Mar 07

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, weeks 26 and 27: in which I assess students’ demeanors

Having worked with the Teaching Resource Center at UVA, and being generally interested in pedagogy, I’ve attended a lot of talks about teaching strategies. One particular anecdote from such a talk has stuck with me. The presenter (a psychology professor) was approached at the end of a semester by a student who had been generally disengaged, seeming to stare off into space during class and turning in mediocre work. On the last day, while exiting the room, the student sauntered over to the professor and told him, in a monotone, “this is probably the best class I’ve ever taken.”

The anecdote sticks with me in part because it’s funny (the presenter did a great impersonation of a slouching, morose student), but also because the lesson is clear: we can’t always tell how our students are reacting to the class. Sometimes a student who seems tuned out and disengaged is in fact learning a lot, and sometimes (hopefully less often) students’ active participation and stellar work might mask their animosity, revealed only in the end-of-term evaluation.

I’ve been thinking about that anecdote lately because in one of the courses I’m teaching our discussions rarely get off the ground: even the students who participate don’t seem to engage with each other, meaning I ask questions and get short, conversation-stopping answers. It’s a literature course for non-majors, and our theme is “school stories.” I’ve taught a similar course before, and we’re reading a variety of novels, short stories, and poems, ranging from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Harry Potter to Never Let Me Go. Last time I taught the course it went great, and I’ve never really had much trouble getting students to participate. So I found myself wondering, what’s wrong this semester? And I did what I thought made the most sense: I asked my students.

I’ve given a mid-semester evaluation in just about every class I’ve ever taught. The TRC recommends them, and so do Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning and Princeton’s McGraw Center and the Chronicle‘s Profhacker, among many others. Since all groups of students differ slightly, these midterm evals help me make minor alterations (sometimes I’ll cut back the reading, or shift the time discussion questions are due). I often include course-specific or diagnostic questions (on a scale of 1-5, how much of the reading do students complete; or, how would they assess their own participation) and I always ask three general questions, or a variation of them:

  • What is working well/helping you learn?
  • What is not working well/impeding your learning?
  • What changes would you like to see in the rest of the semester?

The evaluations are anonymous, and as with any such exercise I try to ignore the outliers and focus on majority opinions.

In this class one thing was clearly the most useful for students: class discussions. This surprised me a little, but upon reflection makes some sense. The class is composed entirely of non-majors, with a nearly even mix of freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. That’s a lot of differing expectations, and clearly not everyone is used to a seminar-style class. Nobody listed discussions as impeding their learning or going horribly wrong, and I’ll keep working on getting them to engage a bit more with each other. I have a handful of discussion strategies I’ll break out over the next couple weeks (and I’m sure I’ll write about them here), but the midterm evaluation made me feel much better about how this class is going.

(I began this post planning to discuss some strategies I’ve been using in this course to improve students’ writing, but I think I’ll save that for next week.)

Do you give mid-term evaluations in your classes? Do you find them helpful? How do you gauge your students’ engagement with your course?