Menschel Fellow Musings #2: On Course Evaluations

A recent episode of NPR’s “Weekend Edition” featured a guest who told listeners that research shows that sleeping on your back can be hazardous to your health.  He also said that research shows that sleeping on your front can be hazardous to your health, and that sleeping on your left side can be hazardous to your health, and that sleeping on your right side can be hazardous to your health.  Each conclusion, reached through analysis of data from one or more independent studies, was presumably compelling enough to warrant publication somewhere; thus inclusion in a chronology of fears and phobias.  And when the guest was asked how he slept, he said, “… fitfully, because I’m constantly plagued by fears of the risks I’m taking.”

“Research shows….” eh?  Wow!  If the only safe alternative is to spend the rest of my life sleeping vertically, I think I’d like to know more about just how and by whom that data was collected and analyzed before committing to the change!  In fact, I would argue that whenever someone asserts that one particular course of action is better than another because “…research shows…” that observation alone ought to raise the red flag of caution rather than the white flag of surrender before substantive decisions are made.

Case in point: student course evaluations.  Talk about a hot button item with a seemingly endless number of editorial pieces decrying or extolling the merits of these instruments based on what the  “…research shows …”.    As one who has enjoyed considerable success in the classroom (that success, by the way, measured largely by student feedback), I’ve wondered for a long time just what the research actually does show.  And if, in fact, those evaluations aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on—as some peers would have me believe—then I’d kind of like to know where the holes are.  So I took a look.

What I didn’t expect to find is that the vast majority of people who have taken time to look (yup, at data) agree that the criticisms leveled at course evaluations perpetuate little more than myth.

Authors of Paper #50 from the IDEA CENTER, winnowing 15 years worth of literature (2,875 articles!) down to 542 actual research reports put emotion on the shelf and draw some typical and important conclusions. None of the following popular misconceptions are supported by data from contemporary research:

  • Students cannot make consistent judgments.
  • Student ratings are just popularity contests.
  • Student ratings are unreliable and invalid.
  • The time of day that a course is offered affects ratings
  • Students will not appreciate good teaching until they are out … a few years.
  • Students just want easy courses.
  • Student feedback cannot be used to help improve instruction.
  • Emphasis on student ratings has led to grade inflation.

At the end of the day, if there is any credible evidence to suggest that course evaluations are without value in measuring the quality of a course or the teacher who has the privilege of presenting it, it’s dwarfed by evidence to the contrary.

To be sure, there is still much to be gained by (1) improving teacher evaluation instruments, (2) implementing efficacious use of mid-term feedback, peer evaluation, and teaching portfolios, and (3) finding reliable ways to measure what students are actually learning.  Recent efforts to measure how content delivery styles can improve (or not) attention spans, subject matter mastery, and problem solving skills also hold promise for raising the bar.

But I’m not seeing anything to suggest that what we’re doing now is all that bad if the feedback is credible and the teacher is willing to use it constructively. In fact, I’m so convinced of the positive value of student opinion that I’ve made significant changes in my own courses this year specifically to address issues raised the last time around. And I’m already drafting supplemental questions for upcoming evals in a continuing effort to get better at what I thought was already pretty good. What is the reaction to some change I’ve made in delivery or content? Are there  suggestions for better use of class time?  How have their perceptions of the natural world changed, and what have they learned that might impact their lives outside of the classroom?  For me, those latter points are crucial, for if someone doesn’t leave my class a different person than they were when they walked in, then they may have wasted their time, and I’ve definitely failed to achieve my goals.

Now for the touchy part.  If those course evaluations have the merit that I and others contend they do, do they have any place in issues related to promotion and tenure? And if so, what?  Yikes! I hope the people who are making those decisions tread lightly as they think long and hard about the implications of saddling faculty of any rank with an obligation to meet a minimum score on a course evaluation.

Colleagues who I’ve been lucky enough to get to know better in CTE workshops over the past four months are great.  They’re enthusiastic about opportunities to shape young minds; they’re apprehensive about finding a comfortable middle ground between content delivery, theater, and student achievement; and they are concerned about managing the delicate balance between teaching, research, and whatever else they are expected to excel at.  If a grant proposal falls short, they know that review panel comments and critiques from mentors will help them to make it better the next time.  If unexpected experimental results or other rogue events lead to a scholarly dead end, we’ll applaud their ability to back away and seek new paths to success. Aren’t missteps in the teaching mission also to be expected? My strong plea is to let our faculty (especially new faculty) teach the same course(s?) for several semesters so they can learn from their mistakes. Let glances over their shoulders be for visions of where they’ve been and not fear of who’s sneaking up on them.  Encourage them to use those first few rounds of numbers and comments as fertilizers rather than herbicides (Oh give him a break; he’s an Aggie!) to cultivate the next generation of educators who will ensure the greatness that is Cornell.

