Fishing for Criticism

Spring evaluations showed up in our faculty mailboxes yesterday, and like everyone else I read them closely.  In general my teaching evals are positive and sometimes really, really positive.  My 100-level Humanities section this past spring gave me an overall 5.0 on a five point scale.  Can't get much better than that.

Even so, I always have mixed feelings about positive course evaluations.    Maybe it's because they do a poor job of measuring whether the students actually learned anything.  In the end, it's just self-reported opinion, not a test of their abilities.  Of course hearing that I'm a great teacher is better than the alternative, but  I've always mistrusted compliments.  I know what an ambition-less bum I really am.  Besides, no mere formulation of words will ever erase a lifetime of self-doubting. (Oh, if only it could!)

Beyond that, positive evals don't help me improve my teaching.  Here's what I mean: one of the questions on the form asks students to evaluate how well I "found ways to help them answer their own questions."   I was rated 4.9 on the 5.0 scale and the accompanying report suggests that this is a "strength to retain."  Unfortunately, it doesn't tell me exactly when or how I helped students answer their own questions.  So how do I go about retaining this strength?

Far more useful to me are the students' written comments, but only half of the students write anything.  Often it's just a brief note to tell you they "liked the course."  That's great, but it's not really what I want to know.  So over the past few years I've begun to go fishing for feedback.  Before handing out the form, I list specific assignments, course policies, texts or teaching methods on the board and ask them to evaluate these things for me.  I tell them their written comments on  these items will really help me improve the course and my teaching.   It works, too. 

This year's comments were very specific. Here's what they liked and didn't like:
  • They really approved of a flexible policy on revision (I allow students to revise work as many times as they like), but they thought I should set a deadline so that they did not wait to turn in all of their revisions during the last two weeks of the semester.
  •  My first-year honors  seminar liked that I would start each class with a brief tip on writing.
  •  They appreciated the amount of feedback I gave on assignments.
  •  A few even said they liked being challenged when I called them on  not doing their best.
  • They especially liked that I get all work back to them in one week.  (A failure to get back work quickly has to be the number one student pet peeve).

Sometimes,  they say I should slow down and give them more time to think it through.  That's helpful, I guess.  I do get carried away.

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