So Student Evaluations arrived, what next?

My student evaluation forms arrived two weeks ago, and the emotions that accompany with these documents can have so many layers and overwhelming. Over the years, I learned to be at peace with them and here’s how I read the reports.

Usually there are a few sections in Student Feedback/Evaluation, and the first section is always a collection of likert scale questions. They vary from institution to institution (after teaching at 6 universities/colleges, trust me on this :), and here are a few typical examples. On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 = Not at all to 5 = A great deal,

  1. I found the course intellectually stimulating so far.
  2. The course is providing me with a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
  3. The instructor is creating a course atmosphere that was conducive to my learning.
  4. Course projects, assignments, tests, and/or exams are improving my understanding of the course material.
  5. Course projects, assignments, tests, and/or exams are providing an opportunity for me to demonstrate an understanding of the course material.

I tend to focus on median results of these questions instead of mean, as we know mean value offers little information to the data when there are outliers, and I almost always see a response of 1 here or there. I learned to not feel personal, and at times I do question whether these questions are vague for students. Intellectually stimulating can mean totally different things for two students, and I’m not even sure how do you define a conducive course atmosphere.

Then comes the real gem: open ended questions. You may see “please comment on the overall quality of the instruction in this course”, “What did this instructor do to facilitate my learning within this course?”, or ” How might this instructor improve this course? “. These are the comments that I read really carefully and put a lot of thoughts on. It’s great to know what my students liked about my teaching, and what I can do differently next time. Again don’t take it personally, and I think we’ve all experienced reading two completely contradicting comments on the same copy of evaluation form. To entertain you, I’m sharing some comments that I received for the same class:

  • “The instructor’s explanation was not that much understandable.”
  • “It was well done. The prof used various methods such as powerpoints, the chalkboard, a live feed of a paper at the front of the room, as well as online modules to teach concepts.”
  • Professor Wang was an excellent instructor. Her teaching methods were very clear and concise. Outside the classroom, she was also very approachable and friendly.

You get the idea. Usually before I open my student evaluations, I find a quiet and comfortable place, get myself a hot cup of tea, and take a deep breath to embrace what’s coming.

however, I do have to admit that this year’s evaluation makes me tear up a little: students are so overwhelmingly supportive, understanding and appreciative. I have never received such detailed comments like

  • “The decision to have 2 tests every two weeks instead of midterms and a final exam was monumentally beneficial to my mental health. I felt like the pace at which the material was given was very good, and allowed me time to learn the material and practice at a steady pace. Out of all my online classes this semester, I feel like this course had the best transition to online learning. The video lectures were short and very instructive, furthermore, replacing the lecture times with Q and A sessions was a great idea. I could ask the instructor questions about course material without having to wait until the end of the week for student hours. Overall, I had an excellent experience in this class.”

or

  • ” The instructor had a creative combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning that balanced out the difficulties of online learning. She did many practice problems and had multiple fair assessments to take the pressure off of online testing. She provided many resources and did not fill up our important study time with meaningless assignments. She shows great skill at adapting to online learning and I think more professors should take a note out of her book. She was very kind and compassionate throughout the course and it was a pleasure learning from her. I envy those who will take her class in person in the future as she is an excellent instructor and as well seems to be a wonderful individual. One of the UofM’s best math profs!

before, and they may just be enough for me to power through another challenging year ahead.

I have a folder titled “treasure” which is the collection of nice things students shared with me about my teaching. And these comments are definitely going there. It really helps me feel better at difficult times and you should start collecting if you haven’t done so.

Reflection on my 2020 fall course design

Reading Week is finally here. I can take a deep breath and slow down a bit.

I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on and share what works from my 2020 fall semester teaching, and what improvements are needed. My focus has shifted to building a learning community since the pandemic started in 2020 March. I believe being able to connect with students and offering them the space and opportunity to work with each other is more important than content covered for a course. At this point I think almost all of us have realized it’s not realistic to cover as much as what we used to do. The challenges that come with online teaching are not trivial to overcome, and I’d like to invite everyone to ponder on the question of what matters the most to you when it comes to student’s learning experience. For me it’s community: an inclusive community where I can reach everyone and offer multiple ways for students to engage with each other and with the course content.

About a week before 2020 fall semester started, I posted a welcome message to my class and shared the course syllabus, textbook information and how to join the online discussion forum and the social annotation tool hypothes.is. The message included a short survey form which helps me understand my students’ learning needs. Granted it’s a lot of information for students to take on. To make it more inclusive, I also made an interactive H5P presentation.

