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14 June 2011

Course Evaluations -- Use Them

You judge the class all year -- time for them to judge YOU.
The typical school-mandated teacher- or course- evaluation is a load of horse dung.  A good administrator applies the Justice Potter Stewart Test, knows good teaching when he sees it, and doesn't need formal evaluative processes.  A bad administrator is generally going to do what he sees fit; so a formal evaluation either confirms his prior beliefs, or is ignored.  Either way, teachers have been conditioned to ignore course evaluations as an utter waste of time that could better be spent on advanced thumb twiddling.

Understand that the PRINCIPLE of soliciting student feedback on the course and on your teaching is beyond sound.  We are evaluating our students' performance on a regular basis all year.  It's only fair that we stand for the same scrutiny. 

Nevertheless, we have been emphasizing all year that tests are not personal.  Good folks can do poorly, jerks can pass with top marks.  And, our tests have been pitched as learning experiences: a mistake doesn't mean "you stink," rather it dispassionately points out where the student needs to improve.  A useful course evaluation must be presented in the same way.

Presentation and mechanics:  I give my evaluation sheets on the last day of class, with about 15 minutes to go.  My department chairman Jim disagrees with using the end of class time, and with good reason -- he suggests that students might be anxious to leave, and so will put out less thought and effort than if you did this at the beginning of class.  Perhaps next year I will switch and compare results.  Anyway.

It is absolutely critical that I set an appropriate tone for evaluations.  The class must understand that I am taking their comments to heart, but solely for the purpose of improving next year's course.  They might initially have a different agenda.  The points I make in a quick pre-evaluation discussion:

1.  I have thoroughly enjoyed working with everyone, and I'm proud of how well you did this year.  I'm going to miss this class.  [All true; stated now because it's my last chance to send that message to the class, and because it sets a positive tone.]

2. The purpose of this evaluation is for me, and me only.  I'm using it to improve next year's course.  [I'm implying that serious concerns or over-the-top flattery about me personally belongs somewhere else.]

3. This is an individual exercise.  Treat it like a test.  No talking, no discussion.  [It's too easy for a single comment to bias the responses.]

4. Please tell me what you and only you think.  Comments such as "the whole class says..." are unhelpful.  If everyone truly shares your opinion, they will say so on their own.

5. Criticism is welcome.  However, personal comments such as "you suck" are unhelpful.  If you have complaints, please say "It sucked when ....  and I'd rather you ....."  Such specific criticism can help me understand what to change for future classes. 

6. General flattery like "we love Mr. Jacobs, double his salary!" makes me feel good, but is similarly unhelpful.  Please, on this evaluation be specific:  "It was awesome when you...." can be quite useful.

7. These are anonymous evaluations, though you may choose to put your name on them; please do know that I often recognize handwriting.  So you have confidence that I won't hold your words against you, I will leave the room while you fill these out.  I'm appointing Joey here to collect the forms.  Joey, please put the forms in this envelope, seal it, and give it to Mr. Reid [my department chairman].  He will give the envelope back to me after final grades and comments have been submitted.

The evaluation form itself is not merely a standard checklist.  I amend the questions year-by-year to solicit feedback on specific issues.  You can see my form for general physics at this google docs link

What did I learn this year?  Reading evaluation forms can be brutal.  I know not to take comments personally, and most of the comments are very positive.  But it hurts to read complaints, especially complaints that you know have a valid basis.

My general course has been increasingly populated by students who are required to take physics.  Last year I saw substantial sentiment that I needed to tone down my intensity in class -- the AP students respond well and enthusiastically to some of the same methods that turn off the general class.  Did I successfully adjust my mannerisms?  I received only one complaint about my intensity this year, compared to about ten complaints last year.  Sounds good to me.

The reponses indicated much satisfaction with the format of the course, and with the kind and amount of work that I require.  I heard several times that the class was "hard," but that they felt well prepared for the tests, which they also felt were fair.  (Good -- I was worried because grades were a bit lower than I had hoped this year.)  I found out that I had probably done a better job with tests and homework assignments than I thought, but that the weekly quizzes need some work.   Oh, and I was right about the texbook -- I didn't get a single positive comment about the current text.  Glad I'm switching next year.


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