"There is no one way"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Student course evaluations

When I started teaching high school, I was rather shocked that the routine on the job at the time included a course evaluation form to be filled in by students at the end of every term. Teenagers were to evaluate adults!

I was particularly disturbed by the pedagogically questionable assumptions and implications of the form. One question really bugged me: "Does the teacher provide clear explanations?" Why not "Does the teacher ask thought-provoking questions?", "Does the teacher offer multiple approaches to the material?"

I also didn't like "Is the teacher patient and understanding?" Why not "Is the teacher clear about deadlines and boundaries?" Yes, one can have both patience and clarity at the same time, but do students understand that? I did a lot of complaining about this.

Almost thirty years later, I still think that the formulation of the questions in any course evaluation assumes and promotes an educational agenda. Given my belief in extreme eclecticism in those matters, and my experience that they are far too complex for most high school students to grapple with, I'm suspicious of fine-grained evaluation forms. Even an apparently non-ideological list of what was done in the class, with some sort of rating scale, will yield responses that are constrained by cultural attitudes (e.g. the prioritizing of entertainment over intellectual engagement.)

In short, I believe that we are best evaluated by our peers, not by our students. But still, student evaluations can be helpful. If you ask a question about the pace of a class, and some students deem it too fast, others deem it too slow, and yet others say it's just right, you haven't learned anything. Or perhaps you learned that the pace is fine. But if almost all students feel it is too fast (say), then you have learned something: you should slow down!

My school recently started encouraging us to use student evaluations again. They wisely do not prescribe a form, but encourage us to do whatever might be useful to us. This time, I have no objections. The course evaluation I have been using for perhaps ten years consists of three questions:

* What did you enjoy?

* What helped you learn?

* What are your suggestions for future iterations of this class?

The first two questions help students learn that enjoyment does not equal learning, an important lesson. (Many course evaluations actually reinforce the opposite idea, because students only think about what they enjoyed as they fill them out, not what helped them learn.) Moreover, if many students enjoyed something enough to remember it and mention it, that is useful information.

Of course, enjoyment is neither necessary nor sufficient for learning, but it does not hurt. A recurring theme in student responses to that part of the evaluation is that many 9th and 10th graders like my jokes and my clowning. I am of course aware that this is neither here nor there as far as learning specific math concepts, but it would be foolish to stop joking and clowning just to spite them. I am far from charismatic to adolescents, and if this is one way to connect with them, why not? (The dynamics are somewhat different with 11th and 12th graders.)

This format helps to bring significant issues to my attention: if a sizable number of students raise the same concern, it's probably worth thinking about. I don't have to agree with their recommendations, or their analysis, but I do have to think about it.

For example, quite a few kids in my Infinity class last spring suggested that I should spend more time on the subject of cardinal number arithmetic. Reading that recurring suggestion was helpful in getting me to reflect upon this. In the end, my plan is to eschew this topic altogether, because I suspect the problem is not the amount of time spent, but the mathematical maturity of high school students, most of whom may just not be ready to tackle this topic.

Nor are they ready to think about curriculum and pedagogy, but they can provide some useful information to their teacher.

--Henri

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