Using Multiple Course Evaluations to Engage and Empower Your Students and Yourself

Course evaluations are often viewed as a chore; one of those unpleasant obligations we do at the end of each course. In the Teaching Professor Blog post “End-of-Course Evaluations: Making Sense of Student Comments,” Maryellen Weimer is bang-on in stating that the comments students dash off can be more confusing than clarifying.

However, with the right approach, these course evaluations can be a very constructive tool. One of the keys is to solicit feedback throughout the course, rather than waiting until the end when it’s too late to make improvements that will make a difference to the current roster of students.

As both a teacher and an instructional designer for more than 25 years, I have been blessed to see things from a variety of perspectives. I have also learned some lessons the hard way! Here are 10 strategies for administering multiple informal course surveys that have proven very successful for me:

1. Ask the questions clearly. Perhaps one of the reasons student comments aren’t clear is because we’re asking somewhat ambiguous questions. Give the exercise the same time and attention you do when writing learning goals. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to assess?” Have a colleague you respect review your questions the first time out.

2. Ask the right questions. If you want to know if one of your primary learning outcomes is being/was achieved, ask. Sure it’s the student’s perspective, but it can be a valuable piece of information and you will spot a trend quickly. These questions work nicely in a Likert-scale multiple choice format. Other questions can be the same as, or similar to, the department’s formal end-of-course evaluations.

3. Ask for written comments. I have always found that written comments can be the most insightful, if interpreted fairly. As Weimer (2012) pointed out, two students can take two different meanings from the same question, so keep it simple.

Four questions I use are:

      1. What is one thing you like about this course (so far)?
      2. What is one thing you do not like about this course (so far)?
      3. What is one thing that could be improved in this course?
      4. Do you have any additional comments you would like to share?

4. Use an LMS or some other way of automating the process of administering the survey. This makes it easy for you and your students. Use the reporting and statistical analysis tools to help you interpret the results.

5. Share the results with your students. This is a critical step. Identify the items that you can deal with and follow through. Tell your students how you will address their concerns. Explain to the students the items that you cannot fix and pass these along to the appropriate departments, if necessary. I also told my students that I would publish the results, including my comments on my faculty homepage, and share them with their program coordinator and dean or academic manager, which I did. There were multiple short and long-term benefits from doing this: accountability, student buy-in, and trust from my academic managers. Risky perhaps, but well worth it in the long run.

6. Survey more than once. Perhaps one-third or halfway through the semester, and once more. Assess any progress you made from the comments on the first survey. This can even be an additional survey question. Don’t wait until the department’s formal end-of-course evaluation – by then it is too late. Your students will also appreciate your genuine interest in improving the course for them. If your course gets off track a little at the beginning, you will have ample time to get things back on track.

7. Don’t survey unless you are prepared to deal with the feedback. If you ask your students for feedback, summarize and share the results, and implement the things that are constructive, your students will feel empowered. They will take a different look at the course and become part of the growth process, your included. This was one of my course activities that my students appreciated the most.

8. Tell your students what you are looking for. Let them know it’s ok to be negative, as long as the criticism is constructive and not mean-spirited. I don’t allow them to name fellow students or other teachers, or make comments unrelated to the course.

9. If you are not inclined to use a survey/questionnaire approach, use a simpler tool. Try a “start-stop-continue” approach, a “one-minute” paper, or a simple poll. These can be done almost weekly or at the end of each module/lesson.

10. Keep your perspective (and humor) on things. Once you get the results/comments, interpret them carefully, but don’t overanalyze or internalize any criticism. Teachers whom I have assisted with this activity initially get very worried because students can be blunt. My advice? Treat the comments like judges scoring figure skaters in an international competition. Throw out the high one and the low one, and what’s left over is usually a good overall indicator. It might not be all positive feedback the first time, but as long as it is constructive, you have something to build upon.

At the start of every one of my courses, as one of the ice-breaker activities and introductions, I would ask my students to visit my faculty homepage and look at the course feedback results for previous cycles of this course. On the page they can see not only the feedback from students, but my responses to the individual comments. By doing this, I think I demonstrated that I was serious about the quality of the course and my performance. I would also point out that I expected the same level of quality insights and constructive feedback from them two or three times during the semester.

Greg Cooper, M.A. Ed. is an instructional designer with the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) at the University of Calgary, Alberta. He previously worked at Cambrian College for 27 years as an elearning designer and as a professor in face-to-face and online courses, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a learning technology consultant.
 

Reference:
Weimer, Maryellen (2012, November 28). End-of-course evaluations: making sense of student comments. Faculty Focus, retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/end-of-course-evaluations-making-sense-of-student-comments/

 
(article posted in Teaching and Learning, Faculty Focus, January 2, 2013: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/using-multiple-course-evaluations-to-engage-and-empower-your-students-and-yourself/?utm_source=cheetah&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2013.01.02%20-%20Faculty%20Focus%20TP%20Blog)
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Test Prep: Getting Your Students to Examine Their Approach

I was inspired by Maryellen Weimer’s article on “Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning” and the accompanying article by Kimberly Tanner on “Promoting Student Metacognition.”

