective, 5 = very effective) Class average: 3.1
4) Overall teaching effectiveness (1 = not at all effective, 3 = moderately effective, 5 = extremely effective) Class average: 4.0
5) It is easy to remain attentive in this class (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree) Class average: 3.6
6) The grading procedures for this class are fair Class average: 4.0

I talk a little bit about each number. I am often a little ahead, in terms of pace and difficulty (3.5 or so) which lets me say I want to push them a little bit, rather than being just right for everybody. Often this lets me say how it can’t be exactly the right pace for everybody, but I want everybody to be challenged. The overall teaching effectiveness let’s me say that things are generally going well, with most people rating a 3, 4 or 5. The attention question lets me talk about how we share the burden for this, as they could participate more in the group discussions, as well as ask more questions. The grading procedures question is usually higher, so in this case I was a bit confused. I had more to say about this, but I also asked those who are dissatisfied to please let me know what might make it more fair (if they didn’t in their comments, and are unsatisfied after this talk). Ok, then on to their comments.

First I go over what people mentioned was helping their learning. In this case, there were many answers across the board. Everyone mentioned the videos and demonstrations (yes, EVERYONE likes videos, that doesn’t mean you are a visual learner). But some people said that the in class discussions helped, some thought their notes helped their learning, others mentioned the online quizzes, or the textbook, or even my powerpoints. Here’s a few direct quotes:

“What I find to be helpful is talking about what we’re learning and putting it in a way that is understandable and interesting. Also, I like examples that are shown or talked about that help me undertand the topic”
“I like the explanation of things and extras (glasses, videos). They are effective. Sometimes I don’t know what things I should be focusing my time on (important v. not as important)”
“It is helping my learning to allow me to pace myself and work at my own rate. This is a stress-free course for me. Unfortunately, I don’t do as much weekly for this class as I’d like to, because there are no due dates.”

Basically, many students find the class interesting and enjoyable, but are unsure about how they are being evaluated.

Then, I get to the “hindering/hurting my learning” question. Some students mentioned the lack of fixed deadlines as a problem. Another one or two mentioned too much content. Another mentioned the point system stressing them out. One said papers were too long. One mentioned that the powerpoints weren’t online, and they would appreciate being able to go over them after class. I report all these comments (anonymously) back to the whole class. I always like to be able to have at least one thing that I can say: “Look, that is a reasonable request, and I can do that.” The powerpoints are now online, no problem. For the other ones, I try to hear them out, think about how I can help, but also stand firm (and reiterate) some of the goals and principles of the course. I don’t feel right about adding deadlines after the syllabus has already been printed (only to postpone them if necessary). But, if the lack of deadlines is stressing students out, then I asked them to please come see me and we could work out a personal schedule for them. As far as there being too much content, I say “Well, it seems like a lot, I know, because the textbook can be overwhelming. But this may also mean that you are trying to learn everything that is in the textbook, instead of focusing on the topics you should be focusing on. I have several strategies I have adopted to try to make the content manageable, but some students may not be adopting these strategies. Please come see me and we can talk about your process of reading, or approaching the content, so that we can figure out a way to make it more manageable.”
Basically, I try to say ot the anonymous grouser, in the gentlest way possible, this class isn’t going to get easier, most of your classmates don’t find it as hard as you do, but that isn’t because you are stupid or lazy, but probably because you are approaching it wrong. Come see me and we’ll work it out.

Another few direct quotes

“I think all of the TED talks, radiolabs, and articles are hindering my learning because of the papers that have to be written along with them. I have less time to focus on the chapters when I have to write 3 pages for every assignment I do.”
“The length of the TED talks are hindering my learning & my ability to get points. The length is too long. I feel that shorter word length would help us get more done and get a higher grade in the class”
“Book has a lot of extra info”

Above are a few classic examples of students mistaking their own discomfort or stress with lack of learning. Yes, writing can be uncomfortable, and may take time away from doing online quizzes. But practicing your writing is a goal of the course (look! there in the syllabus!). Yes, shorter word lengths would make it easier, and more enjoyable, and yes, get more points, but this does not equal more learning. In class, I don’t say it exactly this way, but I try to remind students that sometimes you just have to put in your reps, just like in sports practice.

I’ll close with just a few thoughts about some national trends on viewing student evaluations. The Texas Seven Solutions for Higher Education, probably the best known example of the free market approach to reforming higher education, has a focus on student evaluations as one important index of educational quality. But this is an odd market, where the customer doesn’t always know best. If we just gave 18-year-olds what they wanted, we would drift towards the enjoyable, the comfortable, the immediately useful. And this is what we have done. But successful education doesn’t work that way. Yes, writing a longer essay can seem like it is “hindering my learning” but only if you don’t really understand what learning is. Learning one’s times tables can be awful, and learning how to decode letters into sounds is incredibly difficult and uncomfortable for many four- and five-year-olds.

I hope that I have done the tightrope walk above. First I want to come across as both humane and understanding. A lot of the point of these evaluations reports is to say “I care about your learning and your enjoyment of the course, but mostly your learning, come see me, I want to help.” But I also want to slip in a little bit of “Hey, I know your learning a bit better than you do, just like your doctor knows your spleen better than you do.” This is elitist, snobby, but also, in the very nature of expertise. Sometimes, a pure, consumer model, free market approach ignores the fact that expertise is not always immediately obvious. Coming back to the title of the post, it is really important to engage with students’ thoughts and feelings about the course, but not to take them at face value.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why I strongly agree/strongly disagree with student evaluations

  1. Rachel Levy says:

    “I think all of the TED talks, radiolabs, and articles are hindering my learning because of the papers that have to be written along with them. I have less time to focus on the chapters when I have to write 3 pages for every assignment I do.”


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