I have a confession to make: I have fallen out of the habit of doing midterm course evaluations.
I don’t know why, exactly, I did. I’ve always found midterm evaluations to be useful as a way of taking the pulse of the course. Even if I think I have a pretty good sense of how things are going and what the major complaints are, I still learn useful information from my students. I’ve discovered problems with textbooks, problems with the timing of due dates, and problems with the sight lines in a classroom from midterm evaluations. I’ve learned surprising things about what things my students enjoy and what they value. (Hint: they are not always the same things.) I often use them as an opportunity to check the learning objectives I’ve set for the course, and how well students think we’re meeting those.
They are invaluable in helping me recalibrate my courses.
So I’d fallen out of the habit. But last term, I taught a course I haven’t taught since 2012. And it was a struggle to get back into the rhythm of the material and the pace of the class and the workload and such. So I thought that would be a golden opportunity to bring back the midterm evaluation into my life.
Boy, am I glad I did.
I’d had a sense that the class was going ok, but that something seemed off, and I couldn’t quite place why. The midterm evaluations illuminated the issues very quickly, and also explained why it was so hard for me to figure out the source of the issues. In a nutshell: The students couldn’t make sense of much of anything in the book. My version of flipped classroom pedagogy requires my students to do some targeted reading and complete targeted reading quizzes before class, so that I can see what they got out of the readings and where I need to spend some extra time before we dive into deeper practice with the material, and then deeper still on the problem sets. Since they were lost when reading the book, they were lost when attempting the quizzes. Sometimes they gave up, and sometimes they just kept guessing until they got the right answer. This means their foundation was shaky, and they were not really prepared to engage with the material in class. But the way I had the quizzes set up, it was hard for me to see the depth of the problems. And then, because they couldn’t engage with the material in class at the level I’d expect based on what I saw in the reading quizzes, they weren’t prepared to engage with the problem sets — which are challenging.
A perfect storm of chaos, basically.
I’ll admit that it was hard to read this set of evaluations. Mostly, I felt like I had let my class down, and berated myself for being a “bad professor”. Which is human but not really constructive. So I sat with the comments for a few days, planning how to address them. Clearly my course needed a restructuring, one that would work around the shortcomings of the textbook while still remaining true to my pedagogy. But I wasn’t sure how to do this.
As my class took an exam in the first half of the following Monday’s class, I finally figured out what I wanted to do, and sketched out a plan on slides. When the last student handed in the exam, I said we were going to talk about the evaluations. And I summarized their concerns. And outlined the “perfect storm” I described above, and how I thought this was affecting their learning. How finding a good textbook for this type of class at this level is difficult, and how I’ve successfully used this book for many years, but that’s irrelevant because what mattered most is that they struggled with it so that means it was not a good fit for this class, and how I will take this into account the next time I teach this class and have to pick a textbook.
And then I outlined a plan for the rest of the term, one that I hoped allowed them to attempt the readings more successfully and with a bit more focus (reminding them that I do give them hints on what to focus on, through a set of reading questions in addition to the quizzes). We would start each class explicitly with the key points from the readings listed on the board along with my impression of what concepts they found most challenging, giving them the opportunity to agree/disagree with my assessment. This might mean that I had to change my planned examples and exercises on the fly, which made me a bit nervous since I was still relearning the material along with them — but I promised to be honest with them when I felt like my free-wheeling might lead us into rough waters, and they seemed to be ok with that. That I’d dedicate more class time to giving them the opportunity to start/work on problem sets, so that they could ask questions right away and we could figure out together if they need some extra practice before attempting the problem sets.
I am grateful that I work at an institution where students feel safe enough to be honest with me about what is and is not working for their learning. I am grateful for the level of thoughtfulness and self-reflection my students bring to the learning process. Students here place high expectations on faculty and expect a lot from us (which they should!), and their feedback and observations make me a much better teacher. Responding to this feedback, and restructuring my course, proved an interesting challenge and a good opportunity for me to reflect on my pedagogy — not just my philosophy, but my practice.
I don’t think I completely hit the mark on everything I intended to do last term, but I do think things improved, for both me and the students. And, as I put together my course for spring term, I realized that I could and should incorporate some of these same practices (extra checking in with the students, being explicit about the key points from the readings) into that course as well. We’re only a week and a half into the new term, but I’m excited to see how things go. And, I’m already looking forward to what this batch of students will share on this term’s midterm evaluations.