Revisiting Course Experience Evaluations

During the term faculty are required to distribute university approved evaluation forms for students to fill out and these instruments field a wide array of responses. The campus where I work is moving to online evaluations and the reaction is mixed. Regarding student evaluation I have heard lots and have blogged about the evaluation process, but these are the most common responses that I have heard recently.

They are not qualified to judge me

It’s a popularity contest more than anything else

I don’t read them

They’re useful

I read them

I bury them

I learn from them

I don’t like them

The comments will turn into a RMPish experiment

I do not want to engage in the online versus paper evaluations for this post. Much of academic life is filled with judgment. We get assessed by our peers, by our department, reviewers of scholarly presses, others up the academic food chain, and by the government and public if you are at a public institution. Frankly, everyone is always weighing in about higher education.

We judge and assess student work, yet somehow we are uncomfortable with this singular act of student assessment of our course or courses. Why? Well, that is cause for a long post. Let me speak to how I have changed my feelings about them. I think that the official university evaluations are a mixed-bag. They provide feedback. Some of the feedback is useful and other feedback is interesting and at times not helpful. I am sure we have all had this experience with a peer review:
Reviewer 1 provides good feedback and you know that they read your chapter or article. Reviewer 2 has skimmed it and refers to some work that you cited, but the reviewer did not bother to notice this. Reviewer 3 did not read your work and really dislikes the topic and offers nothing that is useful beyond you wishing evil upon this person. . Reviewer 4 refers to his or her work and how this article offers nothing new, but there are a few helpful comments.

Student evaluations can work like this, too. However, the rub is that our departments use these evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness or prowess and at times the numbers and comments do not paint an accurate picture or maybe they do?! Perhaps your students really like you and like your courses and the evaluations offer this assessment. But, maybe your students dislike you or the material and the evaluations convey this. And, that is the problem. We need to assess the larger picture and the evaluations offer one part. This is why peer evaluation is also important. But, do not stop there. If your campus has a learning and teaching center, visit it. Take some workshops and avail yourself of the various opportunities and make sure that you add these workshops to your vitae in the appropriate area.

Teaching requires work and preparation and we have a tough audience. Our students are bombarded with distractions and if they are not interested in the topic I feel like I have to catch them. But, alas, no matter what I do, I will not catch all of them.

What does this mean for student evaluations, then? They are necessary. But, faculty can respond by reviewing them and reflecting. Do you need to mix things up? Is it time to have a trusted colleague do a peer review of your syllabus and lecture? Departments also have to invest in faculty and offer opportunities for professional development and insist that faculty work on their teaching dossier. I am biased here as teaching track faculty, but am resolute in my opinion that teaching takes work. I include a photo of Stress Paul, a rubber stress ball.

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New Educational Technology + Old Pedagogy = No Significant Difference

Prof. Janni Aragon:

Rich, great points!

Originally posted on Rich McCue v4.0:

ProjectorI’d be the first to admit that when presented with shiny new technology, I am predisposed to expect that the new technology will perform better than the old.  New smart phones for the past six years have almost always been better than their predecessors.  Can the same be said for new educational technologies?  The short answer is no, new educational technologies alone do lead to better student outcomes.

When trying to determine if a technology contributes to the effectiveness of instruction, the issue of “no difference expected” made famous by the Clark, Kozma (Kozma, 1994) debate needs to be addressed. Clark (Clark, 1994) argued that “media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction” and that “student achievement [is not influenced by a new delivery technology like video] any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (p. 22). Kozma (1994) countered that while Clark’s argument is…

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Students with an Edge

In my sixteen years of teaching, not one term has gone by when I do not have at least one student athlete in one of my classes. One thing that I have noticed with the vast majority of the student athletes is that they have drive. These students usually want to excel on the class. Their competitive edge extends into the classroom. They know that their coaches and education team (whoever this may be at the respective institution) expects them to show up to class and to practice. Most of these students will introduce themselves to me during the first week or two and my standard practice is to ask that their contact send me any invitational or team related travel dates. While I have taught at four different institutions none have been at a major sports school–no top ten football programs, which is often a marker for a “big name” institution. I have taught at Division 1 institutions; however, this was at the start of my teaching career.

