Course evaluations: valuable, unvarnished feedback

I just read through the course evaluation forms that students filled out for the courses I taught last winter.  There is always a delay before instructors are allowed to see them, both to prevent any rash retribution on the part of a disgruntled professor, but also so they can first be read by the student union (the results are summarized and posted online in an “anti-calendar” for prospective students to read) and by our front office staff (summaries are added to our file as part of our annual performance review).  I am still amazed that some faculty never bother to even read them.  Over my past 10 years of teaching, the evaluations, and particularly the “comments” section where students can augment the “bubble numbers” with their own thoughtful observations, have been by far the most useful and influential feedback I receive.  I am usually the first one to pick them up when they become available, as I almost always modify my courses in some way over the summer based on that feedback.  I can only speculate as to why someone would not want to read them: either they are so confident in their teaching abilities that they think feedback is unnecessary, or they are worried about what they will read because they are not at all confident in their abilities.  Yes, reading them can sometimes come with a serving of humble pie, but ignoring negative feedback isn’t going to fix anything.

When I hand out the course evaluation forms near the end of each term, I make sure to tell students that I have read every single form that I have ever received (now approaching 2,000) and that every year I make changes to my courses based on their feedback.  Making this clear to students is crucial to the whole exercise; if they know that their comments will not only be read, but taken seriously, they are much more inclined to put more thought into their responses.  I then encourage them to add comments, and prompt them with some questions they might consider answering, such as:

  • What did you think of the textbook? assignments? use of technology?
  • What is something you liked about the course, and one thing that could be improved?
  • What advice would you give students considering taking this course?

So what did I learn from my latest round of evaluations?  There are usually a range of opinions, so I have to try not to overreact to one or two comments, but there are some things I think are generally true:

  • Students like that I am enthusiastic, organized, and try to make class fun. I am fortunate that I have a job that doesn’t seem like work to me (at least most of the time).  I enjoy what I do, I do have genuine enthusiasm for the material, and I have found that I have enough experience now that I can relax more in class, and try to keep things fun and interesting.  I work hard at keeping the material organized, both for my own sake and theirs, and I’m glad students appreciate that.
  • Students like how I make use of technology.  I spend a lot of time on my PowerPoint slides, and I’m glad that students notice, and appreciate my efforts.  Last year I experimented with online office hours with Adobe Connect, and created some video demonstrations of software using Adobe Captivate.  I got a lot of positive comments about these, and plan to do more in the future.
  • Students don’t like the textbook, which many complain is too expensive, and does not provide enough explanation of certain topics.  I have written about textbooks I have taught with, and my search for the perfect textbook, so I sympathize with my students.  I am now considering abandoning the textbook altogether and using online material instead, but I have to think this through, as it means they would not have as structured an introduction to the material, and it would certainly be more work for me.  I am tempted though, as I curate a lot of web content already, and they would have access to the latest available content.  I will likely write more on this in the future.
  • I get mixed reviews on my assignments.  Some say they like the fact that they are interesting, relevant, and help them learn how to use the software, but others find them very time-consuming.  I tell students that the concepts and software are complex, and that the only way to actually gain a new skill is to sit down and do it themselves, and that this takes time.  However, my current approach to assignments is to have fewer of them (I have four over a 12 week term) and incorporate more than one topic.  Some students like this, as I usually give them two or three weeks to work on it, and they like the flexibility this gives them in terms of time management.  Other students have requested I try using more assignments that are shorter and confined to one topic.  I have often debated this, and am currently considering trying a bit of both; shorter assignments for fairly self-contained topics (e.g., projections, geocoding) but longer assignments that would allow for more problem solving (e.g., raster and vector overlay)

I could certainly add more, but the above are the main highlights from this past term.  I always enjoy the opportunity to reflect on student feedback and how it relates to various teaching methods.  The next challenge is to assess what I can realistically change in the time available, caution myself against change for its own sake, and be grateful that students care enough to provide me with thoughtful, useful, and unvarnished comments.

