It’s time for course evaluations and grading: no wonder we love the end of the semester so much! Course evaluations are flawed mostly because they do not really tell us what we want to know—what did students learn and did we change them?
This semester, I’ve decided to look at my course evaluations differently. I will still look at the ratings (we all like to be liked) and even more carefully at the comments about what to improve and what went wrong. But this time, I am going to look deeply for signs that students have changed, are considering change, or might change in the future—that is the whole point of Teaching Naked.
Really, on the last day of class, a student walks by me and says “I hate your class. It changed my life.” Naturally, I ran after this student to ask,
“I’m sorry you hated my class, can you tell me more?”
“It was all of that personal, thinking about thinking, blogging, and those #$%)!! cognitive wrappers But I did figure out that I need to rethink my major and career. I realized there is a connection between my past and what I want to do in the future. I realized that I can integrate my passions, and that I really do have something I now want to do. All of that self-reflection made my other classes both harder and easier too.”
What luck! We often have to wait 20 years for this transformation, and both the student and I got the payoff and feedback immediately. This does not happen very often, and maybe it shouldn’t, but this is the change most of us seek. I am also not sure I should take too much credit. It might have just been the right moment in this student’s life, and many of the other students clearly just hated, without the epiphany.
The danger here is that it is too easy to ignore negative criticism and hope that students will look back in 20-years and thank you. It is very true that the best lessons and courses often settle months or even years later, but since we don’t track this is any systematic way, we don’t really know the long-term impact of our courses in most cases.
Still, it seems we might aim for a balance. We all know that “you can fool all of the people all of the time” (attributed to Abraham Lincoln, P.T. Barnum and a few others) but for teachers and academics it might be better with the word change or convince: “you cannot change all of the people any of the time.” So this year, I will look for signs that I changed some of the people, some of the time, and in the process did not make too many others crazy.
In “What the Best College Teachers Do” Ken Bains sums up a lot of research as basically telling us neither high standards nor supportive nurturing make much difference on their own. Together, however, they are a powerful and life changing pedagogical strategy. I see this everywhere in my research: test more often, but make each lower stakes; provide more feedback, but be both supportive and critical; challenge students without putting them down. How then, can I balance the need both to push and support change, but without pushing students away. Few of them actually want change.
I am also not sure what success looks like yet. Like great art, a great course disturbs its audience. But if it is too disturbing, the audience may withdraw (figuratively or even literally). If it is too affirming, it is just entertainment; fun, but with no real impact. So while not an excuse for low student endorsement, we need to look at our courses evaluation both for signs that students were engaged, but also that they were disturbed. It may be too early to tell what is working, but I can’t wait 20 years.