Students Know More Than We Think

I saw an essay this week on course evaluations, which shouldn’t surprise me, as there’s an essay about them every few days, it seems.  I’ve actually written about them twice in the past couple of years, including one just a few months ago (here’s the earlier one, if you’re curious).  In Madeline Elfenbein’s post, she talks about teaching students how to evaluate us better (she doesn’t mean give us higher scores, by the way) by talking with them about evaluations.  My favorite suggestion is when she tells students that gendered praise doesn’t do her any favors (“If I’m a man, don’t say I’m ‘the man.’ If I’m a woman, do not call me ‘nice.’ Your blandly gendered words of praise aren’t going to help me become a better teacher; nor are they going to help me get hired or promoted.”).

I was thinking about students and their perceptions of us this week because I had review sessions for two different classes.  We have the class (or those who choose to come–around half of the first class, slightly less than half of the second) over to our house where we have coffee and dessert and talk about the material again.  In both review sessions, they commented on something I do as a teacher, and it was something I had never noticed.

Both classes told me, independently of my asking either of them about my teaching, that I end class with a one-sentence summation of whatever it is we’re talking about that day.  This technique is not particularly revolutionary; it’s called “closure” in pedagogical literature, and many people know about it and do it.  I vaguely knew about it, but I had never given it much thought.  In fact, I thought I ended classes rather abruptly and without much summary of what was important.

I tend to think of myself as a rather self-aware professor, at least when it comes to the classroom.  I know what I do in class, and I think I know what works and what doesn’t.  Even if I can’t fix a problem, I usually know when one exists.  Thus, I was rather surprised when the classes told me I did this.  I’m not sure if I just started this semester or if it’s something I’ve been doing for some time now and they just haven’t mentioned it.

All of this relates to course evaluations in that it’s clear the students have noticed this pedagogical technique, even if they didn’t have a name for it.  They clearly have found it useful, as many of them commented that they almost always write down that one sentence and use it to frame how they think about the material, especially when studying for the exam.  I’m glad I’ve given them that lens through which to see what we’ve covered, as it seems to be helpful, at least thus far.

Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t that students don’t know good pedagogy; perhaps the problem is that we ask the wrong questions.  Asking if I begin and end class on time doesn’t get to the heart of what kind of teacher I am.  Even asking if I return material within two weeks (I know that quick feedback is useful, and I beat that two weeks by one and half weeks) doesn’t really get to what we want to know.  Perhaps what we should do is limit evaluations to five or so questions we really want to know the answers to and give the students time to really answer those questions.

If we ask them what we did to help them learn material or become better writers and ask them for specifics, maybe then we could see that they found peer editing helpful (or a waste of time), for example.  Last year, a class told me they didn’t see the point in the proposal and annotated bibliography I assign.  Since then (including this coming week), I make it quite clear in that class why I give that assignment and what I hope it will accomplish.  They told me about a shortcoming in communication, and I remedied the problem.  That’s the way evaluations should and can work.  There’s my one-sentence takeaway.

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