I truly wish that more of my students had this same drive and felt accountable to their coach or team. This does not mean that my students who are not athletes are slackers! Not true. The typical student wants to do well, but knows that among their array of courses some get more effort. The student athletes are generally more competitive and want to do well in all of their courses, so it is not a big surprise to see at the annual fundraising breakfast that many of them have strong grade point averages. Can I just spend a quick moment to say that I am proud of them. Very proud. And, I know that my colleagues are, too.

It is less common for one of the student athletes to phone it in with their coursework. When I have had a student athlete under-perform, the student has immediately contacted me via email, come to office hours, or in one instance the basketball coach called me to meet with him. When I met with the coach, he made no excuses for the student and said, “His first job is being a student. Do not go easy on him.” I wasn’t going to, but let me tell you that walking into the office was an intimidating experience. I felt empowered and I know that many of my colleagues will counter with examples of grade changes or pressure by the administration to change grades; however, this is not my experience. Getting back to the students–when they under-perform they want to know what they can do to fix it. Thankfully, the student athlete under-performing in my classes is not very common. They are competitive through and through and want to do well. I do not give them any extra credit or leeway. What I want to see is more students with that fire in their belly. Be competitive and humble. The photo below is one I took at the McKinnon Pool–one of the pools where the student athletes swim.

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Kindess in 2014

Be kind to yourself. Make this your mantra for 2014 and beyond. This is not my suggestion for a resolution, but perhaps a suggestion for thinking about the importance of self-care every darn day. Do not give into the need to prove you are worthy. You are. You are enough. Do not think that you need to list or proclaim how busy you are. We are all busy. You are important. We know this. Be kind to yourself and in turn to others around you. Kindness and compassion begins with you.

In 2014, treat yourself well. Take moments to balance yourself so that you can function. Remember that you are happier and more centered when you have a positive outlook about your life and the way that you treat those you encounter. Kindness is contagious and is not just about you. We can be our own worst enemy. Be a friend. Don Marquis noted, “The chief obstacle to the progress of the human race is the human race.” Do not be an obstacle to your own happiness and success. Be an asset. This short post is not filled with platitudes. No, it is a reminder about the importance of kindness. Think about what you want. Happy New Year! Think about your super power for 2014! I am sure flying would be great or being invisible, but I want a super power that helps me and others. Kindness will work. Compassion will work.

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Make Sure that Your Girls Aren’t Too Ambitious

One of my students shared the Cosmo Special Report in the October 2013 issue. I photo copied the article, read it, and have carried it around for two months. I wanted to blog about it immediately, but alas, grading and other work related responsibilities got in the way of a response. Here I am just weeks before a new year begins and I am finally ready to comment on the nine page article, “The Ambition Gap” by Lorie Gottlieb. The Cole’s Notes version is that single women are more ambitious and successful than their male cohort and consequently are having a hard time finding an equal. It is more complicated than this, but this article speaks to the supposed crisis of heterosexual masculinity (see Michael Atkinson for an informed position), women’s success, and the alleged post-feminist era. Yes, the article assumes that the coupling is between a heterosexual couple.

The first point that I want to make is that we are not in a post-feminist era. We are not in a feminist era. We are in an era that extols the importance of equality, but we wring our hands when we talk about the reality of who is successful, who sits at the table, and who are the high earners. Now, clearly, happiness and ambition are not mutually exclusive. What Gottleib is getting at, though, is that men are “losing their drive” (144). She recounts story after story of the young, single, successful woman who is more successful than their male partners or former partners. Thanks to the success of Liberal feminisms, we see more women working, buying homes, and in managerial positions (Gottleib 145). However, I want to ask: which women? Surely, we need to disaggregate and examine these numbers. Lots of statistics in the US and Canada illustrate that more single headed households are women headed households. We are also quite familiar with the fact that men, on average, make more money than women. And, when we look at upper management, board of directors, and chief executive officers the picture becomes more homogenous–male and white.