6 Replies to “Course evaluations: valuable, unvarnished feedback”

  1. Perhaps begin developing your own textbook, or at the very least text for your courses. As a student myself I find the content that is generated by my professors who are passionate and well versed on the subject being taught is on average superior. Part of the reason that I made the choice to pursue GIS in my education and future professional goals was the enthusiasm and competency of my first GIS professor.

    1. It’s something I have considered, but I am currently more interested in developing open courseware material. I find the textbook model has a lot of limitations, so I’m exploring online options. The delivery mechanism aside, I think you’re certainly right that those who have a direct interest in the material and in teaching should be able to put together some good quality content. Thanks for the suggestion Ben.

      1. The way my first two GIS courses were taught (by Kevin Johnston, don’t know if you are familiar with him) we went through the normal tutorials you would get in an intro to GIS course through various collected tutorial packets and then pretty much tossed to the wolves in terms of actual projects. Our first major project in that first class was to site a 100 home sustainable co-housing community in stowe vermont. Pretty much we were given free reign to develop the variables however we wanted. We were encouraged to go well beyond what we had been taught up to that point. In our second class (an advanced modeling course as it was labeled) we were invited to devise and develop projects entirely. I ended up starting to learn about iterative models, primarily around wildfire models, and then more personally trying to accurately model the spread of radiation (which was biting off far more then I could chew at the time I think).

        1. Those sound like fun and interesting courses! I do find that students like having the chance to direct their own projects, and that this can encourage a lot of creativity. With our GIS curriculum, we have four undergraduate courses that students can take in sequence. The last is a “capstone” course where they get to do something similar to what you’re describing – design and execute their own project. In the preceding courses, the assignments are generally more prescribed, but I prefer to use my own assignments that require a certain amount of decision-making and problem-solving, as opposed to the tutorials found online or in books. In a way I would like to use these tutorials, as it would be easier from a preparation view, but my own experience is that, if students are given a set of click-by-click instructions, they tend to zone out and just try to get through it quickly. Through the first three courses, I start with that type of tutorial, but then gradually move towards assignments that require more open-ended thinking. Thanks for your comments – I’m always interested in getting a student’s perspective! -Don

          1. An idea: I don’t know how large your classes are, but if they are small enough have your students present the material to the class. Challenge them to present information that you are unfamiliar with. Do include tutorials but somehow work them into an overall project. Perhaps encourage the students to explore the software and literature to find out HOW to do what needs to be done. It will train their problem solving skills, get them used to doing research in the GIS field, and start training them to think the way they should to best succeed in this field.

            Mr. Johnston, the aforementioned teacher, works for ESRI as a developer and also assists biological studies (for example he helped scientists figure out why elephants run from one location to another location similar to cats running from one room to another). He took that field experience in our class and presented us with problems like that Co-Housing project. We had that project 1/2 way through our first class, and I think it helped us all immensely.

            From what I’ve seen of students today, we don’t like to problem solve, investigate, really THINK. A class that encourages that from the onset would be invaluable, not only from a GIS standpoint, but from a life learning standpoint as well.

            (Growing up I volunteered in the education department of the New York Aquarium. Pretty much up until my third year of my initial stint in college I was figuring that I would get into education of some sort, hence my interest in this topic. I thank you for indulging my curiosity.)

          2. Thanks for the suggestions. I do have students present, but not until the capstone course, as the other courses are too large (e.g., my introductory course has about 160 students). I certainly do encourage students to problem solve and think independently in all of my courses. I will think about possibly adding in something more project-oriented in my earlier courses. However, I’m always trying to keep a balance – as much as the projects and problem-solving can be interesting, I think it’s really important to devote time to developing the theoretical and conceptual understanding needed to do those properly; things like projections, cartography, database management, etc.

            I would disagree with you about students not liking problem-solving and thinking – once students have developed some of the proper tools (not just GIS tools, but research design, writing, etc.) and are given a chance to be creative, I find that they love it, and tend to do more work voluntarily than I would ever ask of them.

            Thanks again for the comments!


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