I am mean (Course Evaluations)

March 07, 2004

I got my evaluations back from last semester, where I taught the first half of the US Survey for Urban Research University. I learned a few things about myself - some of them will affect my teaching, others will not. Here are some random thoughts, written down to get them out of my head so I can sleep.

The first thing to remember is that 95% of the kids who responded only took the class because it was a distribution requirement. Without the liberal arts core, they would not have been there. Still, they had a strong opinion:

I am mean.

Why am I mean?

I do not give the grades that the kids think they deserve - a third of the students at Urban Research University expect to get an A in every class. I give about 4% A, 10% A- - which means that my students are going to be very cranky. The funny thing is, when I give 15% grades of A- or above, I feel like I am grading high.

Before I next teach there, I will double check with the department chair to see what the department's grading guidelines are - if someone is in the top 25% of all students you have ever taught, what grade did they earn?

My paper comments focused too heavily on form and not heavily enough on content. It is easier to grade form, and I fix it whenever I find it, but I did try to look at their argument. I need to work on giving more useful comments to the B papers. That is useful feedback.

I lecture a lot, which I knew, and the kids found it boring with many of them complaining about what I thought were interesting digressions. I will think about changing the entertainment level in class - although I won't be using Powerpoint I might add some multimedia. I may look into better ways to do small group activities - I stopped doing them after the students told me they would rather have me lecture them. It is hard to do a comprehensive survey, to people who don't want to be in the class and don't do the reading and can't talk about the class material, without lecturing. Perhaps shift to more postholing? Definitely open more classes with questions, do more close readings of documents in class - something I am doing this semester.

I am conservative. That will surprise the readers of this blog. And I don't do a good enough job of letting people who are talking nonsense dominate the class. Did I phrase it that way? Apparently a couple of the kids felt shut down or intimidated if they disagreed with my "conservative" understanding of history. On the good side, they really liked the way I dealt with slavery and racial issues in the US Survey. So that is a good thing. I do need to work harder at encouraging the folks other than the usual suspects.

I need to tweak my workload. They did not like my reader - thought it was boring and a waste of time. I will think about how to make it punchier. They also thought the workload was too high for the level. I do think that, with the regular homework assignments, I can go down to one paper. Several also wanted more frequent grading opportunities - quizzes and such - and not just a midterm and a final. Duh - what do you think the homeworks were? They pointed out, and I already changed this semester, the hole in my homework policy. Kids were attending discussion and then turning in homework the next class period summarizing what we covered in class. My current policy is that homework comes in at class time or not at all (exceptions for sick and out of class), and you can drop your lowest grade. I will look into lowering the reading load next time I teach at URU. Of course, the average student reported spending 4.2 hours a week outside of class on my coursework, and that feels LOW. Then again, many of the kids at URU are carrying 15 credits and a full time job - a combination that only works if you don't do much work outside the classroom.

Overall, a lot of the evaluations were kids being cranky because I gave a hard class and gave meaningful grades. I thought I had done better than that, and my initial feedback was that I had done a good job that semester, so these numbers and comments were a bit of a surprise.

And so to bed.

PS - I tried to leach the useful comments out of the noise, and those are the meaningful changes I intend to make. You never teach a class perfectly, and if they felt this cranky then there are things I have to change before I achieve my desired evaluation: "this class made you work very hard and everyone should take it because it is so good." But that will be a long way away at this rate.

Posted by Red Ted at March 7, 2004 11:27 AM | TrackBack

Eh, college kids are going to complain about any course that doesn't have questions like "how many point is a 3-point shot worth?" on the final.

Life is hard. College should be harder.

Posted by: DFH at March 8, 2004 10:03 AM

I've been thinking about this. Have you thought of teaching your classes in the format of a Socratic Seminar? Would they let you, at URU? The classes that were my favorite were taught in that way.

Posted by: Me at March 8, 2004 10:16 AM

You're not mean; you're teaching a class that nobody wants to take and yet they must. Their evaluations of you are colored by the fact that they are there and yet they'd rather be Somewhere Else, taking Anything Else.

The required surveys are a huge reason why I never graduated from college.

Posted by: Me. at March 8, 2004 12:49 PM


Trust your judgement. You have better idea of what constitutes good and meaningful teaching than nearly any undergrad. UG survey courses are a bitch to teach, nearly impossible because the mass of material that needs to be covered, in order for the exercise to have any meaning at all, is unmanageable. I've been watching how conscientious you've been about making decisions for each class you are teaching this term. Your judgement seems sound to me.

Posted by: Melanie at March 9, 2004 08:41 AM

Some of the best classes I took at Michigan were those where the Professor really challenged me and I had to struggle for the grade I got. Dumbing down the class is not the way to go. Students need to learn how to rise to expectations.

Posted by: Ursula at March 10, 2004 09:12 AM
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