On page 147, Gottlieb has a column dedicated to “Watch Out for These Red Flags.” And, what are they?
1. He has no plan 2. He doesn’t communicate 3. He’s envious of your success 4. He takes advantage 5. He’s resistant to change

I am no dating expert; however, I think that these are red flags for most in their 20s and older and not so much about an ambition gap. Gottleib offers a shallow examination, but at the same time does not ask more important questions regarding race, class, sexual orientation, education, and types of career. Women might earn 60% of the undergraduate and graduate degrees (148), but she does not break this down enough for me. Why do I care? My experience as a university professor and one who has continued to look at women, politics, leadership, and higher education, I know that women tend to gravitate to certain fields of study that do not translate into higher earning jobs. We see women over-represented in Education, Humanities, and Social Work and under-represented in Engineering, Sciences, and Computer Sciences. This, then, influences the earning power for women.

What do I like about the article? Well, it was provocative and I read it closely several times. I also appreciated her column about “How You Can Bridge the Gap.” She pulls from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (my thoughts on the Lean In movement).

She offers some points of advice: 1. Prescreen 2. Establish boundaries 3. Accept trade-offs 4. Give him a nudge

This advice is timeless and part of having a healthy partnership for heterosexual or same-sex couples. What do we do? Encourage people to think about what they want and how they want to pursue their dreams. Encourage girls to go into the STEM fields and work on the leaky pipeline for women and work. I am also concerned with this notion that women are too ambitious. There are parts of the article that equate being single with too much work success. This message is problematic.

Book Recommendation– Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments

This last month I had the pleasure of reading a book that was well-written, researched, and presented an important argument for and about women in Canadian politics. This book is a must-read for people interested in Canadian Politics, Canadian History, and Gender and Politics in Canada. I cannot say enough about this book, Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments, edited by Linda Trimble, Jane Arscott, and Manon Tremblay. The book is a 2013 publication via UBC Press and includes chapters written by some well-known names and a strong cross-section of scholars within Canadian Political Science. Yes, you can see that I am enthusiastic about this book.

The book covers virtually each province and territories, and includes the different constituent groups within a Canadian context. Each chapter tackles where we have been and where we can possibly go within the Canadian context. The informational boxes at the start of the chapters offers a sketch of the history and perhaps at times lack of progress for women in Canadian politics. This might explain the telling name of the book: Stalled. The book is well-written and appropriate for the lay or academic audience. This book is the perfect addition to a Gender and Politics class, Canadian upper division course or a Comparative Politics course focused on the status of women and politics. The chapters convey the difference and similarities between the provinces and territories, but also offers a great argument for why the Senate should not be abolished. Why? Many gains for women in Canadian politics have been made through Senate appointments. And, this only scratches the surface about the book’s contents.

There are dedicated chapters to the House of Commons, Senate, and Indigenous Women and their status within formal Canadian Politics. The foreword by Sylvia Bashevkin does a fine job of setting up the book and the “Canadian political landscape.” The meta-backdrop of the book: we have made gains, but not enough. The various chapters offers the reader glimpses about what is needed, but ultimately we need to understand that the candidates, parties, electoral system, and socialization all are at play with the status of women in Canadian politics. We have lots of work left to do. I will offer a more scholarly review of the book later in a regional Political Science journal. Once the review is published, I will update this review with that link.

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Make a Difference

I bought a writing prompt book and I do not use it as much as I would like to do so. This post is a response to, “Believe with all your heart that how you live your life makes a difference” by Colin Beavan. This quote made me think about work and university life in general. I use the quotes as a writing response and try to put pen to paper (yes, I hand write them out first) my first thoughts to the particular quote. Here are my first thoughts about Beavan’s quote.

Some people like to think of the university as this quaint place where professors reside in Ivory Towers or perhaps silos and are completely shut off from the rest of society. In fact, some opine that professors are clueless about the so-called real world. We professors are at times depicted as this uber-privileged class who are disinterested in students and teaching. Our students are often depicted as this group of youth who are hiding out in university learning about books or issues that will not help them get a job. Yes, that coveted job is the end result or want for our students. These depictions might offer an accurate view of some of my colleagues and some students; however, I would argue that for most these stereotypes or caricatures are false based on 16 years of teaching in universities in the US and Canada. Yes, this is my opinion.

The reality could not be further from the truth. Many professors are engaged in a myriad of work related projects that stem from research, teaching, service, governance in their units or across campus, as well as some community building in their disciplines or the wider community in which they live in locally. Sure, there are research intensive colleagues who are focused on that next book and their army of graduate students that they supervise. The university needs these different types of professors. This post is not about the army of exploited contingent faculty, as that deserves a monograph or at least its own post. It speaks volumes that I have this footnote or sidebar note in my scrawl on the writing prompt sheet.

