A good friend asked for my take on student evaluations after seeing this recent NPR article lambasting them, and (not surprisingly) I have a lot to say. The short version is that I agree that student evaluations are imperfect measures of course (and teaching) quality, but I also believe that if you run the data collection process well and read them with care, they can be extremely informative.
The American Cancer Society recommends that everyone get a colonoscopy at age 50 and then every ten years after that. It is an effective way for for doctors to identify colo-rectal cancer in its early stages, but it is usually a painful procedure. Physicians insert a camera into the rectum and push it pretty far up into the colon looking for potential problem areas.
Last week I was feeling pretty good about myself. We were four weeks into the semester and the lectures seemed to be going well. I had written three labs for my discussion sections, and my teaching assistants who “fielded” them seemed to like them. I didn’t have a clear idea of what the students thought of these labs, but I was cautiously optimistic. On Friday I committed to giving a presentation on these labs as an innovation in teaching at the upcoming Yale Technology Summit.
Over the weekend I surveyed my class to ask them how it’s going. I had heard a few rumblings of discontent about some specific issues and I was curious if there were any other issues I didn’t know about. I strongly believe that if you are going to go to the trouble of collecting student feedback, you should also take the time to read it, analyze it, and most importantly, respond to it. Addressing the issues raised in the survey was almost trivially easy, and the changes I’ve made will make a huge difference to most of my students. I’m so grateful that I didn’t wait for end-of-semester evaluations when it would have been too late to fix anything.
A good friend of mine sent me this fascinating New York Times article yesterday on “pretesting”. It seems there is some science that says students learn better when they take an exam on material before they are taught the material. The article offers a variety of potential explanations, but the gist is that the pretest primes their brain for what’s coming later in the semester.
I remember the first day of the first class I taught like it was yesterday. It was a seminar on the economics of aging and I started by giving my six students1 a tour of the upcoming semester and then showed long-term trends in life expectancy, retirement behavior, and old age benefits around the world. I closed by presenting and critiquing a couple simple economic models of retirement. When I got home, my wife asked how it went. I paused and said “I have absolutely no idea!” As a student, it was always obvious whether a class had gone well, but as an instructor I was shocked to find that it can be a complete mystery.
Just six students enrolled because students at Yale don’t like to take risks with new faculty teaching something that might be boring. Once I had some decent student evaluations on record, a lot more students turned up. ↩
I am ambivalent about using props in class. Used well, props can illustrate an important point or concept. Sometimes props can surprise or entertain students such that the lesson is more memorable. They’re fun. On the other hand, props can cheapen the whole educational enterprise and make it look like you are trying too hard. Shouldn’t the material itself be enough to engage the audience? I’m not totally sure where my performance at the beginning of Friday’s lecture falls, but I hope it was on the positive side.
Last night, as I was putting the finishing touches on my first lecture of the semester, I made what I thought was a pretty good list of general goals for a first class: