Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Choose your own course evaluation

Posted by Melissa on December 8, 2011

My colleague, Amy Csizmar Dalal, has a blog post about her favorite course evaluation question. As Amy notes, at Carleton we don’t have a standardized, college-wide course evaluation system. Course evaluations are developed by each faculty member, and faculty, even junior faculty, do not have to share the results of course evaluations with anyone else. For tenure, student evaluation of teaching is done independently of whatever course evaluations you have used in your classes. As a junior faculty member, I loved that I wasn’t hamstrung by a college-wide course evaluation form that didn’t fit well with my teaching goals or help me address my teaching concerns, but some junior faculty find the lack of a more standardized course evaluation process to be stressful.

With complete freedom in my course evaluations, I’ve experimented with a number of different approaches. Over time I’ve developed a course evaluation that I’ve found is helpful to me and provides the kind of information that I need to revise and improve how I teach a course. All my evaluations have four categories: 1) background and expectations 2) course topics 3) course structure 4) Melissa’s strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. The exact questions in each category vary depending on the course, but by dividing my evaluations in this way, I find I can make more meaning of the responses that I get. In particular, by having four different sections to my evaluation, I encourage students to separate their opinions on the course and its content (sections 2 and 3) from their opinions on my abilities (or lack thereof) as a teacher (section 4). Thankfully, I’ve found that students are able to do this quite well.

What type of questions do I ask in each section? The background and expectation questions help me know what type of course the students thought they were signing up for when they took the class. I bluntly ask what their expectations were for the course and in what ways the course did or did not match their expectations. I also ask why they took the course, and whether they felt they were well-prepared for the course. These latter two questions aren’t that interesting when the courses I’m teaching are core courses for the major, but for electives or intro physics, the responses to questions about why a student took the course and whether they felt well-prepared help me put the rest of their responses in context.

Questions in the second section of the evaluation ask about what topics in the course the students liked best, what they liked least, what they found the most difficult, and why. For some elective courses where I have more discretion over the content, I use these responses to tailor what material I teach in future years, and for all courses, these questions help me think about how I present various topics. The third section of the evaluation on course structure varies depending on the course, but I generally ask students whether they found labs/problem sets/in-class activities/lectures/major project/textbook useful and engaging. In addition, for each component of the course, I ask what aspects the students would like to see changed. This can become nitty-gritty, but it gives me perspective on how the students experienced particular aspects of the course, from the textbook to the use of computer simulations in class.

Only after I have asked about the course do I ask students to comment on my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. I’ve found that most students’ assessments of my strengths and weaknesses align well with my self-assessment.

I do occasionally include a few questions on my evaluations that don’t fall into any of the four categories. For example, the question that Amy finds to be her most effective course evaluation question is one I’ve used with my intro students, although I haven’t gotten the particularly insightful responses that Amy has. I might have to try using it in a broader range of ¬†courses.

I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of Carleton students in responding to course evaluations. The students are generally astute and substantive in their reflections. It is rare to have any student completely dismiss my teaching and the course with a uniform bashing. By a similar measure, I almost never have reviews that are homogeneously positive. I appreciate the frequent thoughtful suggestions I receive from students, and those suggestions do impact how I teach the course in the future.

What kinds of questions would be on your ideal course evaluation?

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One Response to “Choose your own course evaluation”

  1. acdalal said

    I really like the idea of asking about expectations and preparation. I might have to borrow that from you the next time I do course evals!

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