Evaluating module evaluations

As for many of you, January is the time when students’ evaluation of your autumn courses and modules come in. It might also be the time when you have exciting conversations with line managers.

I think that I’ve laid out my view on such evaluations over the years – managerialist and often mis-directed questions – but perhaps its useful to think about how you can make the most of the information they provide.

As so often, three ideas to frame all of this.

The first is that course evaluations are useful, if properly contextualised. That means using them together with all the other feedback you get from students, plus your own reflection. I like using the ABC method for more constructive student input, but there are also all those chats you have with students, plus their assessed work: if no-one seems to understand concept X, or confuses A and B, then maybe you’re not presenting things very well to them. The key point here is triangulation: does a piece of evidence have support elsewhere?

The second idea is that you have to engage properly with the evaluations and the reflection. I, probably like you, have been known to skim through the comments, find the thing that it is obviously ridiculous and use that to roll my eyes about the whole exercise. As political scientists, we should know that just because people sometimes say and do silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly, or that everyone is silly. Instead, we need to understand why they say these things and how we might respond.

Of course, this is a bit tricky, especially when evaluations are anonymous and asynchronous to the class activities. Hence the importance of you running your own running evaluations throughout your contact time. Often, the source of the frustration is that you feel you’ve done something and the student hasn’t recognised that: this autumn, I laid on much more support on my assessment than before, only to read one student’s comments that even more was needed. The point should be that I need to think about how I communicate what I provide more clearly next time, rather than trying to track down this year’s lot and justify myself.

And this is the third point. Course evaluations are not meant to be character assassinations and – in the very large majority of cases – are not used as such by students. Much more common, in my experience, are staff taking comments as personal attacks.

Just as evaluations are about the students’ experience of the course, rather than about the student themself, so too should you treat them as about the specific instance of the course, rather than about you.

There’s the old teacher-training trope – which is actually very useful – that says people go through three stages in their teaching practice: they start by thinking everything’s about them (as teachers), then think it’s all about the students, and finally realise that it’s about the specific instance of interaction between them and the students. And so it is here.

One of the things we keep on returning to here at ALPSBlog is the idea that there is no one right way of doing things, only a series of choices that you can explore with your students. That requires self-awareness and self-criticality, underpinned by a sense that things will never be completely ‘right’ in any lasting sense.

Course evaluations might be flawed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. But it also doesn’t mean that they are the be-all and end-all.

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