[This is a guest post by Meg Worley, an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Colgate University. You can follow her on Twitter at @mmwwah and read her blog at http://xom.blogs.com]
It’s late January, and many of us are polishing our syllabi for spring semester. Others are already launched into the new term. Even if you are a couple of weeks into winter quarter, there is still plenty of time to plan for midterm course evaluations.
Over the years, ProfHacker (both columnists and commenters) has discussed a number of reasons why we might want to incorporate midterm evaluations into our schedules, as well as offering tips on using technologies like Google Docs and Blackboard to administer evals. If you can’t fully recall them (or if you missed them first time round), be sure to check them out.
I’ve developed my own way of giving and getting midterm evaluations that has made a big difference -- not just in the final evaluations, but in my overall pedagogical approach. My midterm-eval process has three main components:
1. Use the same form for midterm as for final evaluations.
Whether your institution has a standardized form or you create a new one every term according to course-specific needs, using identical forms is good way of responding to student concerns before they appear on the chair’s or dean’s radar. If the final eval form asks about, say, teacher effectiveness, and you ask about strengths or ability on the midterm form, you run the risk of getting quite different answers. And no one wants a negative surprise on official evaluation forms.
I’ll admit that using identical forms does feel rather like gaming the system. But I prefer to think of it this way: By having midterm and end-of-term answers to the same question, I can offer a narrative account of my pedagogy at promotion time. Nothing spells success like a midterm weakness that has been reworked into a strength. And nothing says a good night’s sleep like a set of final evals with no unpleasant surprises.
I should also note that sometimes I add a question or two to the end of the midterm form, if there are specific issues I’m pondering. This past semester, I asked the students if the course was challenging enough for them, since we seemed to be having too much fun, and I frequently ask whether they would learn more if we adjusted the balance of different types of assignments.
2. Don’t just read and absorb -- analyze.
I process midterm evaluations in the same way that I process final evals:
- First, before reading any student comments, I fill out a blank form for myself. It’s not fun being honest with myself about how many of my goals I think I actually achieved and what the weaknesses of the course were, but it pays off. And if a student mentions a problem I have already identified, it doesn’t sting much.
- Next, I go through all the eval forms question by question (rather than form by form). I write down each substantive point made (“knows her stuff"; “slow to return papers”), adding a tick every time a different student says the same thing (“slow to return papers |||"). The accretion of tick marks forces me to focus instinctively on the points of student consensus, without being distracted by the outlier comments (“harsh and unpolite”). [That’s not to say that I ignore the one-offs; I just weigh them differently.]
- Then I spend a few minutes thinking about what I want to do differently, and I jot down notes to that effect.
3. Tell the class what you’ve learned
After I’ve fully analyzed the midterm evaluations, I return to class with the findings. I focus on the areas of real consensus, and if there are reasons why I can’t or won’t make the changes suggested -- a frequent one is that students want me to lecture more -- I explain the situation. I frame this as a conversation, encouraging students to add their observations. Almost every semester, at least one person says in this discussion, “Oh, now I understand why we do it this way.” Where there is a dilemma, I throw the ball back in their court: “So here’s the problem. Can you think of a way around it?” I hope students understand that I consider them co-creators in the course pedagogy.
Nor do I gloss over the outlier comments. I’m careful not to single anyone out, even anonymously, by saying “And one person said I should comb my hair more often!” because it tends to elicit snickers if the class knows it’s the opinion of only one person. Instead, I am vague about how few people felt that way, while implying that it is a minority view. In the case of the occasional hurtful or inappropriate comment, I often try to find a way to discourage such remarks without sounding upset or scolding (“Well, I certainly hope the dean of the faculty isn’t judging my abilities by my hair-combing prowess”). Sometimes a jokey “Ouch!” will do the trick. Since I began doing a midterm debriefing, I haven’t gotten a single inappropriate comment on my final evals.
The end result of this process is a set of final evaluation forms that more closely reflects the reality of the course. By filling out the same form in the middle of the term, students have had some practice with the genre, and in the debriefing, they have gotten a sense of how their suggestions were understood. They can also compare the second half of the semester with the issues we discussed after the midterm evaluations, which can be a good reminder for me to put my money where my mouth is, pedagogically speaking.
Occasionally I worry that I am over-engineering the process, but mostly I hope that it yields a better picture of my teaching -- not just for myself but also for my chair, dean, and anyone else tasked with evaluating me. Above all, I like to think that the process -- giving midterm evals, analyzing them carefully, and then bringing that analysis back for discussion -- lets students know just how seriously I take our joint endeavor.
How about you? What tips do you have for giving and getting midterm evaluations? Please share in the comments.