Tanner reflected on a comment I have heard many times: “…it’s my job to teach [your discipline or learning outcome goes here], not study strategies.” How often have we heard that our students don’t know how to learn? Regardless of whose fault that is, Weimer’s article shows how relatively easy it is to incorporate practical “meta-learning” strategies into our lesson plans. It’s particularly straightforward for teachers who conduct a structured pre-test review class and a post-test follow-up activity because that is where many of the issues on clarity, confusion, and preparedness can be brought into the light.

I recall the first time I taught a math course (first and second semester courses) to first-year Trades and Technology students. They were from a diverse mix of age groups, work and school experiences, and cultural and family backgrounds, so variety was critical in everything I did. I was convinced I had used all the correct strategies leading up to the first test — conducting a short review, promptly marking and returning homework problem sets, and so on. Then I got the results. They were less than spectacular. Although motivation and commitment might have been part of the issue, I knew I had to evaluate, and perhaps change my methods.

One strategy that worked was to ask the students prior to the review session, a series of questions in class. This took place approximately one week before the first big test, for which there was observable anxiety.

  • How do you prepare for a test?
  • What do you do (or not do) the night before a test?
  • What has helped you in the past?
  • What should be avoided before a test?

The comments were insightful, sincere, and sometimes sobering and humorous. Some also gave me practical ideas on how I could revise my teaching strategies. I received more than 90 comments from the two classes, which I summarized and posted on my faculty webpage for other students to reflect upon. Here is a partial list of what the students said:

WHAT WORKS

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

WHAT WORKS FOR MATH, SPECIFICALLY

  • get a good night’s sleep before the test
  • review / board work
  • apply math to practical life
  • study in a quiet place
  • studying with classmates
  • actually do some practice problems on a daily basis
  • good attendance
  • address problems promptly before they snowball
  • find an isolated, quiet place with good lighting
  • repetition (out loud if necessary)
  • review practice problems
  • paying attention
  • mock test – or make one up yourself
  • don’t over study (brain overload)
  • get help
  • don’t wait until the night before
  • motivate yourself – buy yourself ice cream if you get over 80%
  • have a pre-test
  • cramming
  • not keeping up on work
  • over studying
  • worrying
  • skipping/missing class
  • being tired
  • not knowing info
  • not paying attention
  • staying up all night
  • not asking for help
  • not doing reviews
  • stressing out
  • poor attendance
  • not eating and sleeping properly
  • bad attitude
  • panic
  • falling behind
  • not being prepared
  • cramming before a test
  • teach someone else
  • getting help if you need it (tutor, teacher, on-line)
  • be prepared
  • do reviews
  • have correct tools (sharp pencil, eraser, ruler, calculator)
  • testing yourself (at home)
  • make time for studying
  • get stronger on questions before you move on
  • know your formulae
  • continuous review
  • put forward an effort to study on a daily basis
  • study with someone who knows what they are doing
  • more practice problems
  • have shorter and more frequent tests (less material per test) – this way, more content is fresh in the mind
  • more hands-on
  • relate concepts to real-life applications

The full, separate lists can be viewed by clicking on “How do Students Prepare for a Test?” at my former faculty webpage at: http://homepages.cambriancollege.ca/gbcooper/.

Based on my students’ comments, I was able to modify my teaching strategies to better meet their needs and learning preferences. Here’s a partial list of some of these changes:

STUDENT COMMENT NEW OR REVISED TEACHING STRATEGY
relate concepts to real-life applications Asked other faculty in senior years of Trades programs for practical problem sets – response was overwhelming and I had plenty of real-life trades-related problem sets incorporating trigonometry and quadratic equations.
mock test – or make one up yourself The review prior to test now included a practice take-home “mock” test which was taken up in class, and peer or self -graded during the review class – this was well-received by my students.
motivate yourself – buy yourself ice cream if you get over 80% I didn’t buy them ice cream, but I used the age-old kindergarten reward technique – STICKERS! On marked homework and tests. I used my favorite horse and motorcycle-related ones I purchased from the dollar store. Everyone got one regardless of grade, but top grades got the jumbo metallic-reflective ones. Although it seemed a little juvenile, the one and only time I forgot to use them caused an uproar! I never forgot them again!
more practice problems I was already using the college’s LMS (Learning Management System) so it was relatively easy to make extra problem sets and solutions available to students online for afterhours access and practice.

While these are perhaps not very metacognitive-oriented results, I do believe the actual process of having my students think about and discuss with peers how to prepare for a test, what might work, as well as what might not, helped some of them re-think or define their “approach strategy” for the test.

For some, it worked well. (Or so they told me.) For others, it did not. And some of those admitted they just didn’t really prepare … or care. But that’s not a metacognition issue, that’s a matter of commitment — an entirely different issue.

Greg Cooper, M.A. Ed. is an Instructional Designer with the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) at the University of Calgary, Alberta. He previously worked at Cambrian College, Sudbury, Ontario for twenty-seven years as an eLearning Designer, and as a Professor of f2f and online courses, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Learning Technology Consultant.

References:
Weimer, Maryellen (2012, October 31). Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Faculty Focus, retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/teaching-metacognition-to-improve-student-learning/

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 11 (Summer), 113-120.

(Faculty Focus article published on November 27, 2012 at: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/test-prep-getting-your-students-to-examine-their-approach)
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