Taking student evaluations into account

After writing about some of the new things I tried last semester, I thought I’d wait to write about the rest until student evaluations had come back and I could see how it went. They have come back, and they were pretty good!

I know that there are many, many problems with student evaluations, including a growing list of studies on how they are biased against women and against people of color, especially for junior faculty. There’s a campus-level committee at my university working to come up with some other way of evaluating teaching, and I’ll be interested to see what they recommend. (For the record, classroom observations are not any better unless they’re done by a trained professional, IMHO. Biases exist at all levels of seniority.)

But I’m going to be honest: I usually get good evaluations, and so I don’t mind the process as much as many people. (In fact, I had strong enough evaluations my first three years at my R1 institution that my third-year review letter warned me I might be spending too much time on teaching–but that’s for another post.) So that’s a caveat to keep in mind.

I always choose specific questions to go on the evaluation form that I really want to hear about, and I always read the free-form comments on the back. And I always make changes based on the specific things that students suggest. I’ve worked to more closely integrate the textbook with lecture (without too much overlap between the two), I’ve changed the nature and number of assignments, I’ve kept some experiments that worked really well, like a weekly essay question instead of exams, and I’ve tried to do a better job of explaining how the assignments relate to the lecture and textbook.

For the team-taught class I wrote about before, the main feedback about the format was that the students liked it: they thought each instructor had something to contribute and that the class worked better because we could each share our different perspectives. We did joke a few times in class about the differences between our viewpoints, so I’m pleased that was seen as a positive. That’s great news, and makes me want to consider more team-teaching opportunities in the future.

They also said we could have been a little quicker with getting grades back, which was a very polite way to put a totally fair criticism. I’m really trying to work on that one this semester, because it’s a chronic problem of mine. Always room for improvement!

Reflections on teaching, part 1

I’m always reflecting on and trying to improve my teaching. I read the Chronicle of Higher Ed, including their weekly teaching newsletter. I pay attention on Twitter to conversations about how to be more inclusive in the classroom and how to make things easier for students while still expecting a lot from them intellectually. I usually teach one large gen ed class in the fall (100-110 students), small-to-medium classes in the fall and spring (20-25 students), and occasionally a graduate seminar. So I have a variety of classes to work with, and a variety of students as well.

In keeping with James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching book and philosophy, I choose one or two big things to try out each semester. (I also make small changes based on student evaluations, like four smaller written assignments instead of three medium-sized ones, etc.) Here’s the first of my reflections on how those changes worked in Fall 2019.

The first big change I made was to team-teach a class for the first time. Our GEOG 412, Geospatial Technologies and Society, is one of very few classes in the U.S. that addresses the political, social, and critical aspects of GIS, remote sensing, and “big” geospatial data. The course used to be team-taught by our critical cartography expert and our spatial analysis expert, until the former retired. I took on the course in Fall 2017 and had a great time with it. Digital geographies might not be my area of research, but it’s a fascinating topic, and teaching it is one way to keep up with the field. But since we have an expert in our department–Dr. Brian Jefferson, whose forthcoming Digitize and Punish is going to be an amazing book–we decided to team-teach the course.

We are fortunate that our department policy is for a team-taught course to count as a full course for each instructor, because a 50-50 split often really means a 75-75 split. (In my case, this class required almost exactly half the time as my other class, but that might be a function of other things…I’ll be posting soon about my hours worked during the fall semester.) This particular class meets twice a week, with the first meeting consisting of a short lecture and a lot of discussion, and the second meeting consisting of lab activities. We divided up the weeks of the course ahead of time and were responsible for finding readings and developing labs for our respective weeks. We agreed that we’d both attend all of the discussions, but that we only needed to come to the lab when it was our “assigned” week.

I would definitely recommend the experience. We each had different strengths with regards to subject matter, but we were both able to contribute to each other’s weeks as well. We have very different teaching styles: I plan out my classes in five-minute increments and focus on the empirical, while he’s much better at explaining theory, as well as extemporizing and getting a lively discussion going. For some people, that might be a source of friction; for us, it meant that we complemented each other well. I learned to let go a little of my need to plan everything ahead of time, which for an upper-division, discussion-based course, is probably a good thing. We were able to negotiate an equitable distribution of grading (group projects, term paper, and class presentation) with little difficulty, although it probably would have made more sense to do the negotiations at the beginning of the semester rather than after the projects had come in. We did have a little confusion with students contacting one but not both of us with regard to requests for extensions or grading questions, but that could be easily fixed in the future. (We’re still waiting on course evaluations to see how well everything worked from the student’s perspective.)

Have you team-taught a course? Or taken one as a student? What worked well or didn’t?