The Times has an article about professors who are seeking more frequent feedback from their students. A BU professor, Muhammad Zaman, asks for ratings from his students every other week and charts the results.
It asks more, too: “How can the professor improve your learning of the material?” “Has he improved his teaching since the last evaluation? In particular, has he incorporated your suggestions?” “How can the material be altered to improve your understanding of the material?” “Anything else you would like to convey to the professor?”
When asked why every college teacher doesn’t take this approach, Zaman says:
“Excellent question,” he said. “I know evaluations are a very loaded topic. And it’s true you have to have a thicker skin. And there’s another problem. Is the evaluation the diagnostic or the cure? If you’re a tenured professor, and you don’t care very much about your teaching, would it make any difference if you didn’t get good ratings?”
I don’t think this is fair. There are reasons for not seeking such frequent student evaluations besides not caring or being thin-skinned. We talk a lot about this with each other. First of all (and less importantly), I can’t imagine asking students to evaluate me, as Zaman does, based on whether I take their criticism into account. Too many criticisms are slightly bizarre one-offs (“Too much black and white in the PowerPoints”), and too many are in direct contradiction of each other. Every semester, I get some comments telling me I allow too much discussion and should lecture more, and others saying I lecture too much.
More importantly, though, many, many professors and instructors are genuinely skeptical of what student evaluations can tell us. We’ve all had the experience of having taught a class where we know the students actually learned more, but we got lower evaluations. Students are often mistaken about what study skills are most effective — why should they be more accurate about what teaching techniques are most effective?
I take something of a middle path. I think students are not necessarily best poised to say what best helps them learn the material. But they are best poised to say what excites them and interests them the most. What is my goal for them? Twenty years down the road, do I want them to remember the difference between property dualism and substance dualism, or do I want them to apply enthusiastically philosophical thinking to their everyday lives? The enthusiasm they have for the class is as relevant as the material I actually teach them.
So I do a mid-way approach, partially borrowed from a professor in my department who thinks a lot about pedagogy. At the beginning, I ask them to write a paragraph telling me what their goals are for a college education and how this course fits in with them. I tell students they are free to send me an anonymous email at any time criticizing my teaching. (No one ever takes me up on this.) Halfway through the semester, I ask them to give me a self-assessment. I ask them how they are doing, what they could do to be better students, and what I am doing that is helping them learn and what isn’t. I prefer this to Professor Zaman’s approach because it puts some of the learning onus on them as well as me. What they could do better, not just what I could do better – especially since there is a bit too much of a “Spoon-feed me your material, make it entertaining, and give me an A!” attitude already. These are bracingly honest, with students often admitting they spend too much time in class emailing, don’t do the readings, etc. But I do get quite useful feedback as well, and have used it to alter my approach. They also have to do a self-assessment at the end.
(BTW, the single most useful innovation I’ve done in the past three years, according both to my students and and my gauge of how much they understand is a simple weekly true/false quiz. Made a drastic difference in attendance, attention, understanding, participation, everything. For next to no effort on my part. Awesome!)