This presentation covers all the information in the course syllabus, with a few short built-in videos: my self-introduction, video of how to annotate on the open textbook we use, and an overview of Piazza, the discussion forum that we will be using. Hyperlinks in this presentation will lead them to the sign-up pages so once they go over all the slides, they are ready to start the semester. I also posted a thread of “introducing yourself” on Piazza. I started the thread by introducing myself, and ended my post by asking a question so the next person who responds will start by answering that question. Everyone follows this format and within a few days, a majority of the class have introduced themselves. It is the very first post students post which gives them the opportunity to get used to posting, and to get to know each other.

Once semester started, students slowly took control of the discussion forum and hypothes.is: they are answering each other’s questions in a timely manner so all I need to do is to clarify some common misunderstandings. Part of my course assessment structure is called “community building action (CBA)”: whenever students contribute to the community’s learning, they earn a CBA point. The contribution mostly comes in the form of posts, questions and answers on the discussion forum and Hypothes.is. They earn CBA points while helping each other learn. By the end of the semester, all 120 students enrolled in Piazza and there are 827 total posts, 3482 total contributions, 229 instructor’s responses, 724 students’ responses and response time is 11 min in average. There are also many fantastic discussions happening on Hypothes.is. Making these platforms available for students not only help them learn, it also helps them gain a sense of belonging. Students can post anonymously so they don’ t need to feel embarrassed if they are asking a trivial question. The number of emails I received from this course is minimal thanks to the discussion forum which is a happy side-effect that I’m keen to keep.

Another element I introduced to my course is oral exam. We have 3 scheduled term tests, and if a student is not feeling well on the test day, or missed a test due to any personal reasons which they do not need to disclose to me, they can opt for an oral test instead. This option is also offered to those who took the test but felt they did not do as well as they expected. In total I ran 35 oral tests, for a class of 120 students. Having this option in place reduced students’ anxiety of test taking and makes the course more inclusive.

The last piece I want to mention is offering a variety of assessments in the course. For multivariable calculus, we have CBA, weekly check point (a set of MCQ/TF questions that students complete before each week’s synchronous lessons), assignments and tests. In the end-of-semester survey I conducted, students expressed the gratitude of having a variety of assessments in this course. In my other course, MATH 2030 Combinatorics, we have weekly quizzes and presentation. A student could make a short video of any topic that was covered in our course and post it on the discussion forum to earn some bonus points. 20 out of 46 students submitted videos and the whole class benefited from watching and learning from them.  

 To summarize, in order to build an inclusive learning community, start early to reach out to students, and be present, both during and after synchronous sessions, listen to students and offer multiple ways for them to demonstrate their learning.

Happy New Year 2021!

We are finally leaving 2020 behind and moving forward to a brand new year. I took a much needed walk this morning, admiring the winter land, listening to Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and making plans for the spring semester. What do I want to focus on?

First of all, community building: I believe building a learning community in and outside classrooms is crucial for students to enjoy their learning experience, and it’s up to us to design a learning environment that supports community building. In 2019 Fall semester we had a very successful experience in my MATH2720 course: we relied on a discussion forum for students to connect with and support each other and here’s some data that comes from it:

132 enrolled out of 120 students;

827 total posts

3482 total contributions

229 instructor’s responses

724 students’ responses

11 min average response time

Students expressed how much they appreciate of having this platform to quickly receive feedback from their peers and me, and meanwhile the number of emails I received from this course is so much lower in general because almost every question they have is being answered or addressed in the forum already. I will definitely continue using a discussion forum in my future teaching.

Secondly, accepting and owning my mistakes: it’s usually hard for us to accept that we make mistakes, let alone owning them. I’m going to work on this aspect in the new year. I often tell my students that it’s only through mistakes that we will learn new things and master new skills and it’s time for me to practice what I preach. I do not wish to not make mistakes in the future, but will try my best to discover them as early as possible, and rectify them as soon as possible. If you are part of my PLN, working with me as a colleague or a student, I welcome you to point out my mistakes when you spot any. I’d be eternally grateful.

Lastly, being kind to myself and others: we are our worst enemies at times and I’ll learn how to support myself better while supporting others. A few of my favorite activities are: eating healthy food, walking my favorite trails, painting, listening to podcasts, connecting with people that I admire, taking naps and sometimes doing nothing. If I feel exhausted, I will allow myself to pause and recharge.

What will you focus on?