Trust me; it will pay off.

And now, if I can just get off of this bully pulpit in one piece….

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Addendum:  Some additional pieces on this subject from the CTE website that are worth a look:

Brower, Aaron.  2008.  Myths and realities about student course evaluations. University of Wisconsin.  https://tle.wisc.edu/solutions/evaluation/myths-and-realities-about-student-course-evaluations

Lillienfeld, S. 1999. Student course evaluations and what research teaches us.  Emory University. http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/erarchive/1999/February/erfebruary.15/2_15_99lilienfeld.html

Boggs, A. et al. 2009.  The validity of student course evaluations: an eternal debate? University of Toronto. http://www.academia.edu/184452/The_Validity_of_Student_Course_Evaluations_An Eternal_Debate

José Bowen / Teaching Naked: Reclaiming the Power of Face-to-Face Teaching (video)

In today’s world it is easier and easier for students to access content outside of the classroom. This can create more room for face-to-face teaching and learning inside the classroom. Using technology outside of class makes it possible to teach without technology (“teaching naked”). In this interactive workshop, Dr. Bowen explores better ways to engage students in the classroom.

Dr. José Bowen is the author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning.

Wendy Harbour / Universal Design: Make Your Course Accessible to EVERY Learner (video)

January 17, 2013: Center for Teaching Excellence 3rd Annual Conference.

Dr. Wendy Harbour discusses ways to design courses to make them accessible to students with varying learning styles and abilities. Hear how to build multiple means of representing information, expressing knowledge, and engaging learning into your course.

Dr. Harbour is Director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Education at Syracuse University.

Dr. Eric Mazur / Turning Lectures into Learning (video)

January 16, 2013: Center for Teaching Excellence 3rd Annual Conference.

Building on his insights into the inability of students to learn effectively from lectures, Dr. Mazur introduces practical ways to engage students in peer instruction and active learning, even in large lecture classes, and demonstrates ways to engage students in problem-based peer learning in large classes..

Eric Mazur is the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University and Area Dean of Applied Physics. An internationally recognized scientist and researcher, he leads a vigorous research program in optical physics and supervises one of the the largest research groups in the Physics Department at Harvard University.

Spring 2013 Faculty Seminar Series

Snapshot of CTE’s Spring 2013 schedule of faculty seminars. Click to view/download larger image.

2013 Annual Conference Resources

The Center for Teaching Excellence would like to thank you for being part of our 3rd Annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence.  Please click on the sessions listed below for access to corresponding PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and follow up materials.

Also, we would love to know what sessions you would be interested in seeing at next year’s conference or in our programming for the fall semester.  Please consider taking our brief survey.

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Breathing Life into Your PowerPoint
Flipping the Classroom: How Moving Content Out Can Let Learning In
What Are Your Students Learning? Tech Tips for Getting and Using Instant Feedback
Online Discussions: Extending Learning and Saving Time

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Updating Your Syllabus: New Ideas for Next Week
Dr. Jose Bowen: Teaching Naked: Reclaiming the Power of Face-to-Face Teaching

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Dr. Frank Tuitt: Race and Higher Education: Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms
Dr. Eric Mazur: Turning Lectures into Learning

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Group Work: How to Evaluate It
How to Hear What Your Students are Saying: Classroom Assessment Techniques
Launching a Successful Semester: Tips for the First Day of Class
Dr. Wendy Harbour: Universal Design: Make Your Course Accessible to EVERY Learner”

 


Breathing Life Into PowerPoint

Presentation Slides
Topic Overview on PowerPoint
CTE Resources: Powerpoint
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Flipping the Classroom

Presentation Slides
Topic Overview on Moving the Lecture Outside the Classroom
Topic Overview on Blended Learning
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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What are Your Students Learning? Tech Tips for Getting and Using Instant Feedback

Presentation Slides
Topic Overview on Survey Tools
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Online Discussions: Extending Learning and Saving Time

Presentation Slides
Topic Overview on Online Discussions
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Updating Your Syllabus: New Ideas for Next Week

Topic Overview on Constructing a Syllabus
Syllabus Rubric
Syllabus Checklist
CTE Resources: Writing a Syllabus
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Dr. Jose Bowen: Teaching Naked: Reclaiming the Power of Face-to-Face Teaching

Video of Presentation: “Teaching Naked: Reclaiming the Power of Face-to-Face Teaching”
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Dr. Frank Tuitt: Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms

