Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Friday, May 29, 2015

Reflections on Teaching, Student Evals and Plans for Next Year

I spend a solid week after receiving student evaluations musing and stressing over the results. I peer over them and come back to them as though I can discern some greater truth. I was talking with the teacher I teach a paired class with yesterday and she told me to not take it personally. Which I know. But I also know when I stop being bothered by these, when I stop using them for reflection, it's time to stop teaching.

I truly believe that reflective teachers are the best teachers.
I don't know where I first heard this. Probably some high school professional development. I know we hear a lot that the best teachers are ones who are constantly reflecting, but we don't always know what that LOOKS like. How do we reflect? What do we take from it? How do we correct or refine our pedagogy? This is a brief look at what I do at the end of each semester.

Other people have written about this, but I want to sum up some of the gaps, flaws of these end of the semester student evaluations, to both situate how I use them and where I'm coming from.
  • These evaluations are anonymous and this semester at my school, students knew their final grades before they answered the survey. Failing students leave different comments, answers. And we don't know which are which, although sometimes it's easy to tell.
    • While surveys are anonymous in case student takes your class again, to prevent us from taking revenge (and honestly, we're professionals, why is this a thing?) it means you can't ask clarifying, follow up questions that might improve your teaching.
  • There is no context for the comments. So for example "criticism and analysis" listed under a positive comment section doesn't really tell me anything. 
    • In part you can push back against this by asking for detailed responses from students before they take the survey, explain what they're used for, how you'll use them, but those steps are no guarantee that's what you'll get.
  • Often the comments are not anything that can be used to improve teacher performance, which is nominally, what these evaluations are supposed to do.

I do regular informal check ins roughly every four weeks. Each one looks a little different. Week 4 is a general share your thoughts. Week 8 used to be based on our IDEA form final surveys, but we've changed that, so next semester I'll be altering that. Week 12 is more specific about where they are, and where they want to end up. Most students respond, so I have a pretty good response rate, maybe 85, 90%. They are not anonymous, and I front load them by saying I use the answers to course correct the class, and help them, see what they need, so I ask them to take them seriously, and be honest, but not nasty. I tell them that nasty comments may make them feel momentarily better, but they won't help me fix anything. I frame the surveys as part of a class discussion about how things are going.

Once I have the results, the next day in class I bring up the general things that came up, what I can fix, what I can't, what I'll be doing in class in response. I get a pretty good reaction as they see that I hear what they say and use it. These conversations are part of our class culture and are very important to me in how I run my class, and the environment we have.

I do this because I think it's important to see how students feel about the class and material, because sometimes what I think is clear isn't, and if I don't know I can't help. It also helps me course correct before final evals, which while I have specific issues with, understand they are a necessary evil for evaluation and assessment.

This past spring I only taught one class. With 16 students, 15 actually as one dropped the last week of class, but still responded to the survey. 13 responded to the survey. So three negative responses tanked my stats. Perhaps not incidentally this class had one D and two Fs. So make of that what you will.

While I read the more statistical stuff, and our new form is better than the old IDEA forms, I still tend to focus on the comments.
I don't just rely on the university's evals though, I also do an end of semester reflection with the students, which you can find here, and I've written before, but this post is about the university evals.

You can find the evaluations I discuss below, and past ones on my teaching portfolio below the end of semester reflections and above the observations, recommendation letters.
Below though, I'm mostly focused on this past semester's evaluations. So below is my process, how I go through and incorporate the results, but also how I think through them.

The first thing I do is make lists of the comments. Below are the comments, then my reactions/thought process in blue italics.
 
The Good:
  • Really liked the class set up, the mix of online learning and in class discussions.
  • Liked that I let them bring laptops to class to work.
  • I am a "master" at Blackboard.
  • Peer review
  • clarifications made in class
  • Individual feedback
  • Visual aids
  • Enthusiasm
  • Group collaboration
  • Skill building
These are all things that I'm proud of about my class. Students also said they liked all the popular culture (TV, movies, comics) we covered in the Revising Milton class, which is course specific, but nice to hear as I was worried about the balance.
 
