Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Friday, June 2, 2017

End of Semester Evaluations and Reflections- Spring 2017

Just about every semester I write a post about those end of semester student evaluations. I try to use these posts to reflect, to take hard, honest looks at how the class went, what stood out, and what to improve.

I've also written about how to talk to students about their evals and I've written about how I try to use them for reflection, and improving the class.

I also use Brian Coxall's "Letter to Future Students" idea at the end of the semester, so I feel like I have a good idea of their reactions before the evals get released.

First, some general notes about this class this semester. 
  • I designed the class similar to my Early Shakespeare class, and because they had similar approaches/shells I was able to incorporate a lot of the feedback from the Early/fall class into this one. 
    • I labelled weekly modules and the syllabus so it was easier to navigate.
    • I took the low stakes assignments that build towards the bigger assignments and made many extra credit. This way students who were juggling a lot could prioritize. 
    • I added more video lectures, as students said they liked them.
  • I built last year a One Note Writing Notebook to help with general issues I kept seeing in writing (it's a 300 level class) but this year, I continued to see fairly big issues with description and not analysis.
  •  The numbers in the class were more stable than in the past.
  • Students contacted me less, so that always makes it hard to judge how they feel.
  • I heard over and over again this semester that I needed to provide examples of work. This was a new course, so that wasn't possible (but more on that in a bit), and when I asked at the end of the course, like I always do, for volunteers to supply work, no one really answered.
    • This bothers me a bit. I give a detailed overview of assignments, along with the statement in the syllabus that work needs to be submitted in MLA format. I think that this, plus all the low stakes assignments that build the parts mean that the assignment expectations are clear.  Also, my assignments are all based in student choice- them exploring their interests, their majors, what they thought was cool or confusing. So there's no one "right" assignment. I'm not looking for a cookie cutter. But I don't want students to be confused, so I'm not sure what to do here. I feel like students ask for this because they want to be told exactly what to do. But that's totally against my pedagogy- I want them to work through figuring it out.
    • Some comments on evals were "needs to explain MLA format" and "shouldn't expect me to double space." Now, I rarely flat out disagree with student comments, I try to always think about what I need to takeaway, see their point of view. But in a 300 level Shakespeare class where the syllabus clearly states all papers must be in MLA format? Sorry, nope, I can expect you to know it or look it up.
  •  I saw some fairly major flaws in writing. Introductions that summarized, no clear topic sentences, improper citations, both internal and Works Cited. I state in my syllabus that I expect writing to improve with feedback and throughout the semester, and they're allowed to revise for a high grade (I leave copious feedback on all big papers). I also use comment starters on smaller assignments, where I point out the purpose of the assignment and what I was looking for.
    • More than any other area, this semester's class hated this most of all. I received the most comments addressing the type of feedback I gave.
Analyzing and Reflecting
As with most surveys I had 62 students and 30 responded, so I try to keep that in mind. I also try to keep in mind that survey responders always have something to say (positive or ax to grind) so it's important to realize that maybe that middle ground is not represented.

I work really hard to let students know that I am there to help, listen, there for them. I am transparent about this in all my class materials, and video lectures. Yet this does not seem to result in the changes in "How comfortable do you feel approaching the instructor with questions or comments?" This makes me sad. Because I want my students to be able to check this easily. Because this is a straight rating at my school, there's no comment section to provide clarification on what specifically they mean or what could be improved. 
This also came as a shock, because I had a lot of students contact me this semester about how much they appreciated me understanding, working with them, being available, etc. So this didn't match what I expected. And I don't know why. Did those students not respond? Why didn't they feel comfortable?

The next part on the evals are two comment sections: what features of this course and the instructor's teaching contributed most to your learning and what specific suggestions do you have to improve the course and the instructor's teaching?
For me, these are the hardest sections to parse out because there's conflicting information.
  • One student said the step by step instructions on assignments were very detailed and helped them understand exactly what they needed to do. Another student says all the assignments were vague.
  • One student said the communication on assignment feedback contributed most, another calls my feedback passive-aggressive.
  • One student says a problem was too many assignments were based on open ended questions. Another says the projects weren't open ended and restricted their ability to write original work.
What I try to do with these types of comments is be transparent with the students. In video lectures and assignment materials I try to explain WHY I designed projects and assignments a certain way, list out some issues past students have had, and some suggestions on how to address those issues. I don't know any other way to try and address these contradictory comments.

Many students said they liked how organized the course was, and the lay out, so that's good.

