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Teaching evaluations

Posted by Arjendu on February 15, 2009

About a month ago, Chad and Moshe talked about student evaluations of teaching, and I kept meaning to comment. I’ll leave out the excuses for the delay —  here goes, finally.

Carleton doesn’t do evaluations. That’s right, a school that prides itself on its committment to teaching, and rightly so, not only does not evaluate you based on the numbers from the bubble-sheet activity (where students fill out an evaluation on some numerical scale about the quality of your teaching — an activity that seemingly every other school enacts) at the end of the course, it doesn’t even require you to go through the exercise.

Don’t get me wrong, we are told often about how good it would be for us if we evaluated our classes, and are periodically sent pointers to good evaluation formats, but there’s no requirement to do this at the end of every term.

The motivation? Well, it’s not up to me to defend or explain Carleton’s philosophy here, but I’ll tell you why I don’t do the standard evaluations, and what I do instead. I am interested in improving my teaching, and/or adjusting my course depending on the students in *that* course and as soon as possible. As with any decent teacher, and particularly those privileged to have small classes with students relatively meta-aware of their learning, I am always ‘listening’ to student reactions and tuning my presentation to best benefit them (and my agenda). Those bubble-sheet exercises add not an iota to my understanding of what’s going on.

The only formal evaluation I ask for are short ‘minute papers’: What worked and what didn’t in this class? Or ‘What did you get out of this class/chapter/section, and what’s still unclear?’ ‘What’s one thing you would change and one thing you would leave unchanged about _____?’ where ____ could be the particular class, the structure of the course, or something else. And I often hop up on the desk at mid-term or end of term and ask them to fire away with suggestions about things to change. I’ve learned a lot from these short evaluations over the years, particularly from the verbal sessions (which only work if the students trust you and are engaged with their learning. But if those two things aren’t true, you’ve got far deeper problems, I think). And strongly recommend doing something very similar.

Don’t get me wrong, Carleton does do a very formal evaluation of teaching for your tenure review process as well as for the mid-tenure-clock review. Those are equally verbal (perhaps a note on that another time or if requested). I found nothing in that review that I hadn’t learned through my much more casual –but much more informative than bubble-sheets — process already.


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