March 17, 2014

Last year, a faculty member in a great state of dismay visited me. He had received his student mid-semester evaluations and they were, in his words, “disheartening.” He went on to tell me how brutal they were; how the students attacked some statements he made in class, questioned his feedback on work, and disliked the readings he selected. I asked him how many students were enrolled – 70 students. I asked him how many evaluations reflected these sentiments – 3 evaluations. So, 3 students out of 70 had somewhat scathing reviews, but upon more inspection, the remainder were actually very, very positive and directly contradicted the three negative evaluations. How do we get past the negative, or any comment for that matter, when they are outliers and can actually distract our focus away from suggestions about how to improve a course that reflect general agreement among the students? This is where our attention should be directed in seeking and responding to mid-semester evaluations.

We tend to be drawn to outlier evaluations, especially when they are negative, and spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over them. There are faculty members who no longer even look at any student evaluations because of the fear and impact of those negative responses (not a good practice I would ever advocate). So, how can we use mid-semester evaluations to effectively inform our course design by drawing on general student agreement about what’s working, not working, and can be improved over the rest of the semester? The answer, try a Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID).

SGID’s enable you, as a faculty member, to quickly and easily get themed feedback from a class (of any size). SGID’s also give students a chance to hear how their peers are evaluating the class, sometimes adjusting perceptions through their interaction (someone thinks the readings are disorganized and irrelevant…maybe not so much after hearing classmates explain why the readings are helpful). Here’s how it works:

  1. Create a mid-semester SGID evaluation form with only three questions (variations are ok)–
    1. What has been most helpful to your learning in the class so far?
    2. What has been least helpful to your learning in the class so far?
    3. What suggestions do you have that would help your learning in the class?
    4. Take 15 minutes in a class around mid-term time to conduct the SGID and give each student their own form. If possible, have a GSI conduct the in-class SGID.
    5. Break the class into small groups and give each group an additional form.
      1. The group size can be based on your class enrollment. In a class of 30, do groups of ~5. In a class of 300, do groups of ~10-15.
      2. Ask students to take five minutes to jot down notes on their individual evaluation form. Do NOT collect these.
      3. Ask the groups to complete the group evaluation form with this one caveat in mind: Nothing can be written on the group evaluation form unless it is the consensus of the group!
        1. If even one person in the group disagrees that lectures are not interactive enough, it cannot go on the form.
        2. Collect the group forms and you’re done!
          1. In larger classes, you can take an extra 10 minutes and do a full class form where each group calls out their consensus comments and other groups either agree or disagree. If any group disagrees, then it doesn’t make it to the class form.

 As you can see, in a very short amount of time, you get direct feedback from the entire class, fewer evaluations to read through, and outlier comments are removed in the process.

There are many other ways to conduct mid-semester evaluations, but regardless of what kind of evaluation you choose to employ, it is still important to know how to present them to your class, as well as how to respond to mid-semester evaluations. Explore and find something that works for you. Mid-semester is a great time to make changes to a course that will improve student learning. It’s not too late!