There are comments that make me feel like crap, mainly because I'm horrified a student would feel this way:
  • I think this class was difficult, and I feel like when approaching with questions or something, the responses were rude, so I did not learn a lot.
  • What contributed most to my learning was how afraid I was to ask for help because I knew she would give me a passive aggressive insult on every assignment so I resolved to do more research myself.
  • Her TAs were more helpful than she was because she would just reply in a rude manner and would be condescending.
Again, these are comments without context, so I don't know what responses they mean- small assignment feedback? Emails? Help forums? Feedback on larger papers? I'm not sure what made them afraid to ask for help, what phrases they saw as passive aggressive, what they saw as rude. So without the context I can only try and be more aware, but I am very conscientious in responding to students, through email or feedback, so this makes me very sad. I feel like I'd fix it if I knew how but I just don't have enough information.

I think every semester, we each could point to a comment that makes us cry at our desks, cringe, want to hide under a blanket fort. The one comment we'll hear in our heads for months.
This is mine this semester:

"The grading was absurd. Would advise the instructor to back the fuck off on the nitpicking. I wasn't interested in studying Shakespeare (had to take it for core), but this class provided a lot of information that made it fun to read and work on. If it wasn't for the piss poor grading style/attitude of the instructor this would've been one of my favorite classes this semester."

So, first, I wish more than anything, that students understood their professors were people. People on the other side of these evals. People with feelings. 
That being said, I am confused by this- what about the grading was absurd? What was nitpicking? What about the grading style or attitude? Were these small assignments or large ones? 

One of the reasons I use the comment starters on smaller assignments is so I can explain to students what I was looking for, what the purpose of the assignment was, but also to provide parity to students as I grade in a large class. I add personalize comments for improvement after the starter, but this helps #63 student get the same feedback as #1.

For larger assignments, I tend towards Elbow- I ask questions. I also use Nancy Sommers' Responding to Student Writers. So I tend to leave feedback like this:
  • This seems to summarize the quote/scene/line. What do YOU have to say/analyze about it?
  • How does this connect to your larger thesis?
  • I'm afraid you're losing me here, can you clarify what you're focusing on?
Part of the reason I do this is the same reason I allow choice in projects, I don't want to provide them the answer, because often in my assignments there's no "right" answer but rather I want them to learn how to fix it. I try NOT to point out things to patch, as though just fixing errors is enough, I try to get them to think about constructing an argument and the writing throughout the semester as an ongoing improvement process. I stick to only commenting on a couple of items (focus, analysis, support, explanation) per paper, and try to ask questions that ask them to clarify what they're arguing or analyzing, and how they're reading it.

By the end of the semester, when I see similar issues on things we've covered in class, I tend to leave summarizing feedback. 
  • Introductions to formal analytical writing should have a clear thesis, an analytical foundation to then build the rest of the argument on. I prefer it to be the first sentence, because then I know how to read the rest of the introduction. The introduction should act as a roadmap, a guide to what the paper will cover. So I expect it to cover all the major subtopics (what the body paragraphs will analyze). By the end of the introduction I should know what you're analyzing and how you'll do it.
  • In formal analytical writing, in body paragraphs, I expect to see a topic sentence that tells me WHAT the paragraph is about (the topic covered) AND what you have to say ABOUT the topic, what the analytical focus is. I then expect to see specific evidence from the text that "shows" that argument/analysis, and then an explanation of HOW that evidence shows or proves your thesis, using secondary sources to support your point, not overshadow it.
By the middle/end of the course, I've explained/taught these two things a lot. So if I'm still seeing it, I leave this feedback. 

But I don't know what about my feedback can be read as rude, passive-aggressive, or condescending. The next time I teach, I will definitely make feedback a focus. Right now, I ask when students submit an assignment what they'd like feedback on to guide me. Maybe I will create a worksheet that lets them self-grade on things, then I respond to same. Maybe I need to help give them some framework for formal analytical writing, and how to talk about it. Sommers' has some specific templates in her book that maybe I need to incorporate.

So, overall, my takeaway is I'm sad. I purposely created my course to be welcoming, to make my online students feel welcome, like they could talk to me. Likewise, I strived with my feedback to help and support the students.
Next time I teach, those two things will be my focus- perhaps I'll go back to some interim checkins, asking students how to improve communication, insert some tools for bridging the gap between how I feel about the feedback I give and how they feel receiving it.

Ultimately, the hardest thing with evals is trying not to let the meanness get to you. To be able to take a step back, sift through the comments and measurements, and figure out what you can fix, what you can't, and what you need to ignore. This process, and then identifying and reflecting on a couple of goals for improvement, to me is what's important. If anyone asks, wants to challenge or question my evals, I can track student comments, my reflective practice, and clear, concrete steps I took to improve.

So how do you deal with student evals?
How do you use them in your reflective practice?
Senior scholars, any advice for how grad students and early career scholars can navgigate this?

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