Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Same class, two sections, two completely different sets of evaluations
I taught two land-based sections of ethics last semester, one right after the other, using the same syllabus and lessons plans, and the course evaluations could hardly be more radically different. The whole thing is a good case study in interpreting student evaluations.
The chart above is just one measure of the difference. In the 10 AM section, a big majority (70%) of the students strongly agree that I was an effective teacher. For the 11AM section, few strongly agree that I was effective, and some even disagree with the idea that I was effective at all. (Note, there is a strong bias toward positive evaluations on this question. You simply won't see evaluations that are the exact inverse of my 10AM question unless the teacher was, like, drunk in class.)
The written comments paint a bigger picture of the 11AM section. I got twenty seven comments, and only four were positive. This was actually the first page I saw when I opened the envelope, and the whole thing hit me like a sack of bricks. They hated me, they hated the textbook, they hated the assignments, they hated the syllabus. Almost everyone used the word "confusing." It gave me one of those "Have I really chosen the right career?" moments. The 10AM section, on the other hand, only had four comments, all of which were blandly positive.
A typical response from teachers here would be that course evaluations really don't tell you anything, and this is evidence for that. Responses are all over the map, and they only reflect the idiosyncratic responses of students, who don't really know what is good for them anyway. But this would be a big mistake.
Thing is, I knew the 11AM section wasn't going well while it was happening. The students were so unengaged that I had the cameraman move to the 10AM section so we'd get better video for distance learning. I didn't realize how bad it had gotten, I think, because the good earlier class put a halo over the later class. But I knew there was a difference. The negative evaluations for the second section reflected a real difference in student experience and student learning.
Here are the real lessons I take home. The first is something every customer service representative knows: unhappy customers give a lot more feedback than happy ones. I don't have two pages of effusive comments about how great I am from the 10AM section, even though they all checked that I was a good teacher.
The second is that you can't design a course that will appeal to all students. Is the design of my ethics course sound? It is for some students. I suspect that this course, in particular, works for students who were better prepared for college. One positive review from the 10AM section said "Its challenging in a very good way." The wave of negative reviews from the section section all said "confusing" and "too advanced for an introductory class."
Ideally, you would respond to this situation by tailoring the class to fit the students, so that if you see that a section is floundering, change the syllabus. But this is a lot harder to do when you have, say, 100 students in three sections of ethics, plus another class or two. To keep your own workload manageable, you need to keep all the sections doing the same material.
Another observation is that classes tend to consolidate around an opinion of you. If any one of the dissatisfied students in the 11AM section were moved to 10AM, they would have softened their critique, because they would have seen other students responding positively, rather than having their negative opinions reinforced.
There are definitely things I'm going to change about the class. The negative comments are far from useless. They also hurt a lot, too. I had to buy some junk food after reading these. I also needed to write this post to put things in perspective.