Future Improvements: These are comments that I need to incorporate fixes for next semester.
  • More time on examples, use student examples and go over them
    • Next semester I'm going to for each assignment ask for student volunteers whose work I can use (anonymously of course) in post-mortem of the assignment.
  • More flexible
    • This is one of those comments where context would have helped. I'm not sure what this student wanted me to be more flexible about. It's not a comment that came up in any of the informal check ins, so while I've noted it as something to be aware of, I'm not sure exactly what steps to help.
  • Hands on help with papers
    • We do a peer editing/group day for every assignment, the class period before it's due. So that's already in the schedule. Next semester I'll make sure I spend more time with the groups, sitting down with them and giving them this help.
  • More positive reinforcement
    • This is another one where I wish I had more detail and context. What does the student consider positive reinforcement? Do they mean on small, low stakes assignments? Larger assignments? In class discussions? What did they need to get out of this? Like the flexible comment I can put it on my radar to be aware, but other than that, and considering this is a single student's comment, that's all I can do.
  • More note taking
    • I work hard to incorporate a lot of skills in my class- organizers, research, programs to use, etc. So I'm adding a focus on types of note taking to this for the fall.
The Bad:
  • "The teacher fails at teaching and expects us to have learned everything based on her notes in the syllabus"
    • This reads as vitriol. Yes, it's a single comment. But again, there are no details here. What about my teaching made the student call it a failure? Was there confusion about how to use the resources? Could they not follow the hyperlinked weekly schedule/syllabus? Did they not attend class a lot? Did they come to office hours? Where was the disconnect? Because there are mostly questions, and no answers, this type of comment I tend to read, but place aside. Because there's nothing here I can fix.
  • "I think I would have been more comfortable in her class if she wasn't so harsh. There were a few times when she was a little too vulgar in my opinion. Although I would
    regard her as an accomplished professional, I think she leaves no room in controversial topics for other views. I will admit that I was uncomfortable a few times in her class and felt a little disrespected when she would discuss religion."
    • Finals week a student complained to my boss that I cursed too much. I assume this is the same student. This never appeared on the informal check ins. Frankly, "Did you bring this up with your professor?" should have been the first question asked of the student when they made the complaint. Followed by why wait until now to complain if this was an issue? Neither happened, but that's a separate issue. Because a complaint once the course is over and grades are posted reads like it's about something out. That being said, I'll watch my language in the fall. Although I will say that while I occasionally swear in class, it's not like I'm an extra in Goodfellas or anything, and this is college, so, whatever.
    • I wish I knew exactly what controversial topics this student felt I had shut down discussion on. Again, details would help me know.
    • I'm also confused here about the "accomplished professional" bit. If this is true, then what specifically bothered this student? How does this relate to the other issues?
    • The last comment points me towards the evangelical student I had all semester. Who complained all semester (and didn't do well) because of an ongoing issue that Milton was not their religion. However, while I did make a blanket statement the first class about what the Revising Milton class would cover so far as it not being religion, this comment makes me realize that I need to add a trigger warning to this class' syllabus. For more on that, read this.
  • Better at answering the questions asked through emails rather than pointing the student to find the answer elsewhere.
    • I'm never sure how to react to this type of comment. If the question is something that can be found on the syllabus, or should be common knowledge, like MLA formatting, I do point them elsewhere. Because I believe that learning how to find that type of information is part of preparing college students for further study. I don't think I ever do it in a nasty way, but it's hard to know if this is a comment about one of those situations or if the student feels like they had a specific question that did not get answered. Again, placing this on the "to be aware of" pile.
  • Expectations vague and grading harsh
 
    •  I struggle with this comment- expectations are vague. The image above is assignment 1 from the Revising Milton course, and the others look similar. I don't know what assignment this student is talking about, or what they found vague, or what they wanted more detail with. I did recently read an article in TETYC by Mark Blaauw-Hara that did lead me to creating an assignment template for future use that might address some of these concerns. But again, not knowing what the student meant, I'm not sure.
    • The grading as harsh I also don't know what to do with. What assignment? What was the grade? What was harsh? Is this an actual concern or is the student defining harsh as in they didn't like their grade? I use a standard Feedback Cheat Sheet for student papers. I use this because it incorporates questioning techniques, and guiding the students to find the answers. I'll continue to use it, but wish I knew what this student was referring to.
  • Attitude makes her unapproachable
    • Again, lack of specifics, and evidence of students in my office hours and emailing me points to isolated incident. But what about my attitude did the student think made me unapproachable? Did they try? Attend office hours? Email for help? Was it my reaction in those instances that led to this comment? Or did they never try? Why did they not try?  
  • Harsh
  • Aggressive
    • I go back and forth on these types of comments. The very first day of class, I give a spiel, that accompanies my introduction to the class in memes (which the students like and sets a great tone for the class). And I state that I am direct and honest but never mean to be harsh, so please let me know if that's an issue, or if you ever feel that way.