Many do not understand that prior to smart-phones and other advances with digital technology, professors’ flexible schedules means that there is always work to do. There are always assignments that require marking, emails to get to, research to do, writing to think about and maybe do, and then more emails to respond to from students, colleagues, and others. With the advent of increased use of technology, people expect to hear back faster and in many instances you will get follow up emails about an email that was sent 15 minutes earlier or perhaps a few hours earlier. I have been emailed three times within my lunch hour by an administrative assistant about a meeting. The meeting was not a life threatening situation; however, my lunch hour meant that I was available. I did not respond until I was done with my lunch and my errand across campus. But, let me say that I was not keen to see a flurry of emails about something that was not pressing. My point is that boundaries are thin. Perhaps you think that I have moved away from the quote. But, I’m sitting here thinking about work and how I try to live my work life as if it makes a difference to those around me: my students. Do not get me wrong, I like my colleagues across campus, but my primary role right now is teaching and mentoring. This means that I need to go in each day and remember this quote. The little things that we do can make a difference.

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Assessment of Student Work: It’s Not about You

I spent the weekend and part of last week reviewing and marking first year mid-terms. This post is worth sharing again and again. This morning I read some of this blog aloud to my first years. I even had the blog up on the screen for them to see. I do think it is important to remind students that the mark is not about you, but the work that was reviewed. We (me and the TAs) are not judging you as a person. I know that it might feel like it, but that is not the case.

If I could look into the eye of every student (undergrad and graduate) and say:

Your course grades do not reflect who you are as a person. The grade is only an assessment of your performance in this moment with these assignments–no more. You should not take the grades personally and wonder if this means that the person who assessed your work doesn’t like you. We are assessing so much work and it’s ultimately about the writing, analysis, presentation, ideas, grammar, spelling punctuation, directions, but not about you as a person. The assessment is about the performance of the assignment or the project and it is not personal. And, I also ask that you think about the assignment that you submitted. Was it your best work and did you follow the directions? Are you owning the grade and the comments? It is so to say that the Teaching Assistant or Professor has it in for you or does not understand you, but is there more there? A moment of introspection is needed so that you can think about the assignment and the expectations for your work.

I remember when I started teaching and I was more casual with the students. I would occasionally hear the following, “But I thought you liked me.” I conferred with my mentors and was told–you have to be more formal. Use your title and remind them that you are assessing their work and not them. Who they are has nothing to do with the grade. It’s about the writing and thinking. I re-worked my syllabi and did become more formal the following term and didn’t hear those personal statements again. March Madness on campus is really not just about basketball. It’s also about research, thinking, and writing. Mange your time well so that you do justice to your ideas. My purple pen is here to comment and tease out ideas. I pick up each paper and think~ what is here and how can I help? The assessment is really about the ideas. Please remember this.

Aboriginal Worldviews Response to Coursera April Fool’s Day Joke

This is a copy and paste from an email that I received about a Coursera April Fool’s Day joke. A course on Underwater Basketweaving. Given the course content this was important for the learning team to respond to immediately. I was enrolled as a student in this course, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). People of color, racialized people, Indigenous people and their cultures should not be the butt of jokes in education or elsewhere. 

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Ahniin! We have just come off a week of sacred celebrations including Passover, Holi, Easter, the vernal equinox and the coming of spring. Whatever event you celebrate, we hope it was a good one for you.

Today a learning opportunity fell into our lap. Coursera issued an April Fool’s Day joke course calledUnderwater Basketweaving. 

In order for the joke to work, it relies on deep cultural assumptions about the inferiority of indigenous knowledge. While the writers and performers of the piece likely didn’t even realise or intend the offense it might cause, I’m sure there are keepers of indigenous knowledge who would be offended. I get that it’s meant to be lighthearted and a joke but anyone who has actually spent time learning about basket making processes would realize it’s about more than the finished product. Even the preparations and gathering of materials involve a great amount of knowledge. If there’s any doubt about the meaning of actual basket making, check out these courses on Six Nations Basket Knowledge and Storyweaving. 

