Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Seeing the forest...and the trees

We call them Instructor and Course Evaluations and I just received the latest ones.  I tell students that I separate the feedback forms (we are in the midst of a transition to electronic feedback, so this is the last time I'll be able to use this process) into three groups based upon the pattern of responses to the 21 computer-scored statements on the front.  The three groups I use are (1) Walks on Water, (2) Spawn of Satan, and (3) Other.  I glance at the Walks on Water data to see where I could do better, I ignore the Other pile, and I study the Spawn of Satan pile to see just how many students were dissatisfied and in what areas.  I realize (and explain to students) that I am neither good enough to walk on water nor bad enough to be a true spawn of the devil, but I understand how the process works when student feedback is limited to a one-shot event.

So, after reviewing the front sheet, I turn all the forms over to the section for student comments and pull out the forms with writing.  Then I read the comments carefully, trying to understand the feedback and glean what I can for the next semester.  This is my favorite comment from the latest group:

She presents the material from the book effectively, but the assignments that we do that supplement the simulation are ambiguous and it's hard to know exactly what she wants.  Then she grades somewhat hard so that makes it difficult.  The grading system has changed in some parts and I'm still confused on what I'm actually being graded on.  But she is a good lecturer and does care about the students.  She enjoys teaching and is passionate about the subject so I respect that.  She is a little sassy but keeps it tolerable most of the time.  Overall, she is better than most I've had in (the department).

What I like is the student's ability to provide constructive, useful feedback...and how accurately my challenges and successes for the semester were evaluated.  I did struggle with grading this required course taught by multiple instructors.  I'll struggle with it again next semester, as I try to balance the content we are all expected to teach with the content I think is more useful and interesting to the students.  And, in the midst of that balancing act, I'll wrestle again with how to evaluate (aka grade) both the common content and the unique content.  Clearly, I have room for improvement.

But what I like even better is the student's ability to see both strengths and weaknesses.  We talk in class about how giving and receiving feedback is often challenging, both in professional roles and in personal roles.  The tendency to allow one or two areas of difficulty, disagreement, or disappointment to skew perception of the whole is far more prevalent than the ability to see both the parts and the whole.

I can't take credit for this student's ability to provide useful feedback, but I can certainly gain from it.  I'm not at all opposed to some ambiguity in assignments, but I can provide more clarity and a bit more consistency when it makes sense to do so.  I'll continue to be passionate...and probably won't worry too much about being a little sassy.  Some days, it's the only coping mechanism I have.

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