    • I never received this comment during the check ins so is this sour grapes over final grades? What situation did the student think I was harsh about? And finally, in addition to the aggressive, I return to the conversation I'm tired of having. About teaching, and gender, and bias.
I wear jeans, a button down shirt, and tie (sometimes a vest) to teach.
I've written before about teaching styles, dress, and gendering. I think I am often punished because I don't meet student expectations of what a female teacher should look like. I think a strong, opinionated female is graded more harshly by students than a female professor who not only dresses more feminine, but also is not as strict about rigor and expectations. Short of me and a more feminine teacher giving the exact same assignments and feedback, there's no way to know, I only have how I feel, and anecdotal evidence.
Some days I think I'm taking it all too seriously. Maybe I'm making too much of it, seeing shadows where there are none. Maybe it is something about me, and not a bias against how I dress and act. But that doubt too is evidence of misogyny. I'm betting my male colleagues don't think first of their dress if they're told they are harsh or hard.
Too often female professors are graded, and rated, on things that have nothing to do with their teaching, as Inside Higher Ed covered this past December.

The #GenderImbalance hashtag on Twitter the other week showed that this isn't just me. It's the majority of female scholars. From being told to dye grey out of our hair, to receiving better evals if we wear heels and skirts, to being asked to only contribute to committees or service that is characterized as "women's work" like we're all naturally nuturing the imbalance is real and it impacts almost every aspect of our professional lives as scholars.

Sjoerd Levelt storified some of the responses here. Think about what it's like to think in that environment. To constantly second guess choices because of the consequences of actions being gendered. To be punished for not conforming to gender norms.

So, I don't know what to do with comments of harsh. I even had a supervisor call me "boot camp like" which I thought was incredibly insulting, inappropriate, and again, gendered.

So this fall, I'm trying a little social experiment. I will be trading in my ties and jeans for slacks and dress tops. 
Think more this:
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/254101603949847584/
And don't think I don't know that adopting a queer female as my new sartorial model may not change the problem, that it could just be moving the goal post, but honestly there's only so much compromise I'm willing to do for student evaluations- mainly I will not completely change my personality or sell my soul to Dress Barn, so hush you.

So, that's the plan. And I'm betting, that fall's evaluations will be different. I'm not changing anything else (other than the notes above based on feedback). So if I am graded less harshly, seen as more accessible, it will strictly be due to the change in my appearance. And that's wrong, on levels beyond comprehension. But I'm curious, so we'll see.

So that's how I work through my student evaluations. I take the list of things to improve/incorporate and print it out, and put it in the front of my folder for next semester as a constant reminder of what I want to focus on.
That's my step by step process on how I break down evaluations. For me, that's part of what reflection looks like. Other things I do that I consider reflection include keeping up with new teaching strategies and approaches I can integrate, resources that might help my students, skill based activities that will help them. This is on top of revisiting and revising the syllabus after each class. I make a copy of each at the beginning of the semester and use the copy to make notes on:
  • assignments that didn't work, why they didn't work, what I can do to fix
  • readings that fell flat, readings that students recommended that were great
  • places where I need to front load more or reteach in a different way
  • places where I need to insert resources like organizers or help
 So what do you do to reflect on your teaching? How do you respond to and use student evaluations? What practices do you use to improve your teaching semester to semester?
 
Comments from past years
  • Really enjoyed enthusiasm, liked her style of teaching
  • Excellent instruction for juniors or seniors, maybe not freshmen. Refresh our memories about basics of English
  • Difficult course but instructor helped me more than I could have asked. Great teacher.
  • Favorite class, best English class I've ever taken.
  • Good teaching
  • Allowed me to push myself
  • Great instructor, very helpful, used different methods to teach
  • Shimabukuro is a ruthless teacher. That being said, every "A" I received was earned and it felt good when she appreciated my work. More patience would have been helpful.
  • I really enjoyed this professor as a person however she was quite harsh at times.
  • Taking this class made me look forward to the rest of college.
  • The teacher prepped us for future classes.
  • The instructor was exceedingly hands on.
  • Not a fan of peer editing
  • She was unprofessional in the classroom and did not clearly present expectations to students. The class itself was still interesting though.
  • Didn't inspire students. That is the only way they will learn.

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