Basket making is serious business and there is a lot more to it than the basket that is made. The process more than the product, the human growth and reflection on greater things than the physical object. Not to mention how sacred we hold our traditional languages and burial sites, also mocked in the April Fools Day “joke.”

Should I really be upset about this? In our forums there has been much discussion about a refrain that is used when Aboriginal people talk about colonial policies and practices that is dismissive and hurtful. That phrase is “Get over it!” I would suggest that people who say “Can’t you take a joke?” could benefit from a course to see how the colonial rule over diverse indigenous populations is buttressed by “jokes” like this one that undermine the value of our knowledges and peoples. 

You might be surprised to find that jokes like this one help lead to the misinformation and stereotyping that underlies attitudes and opinions like those expressed in a recent letter to the editor of the Nanaimo Daily News. Taken together over time and in quantity, embedded in schools and media and harmless jokes, these attitudes and opinions in turn can lead to discrimination and the support of racist laws and policies. 

I am sure that the writers of the coursera April Fools’ Day joke did not intend for their comments to cause harm. If only they could enroll in a course to see how this process works. Fortunately such a course exists on Coursera (#aboriginaled). And it’s FREE! Please encourage the learning among coursera staff to continue.

Looking forward to a few more enrollments. 

Respectfully,

Aboriginal Worldviews and Education Course Team

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I do think that the Professor and Teaching Assistants make some salient points. The joke falls flat for various reasons. The joke is insensitive and I assume that Coursera will later apologize. Hopefully, they won’t pull a Nanaimo Daily News and attempt to say it was human error or martian error (now that is a joke). I stand with the Professor and Teaching Assistants and say: this is not funny. Instead make a joke about MOOCs and incessant emails, students who troll, and other things that are funny or hard-biting. 

 

Grading and Offering Helpful Advice

I have large classes and this means lots of grading for me and my team of Teaching Assistants. I do not have Teaching Assistants for all of my courses, though. What I will say is that grading offers an interesting moment. That moment when you can assess if a student has: followed directions, read the material, organized her/his ideas well, and attempted to do the assignment in a timely fashion. Grading, though, is not about the student. It is about the work. And, this is where things get complicated.

Most of us take issue with people evaluating our work. It’s tough. The evaluation can make you squirm or sit taller in your chair. I’m cognizant of this, when I mark papers. There are moments, when I want to say: you totally kicked ass with this assignment. But, alas, that is not appropriate or even helpful. I might offer something like, it’s obvious that you have spent time thinking about the materials and have successfully articulated your analysis. Then, there are those moments, when you just know that a student did not have enough time to complete the assignment or did not manage his/her time well and you weigh what you need to say. I take no pleasure in offering critical commentary about student work. In most instances, I will offer that the assignment or paper did not meet the requirements. I try to avoid using the word: you. You is personal. The student reads it in a different way.

I have witnessed many students turn the to the last page for the grade. I was the type of student who read page by page the comments and if the grade was on the first or last page it did not matter. I wanted to get the feedback. I tweeted the other day that I was marking and was attempting to balance three things.

1. Firm    2. Fair    3. Compassion

These three things are important to me. The mark can influence a student’s assessment of their work, but also of the class, and the department. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this. But, I really do think that the feedback is important. Even if the assignment is just terrible–feedback is important. When the assignment is a failure, I do ask the student to come see me. I want to know what happened and if I can help. No student wants to earn the F. Usually there are extenuating circumstances and this is when I can offer guidance and compassion. Grading is not easy. I provide my first year students with a paper checklist, so that they can remind themselves of each component. This is a useful exercise for them, but even so it will not translate into 100% of the students using it or using the checklist properly. I continue to mark and think about the marking or grading process.

For my Teaching Assistants, the grading process is similar. I know from talking to them that some take the grading personally. They only want the students to succeed and feel a sense of frustration, when the students do not do well. They say, “I reminded them of this in tutorial. Why aren’t they following directions.” And, then, they are very proud when a student does well. Grading can seem so subjective at times, but ultimately it is not. We have our grading rubric and the grade categorization and explanation from the university. We know what we are looking for and we hope to find as many strong assignments as possible. In the interim, we plug away at the grading and offering useful commentary to our students.

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