Immediately after handing out course evaluation forms to his students on the last day of class, a long since retired W&M professor used to stalk to the blackboard and write “arrogant” in foot-high letters. He would turn around and snarl at the students, “This is how the word is spelled … I just hate it when students misspell ‘arrogant’ on course evaluations.”
My own approach to the evaluation process is a tad more low key. At the end of the semester, all professors at the College are expected to have the students in their classes fill out course evaluations. The content of the questionnaires varies somewhat from department to department. In the government department, for example, we hand out two-sided forms during the last week of class. On one side, the students rate various aspects of the instructor and the course on a one-to-five scale (poor to excellent). Students are queried about the extent to which the course was well organized, participation was welcomed and encouraged, the material and lectures were clear, and the grading procedures were fair. The last item asks the students to rate the instructor’s overall teaching performance. On the backside of the form, students can write general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the instructor and course and areas needing improvement.
Over the years, I’ve received really useful feedback from these forms – especially the open-ended comments on the back. The formal evaluation process is anonymous and faculty do not receive the results until after the semester has ended and final grades are in. Students know that professors often consider their comments when tweaking or overhauling the class in succeeding semesters. They also know that teaching evaluations are an important part of a professor’s annual merit review, and also are given a lot of weight for tenure and promotion. For the most part, I think that our students take the course evaluation process pretty seriously and it shows in the quality of their comments.
Earlier today I read through the evaluations for my fall freshmen seminar, American Political Institutions. Overall, the students seemed to like the class and felt that they learned a lot. They particularly appreciated the time I spent with them, individually in my office, working on their research papers. But almost all of them also felt that the reading load – six long and fairly dense treatises about American government – was excessive. In the waning days of the semester, commented the students, they simply lacked the time necessary to give the last couple of books enough attention.
Hmmm. Obviously the proper workload for a class is a matter of balance. You want to challenge the students as much as possible. But you also want the assignments to be feasible for students taking three or four other classes. In retrospect, I think that I indeed may have overdone it a bit with the reading list for the seminar. The comments from the students on the evaluation forms were consistent and thoughtful and, together, they provide a compelling case that there was too much reading. When I teach the course again next fall, I likely will drop one of the books, or perhaps substitute in one or two shorter, more straightforward volumes.
And by the way, nobody misspelled “arrogant.”