Making course evaluations useful

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Sandra Porter

Do course evaluations have to be a popularity contest? Or can they be useful tools for improving a class?

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A few days ago, evolgen lamented that his students weren't giving him useful information on their end-of-course evaluations.

I'm not surprised.

When I first started teaching, I was a given a copy of the standard-teacher-evaluation-form-that-everyone-used.

The questions read something like this, with ratings between always and never:

1. Does your instructor show up on time?  (to what? coffee dates?)

2. Does your instructor dress appropriately for class?  (Why on earth would I ask my students, who pierced every part of their bodies and thought it best to wear long underwear under shorts, in the winter time, with Doc Martens, if they thought I dressed appropriately for class?)

3. Does your instructor talk loudly enough? (probably not, but then that might force them to listen)

4. Is your instructor present during scheduled office hours?  (mentally?)

Etc.

And, I thought, "I'm a professional! Of course I'm coming to class on time. And worse, even if the students answer the questions, those answers wouldn't tell me anything useful!" Why would I want to waste anyone's time (especially mine) with an evaluation that didn't give useful feedback? I knew whether I was on time for class, I knew where I was during office hours, that information didn't help me any.

I admit, the first quarter that I ever taught a course on my own, I really did wonder how anyone knew if I was doing it well or not. No one was around at night. No one came to our class except for me, my students, and a sleazeball janitor who totally creeped me out.

It could have been weird.

But, never mind that, I learned quickly that, if students weren't happy with a course, word got out. The word went through a grapevine starting with our department secretaries, who served as unofficial confidants, and ending with our department chair.

Anyway, once I started teaching classes that I designed (my third quarter of teaching), I decided it was time for a change.

Always the troublemaker, I asked our department chair if I really had to use the school's evaluation form or if I could ask my own questions. And from then on, I wrote my own evaluation questions and used them every quarter.

In case you're wondering, here's a sample of the questions that I asked:

  • Do you feel confident in your laboratory skills such as: pipetting, weighing, measuring pH, making buffers, other solutions and media, growing microorganisms, and preparing dilutions?
  • Was the text helpful in understanding the material? If you didn't use the text, please explain why not.
  • We cover a large quantity of material during the biotechnology laboratory sequence, is there any aspect that you feel should be covered more thoroughly? If we spent more time on the subject that you mentioned, what subject would you drop?
  • Did you find the "lab meeting" presentations useful? Should I have students give these types of presentations in the Fall and Winter quarters? If not, why not?
  •  Is there anything that you would suggest changing about this course?
  • Is there anything that you particularly liked and want to prevent the instructor from changing?
  • Do you feel that the prerequisites courses prepared you for learning the material? If not, should there be more prerequisites?
  • If you have any additional comments, criticisms or suggestions, please write them on the back of this page. Your input is valuable to me and I will use this information in planning for next year.

What did I learn from my student evaluations?

You can always supplement the standard form with questions of your own. If you want useful information, and you want the end-of-course evaluation to be a useful tool, you have to be proactive.

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