February 15, 2011
Self-Reflection and Student Evals
This is the time of the year for student evals if you taught a course in the fall. Or maybe student eval were returned 3 weeks ago, as they were at UConn. However, today was the day I decided to open the evals from all 3 courses I taught. Why did I wait? Because I fear evals the way students fear grades and class rank. My student evals have always been very positive. But I am the sort of personality that always focuses on what needs to be fixed. If I receive 99 evals that say everything was wonderful, I will ignore those to focus on the 1 eval that said I was good, but my writing on the dry-erase board was sloppy, I spoke too fast, or didn't spend enough time on each PowerPoint.
Student evals are our chance to practice the self-reflection we preach to students. Recommendation 5 from Best Practices advises law schools to teach law students to be self-reflective life-long learners. A componant of self-reflection is feedback. Students need to know what they are doing correctly, why it is correct, as well as advice on where they can improve. We, as teachers and life-long learners, need feedback in order to know where students feel we are succeeding, and where they think we can improve. It is not possible to improve if you don't know what is wrong.
Part of my fear of reading evals is similar to students fear of grades. Unfortunately, student evals are a summative assessment, just like grades in many law school courses. It's not possible to go back and change my techniques if a student or students are not learning from my methods. Evals are summative in that you can't help the unique group of students you are working with by the time you receive the evals. I know I can ask for mid-semester evals, but I hated those when I was a student, so I do not force them on my students. (I always felt that the teachers used the evals to punish the class for not liking them enough. Maybe that is my skewed perception, but it fostered a deep dislike of mid-semester evals.) I do use the evals to change how I teach year-to-year, therefore my evals are a formative as well as summative assessment. I always stress to the class before I leave the room (and I always leave the room when students fill out evals) that I read each eval closely, and what they tell me will change my course plan and teaching methods for the next class. I stress that I want honesty and straightforward criticism of what can be improved, because I can't fix it if I don't know it's broken. I am luckier than many students in that respect; I can fix my teaching because I will teach the course again, while they don't get to re-take courses after a final exam.
Self-reflection is essential if you want to be an expert at anything. Effective teachers use student evals as one tool in their tool kit for examining how to be better teachers. Even if students don't see us reading the evals, when they see we have modified our classes based on their feedback, it sends a message that they matter. Gossip is rampant in law schools, and students from last year's class certainly know students in next year's class. Helping students see that they are not just cogs in the law school machine but burgeoning professionals with valuable feedback helps them see themselves as responsible professionals.
I want to stress that I realize that student evals should not be used as the sole method of assessing teaching methods. Student evals can reflect many things outside of teaching skill. I have been exceeding lucky that my students have always written evals that I feel reflect the class and not personal feelings about issues outside the scope of the course. Self-reflection is sometimes the hardest when it's difficult to distinguish between legitimate constructive criticism and personal feelings outside the scope of the class. It is both personally and professionally difficult to read that we are disliked, even if the reasons are not appropriate.
What did I take away from this set of evals? I talk too fast. Speaking slower was also one of my resolution's this year. Self-reflection is hard. There is nothing like 25 sheets of paper with the same constructive criticism to make a resolution stick! (RCF)