There are always a few students in my courses each term who come to me at some point during the term unhappy with their progress. Invariably they ask me for tips on how they can succeed in the course. Towards the end of one particular term, when it seemed like I was fielding the question more and more often, I had the crazy idea to turn the question around and ask the students for their ideas. So I posed the following question on the intro course evaluation*:
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone taking this course in the future on how to succeed in the course?
I also indicated that I’d like to share their advice with future students, and to let me know if they were not comfortable with that. (Most gave me permission to use their advice.)
Some of it was the advice I typically give to students—read the text, try the problems, seek out the lab assistants, read next to the computer so you can try things out. Some of it indicated a desire for better study habits—“start the assignments early!”, “start studying for the quizzes earlier”. Some of it indicated issues with the course structure or with particular assignments—alluding to instructions that were too vague, or assignments that took too long, and how to cope with those. And some of it indicated things—concepts, skills, life lessons—that the students were particularly proud to have mastered as a result of the course.
It was these last two areas that threw me. From this simple question, I could tell at a glance exactly what the students struggled with, whether conceptually or skills-wise or study habits-wise. I could tell what made them proud and in what areas they felt they’d grown the most.
Sometimes, I discovered, it was easier for them to indicate how the course worked for them if I asked them indirectly.
I’ve used this question in every single course since then, from intros to upper-level courses, and it is hands-down the most useful question on the evaluation for me. Sometimes the answers make me laugh. Always, the answers make me think. When I take my end-of-term notes and file them away with the course files until the next time I teach the course, it’s from this question that I take the most notes. I also, as
threatened promised, do include the advice on future syllabi, so that students at the start of the term can get a better sense of what they’re in for, what are the potential sticky points and trouble spots, and most importantly, what rewards potentially await them at the end.
(Plus, for some reason they’re more likely to follow a peer’s advice to “try the problems in the text” than they are to listen to me say the same thing. Peer mentoring is powerful, even when it’s done via a few lines on a course syllabus as a voice from the past.)
What course evaluation questions have you found most useful, whether as an instructor (or, on the other side of the desk, as a student, to help you process and reflect on your own course learning)?
* Here are Carleton, we are fortunate (or cursed, depending on your mindset and where you are in the tenure stream) to have no official, formal course evaluation forms. Course evaluations are entirely optional and, if used, must be developed, administered, and processed by the instructor. No one other than the instructor sees them (unless, of course, you share them with others, which I found immensely valuable pre-tenure).