Another Day, Another Collection of Student Evaluations to Consider

Yesterday was like new comics release day except instead of being on the receiving end of one of the cooler parts of popular culture I was the recipient of documents which bear only the merest of traces of what students may be getting out of any of my courses. There is also a remarkable paucity of interesting art or action sequences.


A Callabi-Yau manifold useful for utterly confusing people about multi-dimensional space

Unlike comic books student evaluations are often used to perpetuate a faculty person’s paid position. Unfortunately, and as most faculty are abundantly aware, student evaluations do not really measure course pedagogy very well. Higher education administrators love student evaluations for a variety of reasons. First, they are easy to hold; they are tangible, physical evidence of proof-of-something. Evaluations can be printed, placed in envelopes and bring substance to the insubstantial. They can be shaken, pointed to (“See??? My students loooove me!”), burned, wadded-up or otherwise rendered into an angry version of a Callabi-Yau manifold on a moment’s notice.

Evaluations are wonderful for empowering students and administrators alike. Students get to feel like they are contributing something worthwhile. Administrators have evidence of collecting data, data which is mostly irrelevant for improving education quality, but data nonetheless.

Student evaluations tend to ask a limited number of questions biased towards students opinion of the instructor and the course and not really about how the student approached the course. Questions like:

  1. Did the instructor reply promptly to emails?
  2. Did the instructor provide clear due dates?
  3. Did the instructor provide a well-organized course?
  4. Did the instructor provide well-organized course materials?
  5. Did the instructor grade assignments on a timely basis?
  6. Did the instructor appear excited or interested in the material?
  7. Was the instructor knowledgeable on the material covered?
  8. Was the instructor able to answer questions on course topics?

These questions really only scratch the surface of a course, and provide no substantive information about the student actually managed the course. Nor are questions provided that strike at the core of the instructor-student relationship. Where are the questions like:

  1. Did the student ask questions about the syllabus?
  2. Did the student ask for extra guidance for any course-related topics?
  3. Did the instructor provide other inquiry-based assignments to help develop complicated material?
  4. Did the instructor provide a collection of online notes to compliment the course?
  5. Did the instructor provide any ancillary educational materials, such as lecture podcasts, YouTube videos, or web-based simulations?
  6. Did the student avail themselves to any of the ancillary educational materials?
  7. If the student did avail themselves to ancillary educational materials were these materials helpful?

These are questions I generally do not find on course assessment materials, and I have been employed by three community colleges and one university. On the other hand, I do provide courses my own assessment questions.

  1. List your 5 favorite topics covered in this course.
  2. List 5 topics, themes, or assignments you would change in this course.
  3. What was your least favorite assignment for this course?
  4. How has your opinion of world geography changed since the first week of the course?
  5. Do you believe your opinions or knowledge base has been improved by taking this course?
  6. Would you recommend this course to a friend?

The 13 questions provided above are far more suited to evaluating a course and perhaps a faculty person than the assessment tools currently used which trend to giving students a platform for promulgating weak opinions based on poor personal behavior and attitudes augmented by logical fallacies.

Here is anonymous feedback provided by a recent student, provided in its entirety:

The biggest issue for me was the lack of deadlines. In all other online and actual classroom setting classes, I have been highly successful because I have a clear frame of when I need to get things accomplished. Having unclear deadlines left room for procrastination.

The syllabus was very long and tricky to understand, so when asking questions I would read the syllabus twice, and still wouldn’t come to a clear answer to my questions.

The detail of the essay questions seem to be quite difficult for a simple weather and climate class. I understand that this class is meant to challenge students. But when I am a straight-A student and can’t find a clear answer after reading the textbook and researching answers, there is a problem.

I am not a weather/climate major and need this course for a requirement for my major, and this class seems much too difficult and time-consuming to meet a major requirement.

To begin, this commentary is actually for more literate than my typical feedback. I entreat my students numerous times around evaluation time to give thoughtful consideration to the course, to contemplate content, course management, and to assess their own approach to the course. I have to commend the author of the feedback on their attempt to meet my recommendations. However, their response is replete with problems.

My course had low enrollment, about 7 students. Due to low enrollment, keeping track of students efforts was not very time-consuming. Thus, I can say with no equivocation this student never emailed me to ask questions about the syllabus or any of the course content. The student never indicated using any of the 60+ online lectures I have on my YouTube. My geography channel on YouTube includes over 100 self-created videos, open to people around the world, not simply my own courses. The student never indicated using my lecture notes upon which my videos are based.

Weather and climate is not a “simple” course. I try to reduce the complexity of the course into common terms and circumstances people can relate to, hence the videos. Most textbooks tend to weigh heavy on the science. As a coach and educator my job is to distill these concepts into simple forms. Then I can reconstitute them as knowledge improves. A person who tries to use “The University of Google” to conduct their own research in weather and climate will have issues without a good foundation in some science. Additionally, and at the risk of committing a logic error myself, based on our current Congressional ignorance of climate science no one can truly claim weather and climate is “simple.” Anecdotally, with the messed-up Blizzardopocalypse of 2015 forecast, even meteorologists get things wrong.

[Watch Jon Stewart provide up-to-the-minute coverage of CNN’s ridiculous weather coverage]

Not to belabor this psuedo-rebuttal, but one point mentioned I hear frequently. “I am a straight-A student and can’t <insert some course failure here>.” This is truly a False Cause logical fallacy. The student was not able to perform some assignment to their perceived level of aptness not because they truly aren’t adept but because the course was too hard.

The notion a straight-A’s should infer success in every course is a problem. In college I loved literature, my literature professors appreciated my as I loved to write about what I read, loved to analyze what I read, and liked to discuss the issues and themes of what I read. I received straight-A’s in all of my English and literature courses. I received straight-A’s in all of my history and geography and political science courses for pretty much the same reasons. However, I did not receive straight-A’s in my math courses, in particular Calculus II and Matrix Algebra. Now, would I go to my math instructors and tell them, “I am a straight-A student. I am getting C’s in your math courses. Obviously, your course is the problem, not me.” Knowing my math instructors at the time, they would ask me to leave and never come back. Except for the sweet Chinese woman who taught matrix algebra. She would have smiled, apologized, offered to help tutor me. After a week or so and realizing it was my own ineptness at matrix algebra, I would have politely excused myself and withdrawn from the course. And I did. True story.

That the student needed this course for a major indicates to me the student was working on an Education degree, probably in middle school science. I’ve been around long enough to notice this pattern. The pattern troubles me. The education courses tend to be anemic in teaching true teaching skills, i.g. classroom management, dealing with visible poverty, bullying, careless parents, sniping peers, and apathetic administrations which pass kids reading at the 1st grade level into the 7th grade. But, this is a bit of hyperbole. A person going into education needs to fight against their own procrastination, take responsibility for their own learning, use their faculty as mentors, and understand they are not educating themselves for only themselves but so they can prepare themselves to educate today’s youth who will grow into tomorrow’s adults.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on student evaluations. I know my posts tend to be lengthy and appreciate the consideration of everyone.


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