Presentation Slides
CTE Resources: Diversity
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Dr. Eric Mazur: Turning Lectures into Learning

Video of presentation: “Turning Lectures into Learning”
CTE Resources: Collaborative Learning
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Group Work: How to Evaluate It

Presentation Slides
Topic Overview on Group Work
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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How to Hear What Your Students Are Saying: Classroom Assessment Techniques

Topic Overview on Quick and Easy CATs
Topic Overview on Measuring Student Learning
Topic Overview on Background Knowledge Assessment
CTE Resources: Measuring Student Learning
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Launching a Successful Semester: Tips for the First Day of Class

Presentation Slides
Topic Overview on First Day of Class
Topic Overview on Icebreakers
CTE Resources: The First Day of Class
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Dr. Wendy Harbour: Universal Design: Make Your Course Accessible to EVERY Learner

Video of Presentation: “Universal Design: Make Your Course Accessible to EVERY Learner”
Presentation Slides

Universal Design Worksheet
Disability and Higher Education Resources
CTE Resources: All Topic Overviews

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Menschel Musings #1: Up and Running

As I write this first entry of my new blog on the 7th day of December, I’m stunned to realize that my term as the Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow for 2012-13 is almost half over!  With each passing day, I continue to be impressed with the enormous amount of talent that resides in the Center for Teaching Excellence and the enormous devotion to teaching that I’m coming to learn is already so pervasive among our faculty. I’m also finding my teaching own style – content, delivery, you name it – being challenged in ways I never imagined.

Learning outcomes as a starting point for course development?  Sure, I know that university accreditation depends on all of us to provide a concise list of learning outcomes for every college, every  major and every course.  And I’ve played ball as the requests from on high have come my way.   But you know, it was easier for me to respond to those pleas for declarations of how my students’ attitudes would change and what new challenges they would be able to answer after my courses had already been on the books for a decade or more. By then, trial and error had inadvertently led me to my comfort zone.  Now I’m developing a new course and my CTE colleagues think I should have those outcomes up front; like they think I should know what my destination is before I leave the garage!  Hmmm … that’s a novel concept!

Then there is the plea to build more active learning into my courses.    Isn’t writing down every pearl of wisdom that flows from my lips active enough?  Is it really worthwhile (and safe for me!) to stop talking once in a while so they can actually put that new knowledge to work?    “Yup…,” my CTE friends say “…it is.”  “Would you like to see the data to prove it?”  I said “OK” to a similar data offer earlier and that was enough. Three days later I emerged from a pile of papers looking much like the judge at the Santa Claus trial in “Miracle on 34th Street” … overwhelmed and exhausted but convinced that yes, indeed – if I was willing to change, I might actually do a better job at what I already thought was a lock .

Now they want me to think about flipping my classroom!  Can you imagine that? There might actually be something to be gained by letting the students not only ask the questions but answer them?  What if their questions catch me off guard? What if their answers are wrong? What if I have to tell them I don’t know if they’re right or wrong? What if they get into an argument and I totally lose control? What if they take up so much valuable class time that there’s not enough left for me?  Can’t we just leave things the way they have been for the last half century or so?  “Of course, we can,” is the polite reply.  “And would you like us to wheel your chair over to the window so you can better see the rest of the world pass you by?”

For better or worse, there is lots happening in the educational arena and most of it promises to change us for the better.  I sure hope so.  The plea I occasionally hear from students to “Just tell me what I have to know for the exam!” isn’t a particularly gratifying outcome from my best efforts to instill curiosity, inquisitiveness, amazement at the way the world works, and a celebration of new knowledge just because it’s there.  If there is a better way, I say “Bring it on,” and if you are of a like mind  (or not!) …. stay tuned.

[George Hudler is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.  He succeeds Professors David Feldshuh and Ron Harris-Warrick as the third Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow and he is also a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.  New additions to this blog will appear intermittently (hopefully bi-weekly) during the remainder of the 2012-13 academic term.]

Carl Wieman: Taking a Scientific Approach to the Teaching and Learning of Science

Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence sponsored an afternoon lecture open to all members of the Cornell community on Friday, November 15, 2012 at 1:25 in 701 Clark Hall. Nobel Laureate, Dr. Carl Wieman offered new perspectives that challenge educators to improve science education. He combines the result of scientific theory and practice with modern information technology to set the stage for a new approach to science education in the 21st century. Dr. Wieman discussed new practices and technology that characterize a more effective approach to science education. He showed how his results are consistent with findings from cognitive science.

If you missed this event, you can view Dr. Wieman’s power point presentation here: CTE Carl Wieman Lecture 2012 and the video below.

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