Over the years I’ve unsystematically made changes to the items on the end of course evaluation form. Typically, it was hastily considered, with changes requested at the deadline. My motivation was a desire to capture feedback related to instructional strategies I used that term. Note the key words here- “hasty” and “unsystematic.”
I needed to be more intentional. Thus began an experiment last semester. Instead of thinking about the evaluation criteria near the end of the course, I chose questions before the semester started. As I prepared to teach and throughout the term, pedagogical decisions were made with these course evaluation criteria in mind:
- Relating course material to real life situations
- Making class sessions intellectually stimulating
- Helping students answer their own questions
- Encouraging students to apply concepts to demonstrate understanding
- Emphasizing learning rather than tests and grades
- Guiding students to be more self-directed in their learning
See Feedback Questions as Course Scaffold for additional background.
Student-created Practice Problems: I created several blank templates that allow students to set variable amounts and prepare the related analyses and entries. Sometimes the template was an in-class learning activity. In other cases, I offered a little extra credit. While learning accounting is the official goal of these templates (accounting colleagues, contact me if you’d like to discuss or obtain copies), they accomplish so much more. Students engaged in an active study strategy, instead of “looking over” notes. Peer evaluation fostered collaboration and community. Prepare-pair-share led to discipline-based interaction as students discussed the variables, solved each other’s problems and corrected mistakes.
Suggested Study Timeline: For the first exam, we mapped out a suggested timeline for study. This was done during class. Then, over the following five days, I posted encouraging (and humorous) reminders ad announcements in the LMS. Later in the term, students remarked how helpful that was. They also asked if I would map that out for them again. My response- Now that we’ve developed a study plan together in class, will you create a plan of your own? Will you use this strategy in other classes? While it’s tempting to “just do it” with or for them before each test, students sometimes need the teacher to step back and not fill the gap.
Textbook Reading Notes: One of the homework assignments (toward the middle of the term) asked students to take notes on the chapter reading. This led them to a wondrous discovery: Class time makes so much more sense when you read the chapter beforehand! Students got so much from this homework they suggested it be routinely assigned. My response- Now that you’ve seen how beneficial it is to read before class, will you continue to do it, even if it’s not for credit? Will you do it for the sake of learning?
During mid-semester informal feedback, some students acknowledged they could be doing more to own their learning. That is a distinct shift from prior semesters. Instead of primarily looking to the teacher to teach, there was a clear recognition by students regarding their contributions to promoting learning collectively during class as well as the kinds of activities and effort learning requires. This closely aligns with USC’s recent initiatives in the area of student evaluations of teaching:
Umbrella questions such as, “How would you rate your professor?” and “How would you rate this course?” — which Clark called “popularity contest” questions — are now out. In are questions on course design, course impact and instructional, inclusive and assessment practices. Did the assignments make sense? Do students feel they learned something? Students also are now asked about what they brought to a course. How many hours did they spend on coursework outside of class? How many times did they contact the professor? What study strategies did they use? While such questions help professors gauge how their students learn, Clark said, they also signal to students that “your learning in this class depends as much as your input as your professor’s work.” [emphasis added] [Source: Teaching Eval Shake-Up, InsideHigherEd, May 22, 2018]
When asked to describe what the instructor did to facilitate learning, one student put it this way: “Dr. Paff had a great method of having students read the chapter and use the screencasts that she prepared to grasp some fundamental concept before class…. This style of class is effective because it drives students learning by themselves and rewards students for being good students.”
With this framework, I spent less time picking out homework problems from the textbook (a standard practice in accounting) and more time devising strategies that help students become answerers of their questions, promote self-direct learning, and make class time intellectually stimulating. Students still learned accounting, but this time they learned about themselves as learners too.
Jan 17’s post discussed a bold student question. “Is this course an easy A?” Asked at the start of the new semester the query lead to speculation about student motivation, their beliefs about learning and grades. Then I received my fall course evaluations.
“If you want to learn about Economics she teaches it.. if you want to get a good grade take it with someone else.”
“While Dr. Paff is a nice and a good teacher for accounting and economic students, it is unnecessarily difficult. The exams and projects add up to a course that is much, much harder from her than it is for the other professors. I would advice (sic) students in an engineering major or technology-related major to avoid Dr. Paff’s section. It is not for you. She teaches well. But, to get a good grade, based on what I have heard, the other professors are marginally easier.”
“Class is not easy, be prepared to spend some time doing projects and learning concepts. The class was informative but I do not think it needed to be as hard as it was for the concepts.”
“If you want to learn material take Paff. If you [want to] make a good grade take someone else.”
My students answered the “easy A” question and their feedback got me asking more questions. This (limited) sample suggests for some students: grades and learning are unrelated, easy is better than hard, and learning and easy generally don’t go together.
