Friday, September 18, 2009

Teaching Evaluations

I truly love to teach. I have taught Advanced Legal Research at three different law schools starting in 1984--a quarter of a century! At first, it was a responsibility thrust upon me, but over the years, teaching has become one of the most rewarding things that I do. One aspect of teaching I don't love, however, is student evaluations. Agonizing over student evaluations probably reflects my own insecurities about my teaching and my desire to do the best job I can. The format of the evaluations has changed over the years, going from handwritten surveys to the online forms that we now ask students to complete. In my experience, students were more likely to fill out the handwritten form than they are to complete the online version, which means the rate of return has declined. Nonetheless, most students do complete the evaluations, which are the subject of a article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Note that access requires a subscription.) The author, H. William Rice, describes the reaction of some of his faculty colleagues to evaluations, from one professor who wanted to retaliate against a class who gave him poor evaluations by giving poor grades to "'those little bastards,'" to another, who belived that "student evaluations were 'an absolute violation of academic freedom.'" Some faculty members, according to Professor Rice, believe that students have too little substantive knowledge to render judgments about their effectiveness as teachers. However, as Professor Rice points out, students do have valuable insights to share, and very few of them make gratuitously nasty comments. At the very least, student comments should be considered. Here are a few concrete examples of how student evaluations have helped improve my course. As a result of much student feedback over several semesters about the heavy workload, I decided to petition to increse the credits my course carries from two to three; the petition was successful, and enrollment in the course increased as a result. Student feedback also convinced me to weight the assignments in my course, something that can be done easily using the gradebook on TWEN. And it was student feedback that convinced me that it would be wise to cut back on the use of "clickers" in my class; I still use clickers, but much more sparingly than in the past. I have tweaked the course in other, less substantial ways as a result of student evaluations. Most law school faculty get feedback from their colleagues about their teaching only as part of the reappointment and tenure processes. Once you are tenured, it is rare to get formal feedback on your teaching unless you solicit it from your colleagues. This is another reason why it is important to pay attention to what students have to say.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Dear Marie,
I, too, read this article about student evaluations! Good for you for blogging it! I read my evaluations assiduously, even though sometimes, it hurts. I, too, tweak my course continuously, in response to the student evaluations. Not only that, but also how the exercise goes in class -- I make notes each time on how to make it work better next time. But I have seriously reduced the amount of work I expect from the students in response to some very heart-felt responses from some serious students. I can only increase the credit hours so far, so reducing the work load is the other move. Each semester is slightly different and, I hope, better, than the ones before, because I am trying to listen & respond to the feedback from the students. This is from the evaluation forms where at my school, they can hand-write comments, in addition to the color the circle numbers. But I do also evaluate how well each exercise and discussion goes and try to think about whether it was just the different group, or if it's a trend that's changing how well a formerly great exercise works.