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.

Perfectionism, procrastination, and an unpolished first video demo

Like many technology-oriented people, I consider myself to be a bit of a perfectionist.  There’s something about the crisp, exact, digital world that makes me want to fuss over pixel, every detail.  To be clear, I’m not saying this in a braggy, interview way (“My worst fault? Well I guess you could say I’m a perfectionist!”), but more of a confessional way (“Hello, my name is Don, and I’m a perfectionist”).  Yes, I do think that this personality trait has driven me to produce good quality work.  However, I suspect it also often leads to procrastination.

A good example is related to my intention to start using video capture software to create online software demos for my students as a way of introducing them to a new practical assignment.  I have had this on my “to do” list for at least a year, but two things kept holding me back: 1) I was afraid of the time commitment required, since once I started doing them I assumed students would come to expect them all the time  2) I wanted the demos to be perfect.  I bought a copy of Adobe’s eLearning Suite 2, and pecked away at it over a few months, but kept putting off actually creating a demo.  Then, last week, I was going over the lab assignment I was about to give to students on some basic remote sensing principles, using ERDAS IMAGINE (why do they insist on all caps?).  All I wanted them to do was use the spectral profile tools with a small Landsat Thematic Mapper image to explore the digital numbers for various land cover types in different spectral bands.  I have used this assignment before, so thought I would just give it a quick once-over before distributing it.  Then I realized that I hadn’t really spent much time with the new 2010 version of IMAGINE and realized that they had “improved” the interface (if you can call adopting Microsoft’s “ribbon” an improvement, although the old IMAGINE interface did need a big overhaul).  I spent at least half an hour rediscovering where everything was, and quickly realized my students would be pretty lost trying to find their way around the interface, for what was meant to be a brief introduction to IMAGINE.  So, I thought I would try putting together a quick video demo.  I didn’t have much time, so I opened IMAGINE, sized the various windows, started Captivate, and recorded the demo.  It was pretty rough, but I thought to heck with it, just get it out there, so I did.  You can have a look at it here.  It’s not very good – I would like to add a title slide, delete some of the extra captions that come up when I was unnecessarily clicking around window title bars, possibly resize it, and maybe actually have a script (if you have any suggestions, please let me know).  The point though, is that it got done, I gave it to my students and, so far, I have had very positive feedback.  The fact that I didn’t spend much time on it really addressed both of my concerns: I don’t mind if they come to expect them, since I can now do them in a short amount of time.

Just to add some irony, I thought about blogging about this, then hesitated, as I thought I should really make a new, better version, and do all those edits first.  Then it dawned on me: my new approach to teaching and blogging is going to be “quick and dirty, learn as you go” or QADLAYG (I haven’t Googled this phrase, so please allow me to continue to think that I am the first person to ever come up with this idea and acronym). For me, this has been a useful lesson.  I have to push myself sometimes to get beyond the planning, perfectionism, and someday-I’ll-get-around-to-it phase and just start putting something out there.  Of course, I definitely plan to improve, but I no longer plan to wait until something is perfect before I distribute it.  I’m guessing I will be better off getting feedback and learning as I go instead of waiting.