Grades v. Learning. I can’t blame students for focusing on grades. They affect career, graduate school, scholarships, etc. But these statement show why Alfie Kohn’s compelling arguments against an emphasis on grades reduces student motivation. Note the dichotomy. The choice is between learning or a good grade. In their view, grades are not integrated with or a reflection of learning. Yikes! Clearly that’s not my intent. How can I do a better job integrating and making explicit the connection between grades and learning?
Easy v. Hard. What makes a course “hard”? Is it the number of assignments? The type of assignment? How much it counts? How it’s graded? How long it takes to complete? How much mental energy is required? Something else?
I don’t plan to change the number of assessments. Each one is designed to help students learn a new concept or apply what they’ve learned. But I do need to reconsider how I am helping students make connections between assignments/assessments and their learning.
Learning isn’t easy. This is a golden nugget buried in the comments. Deep down, students know learning is hard. Some want to learn and are willing to make the effort and take the risk of pushing themselves into new territories. Others would prefer to go through the motions or do only what’s necessary. (We can say the same of faculty!) Why do some students prefer easy? Are they insecure about their ability to learn? Are they worried the effort won’t be worth it? Have I made a strong case for content relevance and the value of learning?
It’s easy to write off student comments like these as uninformed complaints. But I’d argue they offer a perspective on student beliefs and attitudes many teachers suspect students hold. More important, these issues lie within our sphere of influence to examine with students and address. The next few posts will explore student assumptions and beliefs about hard and easy courses along these lines:
- What instructional strategies integrate and make explicit the connection between grades and learning?
- How can teachers help students see the connections between the assignments/assessments and their learning?
- What practices build a strong case for content relevance?
- What strategies help students see their efforts to learn as worthwhile?
What other questions would you ask? Please share your thoughts, strategies, and suggestions.
In May 2015, Anya Kamenetz wrote an NPR Online piece titled “Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?” She suggests the following terms and phrases are often used imprecisely and interchangeably:
- 21st Century Skills
- Character Education
- Growth Mindset
- Non-cognitive Traits & Habits
- Social & Emotional Skills
- Soft Skills
The article discusses the pros and cons of alternative definitions, interrelationships, and overlaps. The terms and phrases lack clarity making it difficult to teach, research, and assess these skills. Inconsistent usage and intent also promote disagreement about what is most important for students.
Photo credit: LA Johnson, NPR
Additional terms and phrases were suggested in the comments: life skills; coping skills; emotional intelligence; social-emotional learning; Achievement Behavioral Skills; educating the whole person. “Life skills” was widely endorsed and generally preferred over the seven phrases discussed in the article.
A number of respondents (primarily elementary and high school teachers) questioned when and where life skills should be learned. Many suggested these skills are “stuff your parents should have taught you,” implying teachers shouldn’t bear this responsibility.
How does this connect to teaching and learning in higher ed?
I am currently researching informal communication in accounting. Research shows many faculty believe students should already possess these skills. It’s also common to blame students; data suggests accounting programs attract students who are weaker communicators than those in other majors. Students are also blamed for failing to understand the importance of good communication skills. Another popular rationalization is that skills education is vocational and doesn’t belong in higher education. In sum, elementary teachers blame parents. High schools say “life skills,” like interpersonal skills, should have been learned in primary school or taught at home and the academy denies responsibility or blames everyone else.
The buck must stop here. We can lament the circumstances and wish things were different. But since most of us are teaching in places where students possess these skills to limited degrees, it’s time for teachers to ask themselves some hard questions.
If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?
Likewise, program leaders should ask:
What barriers inhibit students’ skills development in our courses and programs?
What are the ramifications of teaching skills outside the discipline? For example, what are the implications of teaching writing or speaking in a communications or writing course v. teaching them within technical courses?
It’s also time for institutions to ask: What does an offer of admission imply?
Have you been following the “drowned bunnies” story at Mount Saint Mary’s? Their president suggested the school’s 6-year graduation rate could be strategically improved if high-risk students are “weeded out” during the first few weeks. He is quoted as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
Essentially, newly admitted students (not knowing the purpose of the questionnaire) would be asked to respond to questions designed to identify those at high-risk. They would be encouraged to leave. Those who disagreed with the program publicly, have been relieved of duty (the provost) and fired (two faculty). You can follow the ugly story here and here.
If we don’t think a student can be successful, we should not offer admission. We must also acknowledge that higher education isn’t responsible or able to fill all the skills gaps students have when they arrive. But if we admit them, we have an obligation to provide opportunities to learn content and develop skills. The academy has focused a lot on content, particularly in technical fields. It’s time we do more.