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.

Using ArcGIS maps and tables in PowerPoint

I am currently in the process of re-evaluating my PowerPoint slide designs and templates that I use for my lectures.  As a rough estimate, I have somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 slides spread over many files.  Over the last ten years, I have used the same template for all of them, with minor modifications.  In the next few months, I plan to give them an overhaul – update the designs and screenshots (there are still some Windows XP slides lurking in some of my files, which really stick out now, and not in a good way), experiment with new layouts, graphics, and content.  I have just bought some books that I’m sure will be very helpful in this process, including Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds, and the Non-Designer’s Presentation Book by Robin Williams.  I like to think I’m fairly good at slide design and presentation, but I also know there is much more I can learn.  Some of what they recommend is old hat to me (e.g., less text, more graphics) or cliché (the expression “death by PowerPoint” is so overused but, sadly, still often needed) but I am voraciously reading all of these books to broaden my thinking for presentation design and execution.

So, on the topic of slide design, I thought I would share a couple of tips that might be helpful when using ArcGIS maps in PowerPoint.  First, I design maps specifically for use as slides whenever possible.  If you have the time, your audience will notice the difference (the small fonts and pastel shades often used for print maps just don’t translate well when projected for any kind of larger audience).  In ArcMap, create a custom page size that matches the dimensions you want to use, such as 7.5 x 10 inches for a map that will fill a traditional slide (sometimes I make them 6×10 inches to leave room at the top for a title).  Then set the data frame size to be the same as the page, with no offset or margin.

ArcMap layout for a PowerPoint slide
Custom ArcMap page layout for PowerPoint. Here my map will be 6 inches high to leave room for a title above.

Create your map, keeping in mind that the colour schemes, line weights, and symbol sizes should be slightly exaggerated.  I tend to use somewhat brighter, more vibrant colours for PowerPoint than I would for a print map, especially if the room I will present in won’t be that dark.  You also want the message you are communicating with your map to be easily grasped in a few seconds (this may also be true for print, but I think more so for presentation).  I then export the map from ArcMap as a 200 dpi jpeg file.  If 200 dpi seems like overkill, it often is, but it gives me more flexibility if I later want to enlarge and crop the map.  The trade-off in file size is worth it for me, but you may want to go with a smaller image resolution.  I then add the map into PowerPoint.  I usually cut and paste the legend from ArcMap directly into PowerPoint so I have the option of moving it later if I want to add a label or other text to the map.

When adding attribute tables to PowerPoint, follow the same guidelines for text size you would use for any other slide text.  In other words, the attribute table text should be BIG.  I often see presentations where people fail to do this and I always think “Why show an attribute table if we can’t see the contents?”

Attribute table with large type size
ArcMap attribute table with large type size

When bringing in screenshots of attribute tables or any dialog box into PowerPoint, I first set the size of the window so that I have a predictable, consistent size for every one.  There is an incredibly useful, free utility for Windows called Sizer (http://www.brianapps.net/sizer/), that allows you to set custom window sizes (it does not officially support 64-bit Windows 7, but I have not had any issues).  Since I show a lot of tables and dialog boxes in my lectures, I find it helpful to maintain consistent sizes throughout.

Sizer freeware
Sizer dialog box for setting custom window sizes.

As time-consuming as slide design can be, I really enjoy the process, as I’m always trying to find a simpler, more effective way to tell a story.  I hope the above tips will help streamline your workflow and help you do the same.