By Dr. Candice Dowd Barnes, assistant professor of early childhood and special education at the University of Central Arkansas
Like so many faculty members, I have been frustrated by the lack of useful feedback on student course evaluations.
More often than not, students evaluated my courses from either a place of great admiration or from a place of negativity. Either way, they never really provided me with useful information that might help me to improve my courses to enhance student learning.
Students find some courses easier than others, and some professors more flexible in their expectations and rules than others, especially the mostly female students enrolled in my courses.
In truth, it was often the negative comments and low scores that consumed my thoughts, leading me to wonder: Were my methods appropriate? Was the course content and application too rigorous? Did students find the content relevant? And what role might my gender or race play in how students respond to my expectations and value my expertise?
Since my frustration with the course evaluations was becoming increasingly challenging, I decided to take my own advice and quit complaining. Instead I evaluated my role, my relationship with students and whether students were making relevant connections to the content.
I found that three strategies were most successful to increase the positive and constructive feedback on course evaluations boost students’ content retention.
My role changed
As I examined my role in the learning environment, it was clear that my expectations for students and their previous classroom experiences were vastly different.
For example, students were expected to treat the classroom as a professional learning community. Classroom policies included a dress code, strict rules on late assignments and intolerance for cell phone usage including texting.
I now realized that my role was not only to tell students what the expectations were, but also to facilitate an understanding of why and how these expectations mirrored the real world. I led discussions to help them understand why dressing appropriately, submitting assignments on time, displaying attentiveness and resisting distractions reflect the expectations of being professionals in the workplace.
My role changed. I transitioned from merely telling the expectations and rules to facilitating an understanding of the expectations and rules. From that grew a respect and deeper understanding of why and how these rules represent the professional world into which they aspire.
My relevance expanded
I then examined the relevant connections students have made to the content and to my experiences and expertise. To what degree did students believed the content mattered to them? Did they see the value of the content in their clinical or internship experiences? How relevant were my experiences and stories to their lives and understanding? To address this quandary, I used two strategies.
First, I wanted to provide a safe mental space for students to reflect upon the content and integrate new information into their thinking. At times, I assumed that the uncomfortable silence after I asked a question meant that they did not have the answer.
While that was true in some cases, more often than not they needed the time and space to think about and process my question asked before responding. This was especially true for women students, who traditionally are more reluctant to jump up with an immediate response.
My solution was to create a “reflect and connect” pause of two minutes, which allows students time to think and write before they respond to a question, thought, idea or perspective. They make connections with other course topics and materials, and provide a real-world example. If time is limited, they submit them at the end of class.
They could also pose questions for clarification or draw upon personal experiences and/or experiences I might have shared as examples, and share and/or present their ideas with the whole class for discussion.
Second, I created my own course evaluations to use in addition to the university-wide tool. These provided me with more substantive, authentic information. By far, this was my most helpful strategy. I found that relying on university- generated course evaluations was less useful.
I wanted to truly understand what students thought of the course, and more importantly, what they had learned from it. The goal was to determine what worked and what needed improvement from a teaching-learning perspective.
I created a survey for students to complete anonymously. Because I was initially concerned with how honest students would be, I developed very specific questions about the course assignments, the degree to which they understood key concepts, how the content/ examples/expertise/stories shared might benefit them after graduation and whether their thinking about certain concepts had changed.
By creating my own survey, I collected rich data to use for future students and classes. It also gave students an opportunity to reflect on the host of concepts discussed and how they might use this information in the future.
My relationships deepened
Finally, I examined my relationships with my students. The literature sends a clear message that building relationships is a key skill in the workplace and in life. In the classroom, building relationships between faculty and student becomes a bridge to confer, collaborate and communicate.
Relationships provide a path for faculty members to support students’ development of a disposition for learn- ing in the classroom and in life. They help faculty members to advocate for students’ needs. They help faculty members to learn who their students are—their backgrounds, cultures and personalities.
They can cushion the impact when faculty must engage in difficult conversations with students. They can also help faculty members to recognize exceptional students.
The relationship that faculty members create with their students can open avenues to honest conversations about the student’s needs, struggles, successes and triumphs. Admittedly, I was less inclined to build increased closeness with my students. I assumed and feared that creating that type of relationship would invite unwanted problems. Students might expect preferential treatment, or see me as a mother or sister figure instead of as their professor.
Once I released myself from those fears, I used several types of icebreakers and getting-to-know-you exercises, and increased my opportunities to confer with students about their work. They all helped me to gain a better understanding of how to differentiate my instruction for individual students.
Students reported feeling more comfortable in seeking clarification and more confident in their understanding of the course content. It was one of the more powerful tools to engage in deeper discussion and to model relationship strategies, which can affect their future lives and careers.
My experiment worked!
Using these three key strategies increased students’ retention of information, provided opportunities for deep thinking and engagement, provided moments of cognitive dissonance, allowed me to engage in richer discussions with students and provided students with time and space to make broader connections to their learning and life.
They forced me to rethink how students learned, the broader implications for their learning beyond my classroom, and my responsibility to ensure they had the skills, abilities and disposition toward higher order thinking.
I learned that when students have a clear and concise understanding of expectations and how they affect them, they have a greater respect for a teacher’s role and a deeper value for course expectations.
Facilitating connections from the course content to the real world afforded opportunities for students to relate to the content in a real and significant way, and to learn from and respect my expertise, stories and examples.
Finally, building those healthy relationships allowed my students and me to better understand each other. The unexpected outcome of this experiment was that not only did students learn the content better, but they also learned how to interpret, analyze, synthesize and organize information— all higher-order skills they need in career and life.
In the end, my experiment mostly answered my initial questions. I realized that, yes, it was good to question students’ perceptions of me and the course. It was not the rigor or relevance of the course, and in this instance, not my gender that was of greatest concern.
Rather, it was the depth to which I engaged students in the content, the relationships I built with them, and the role I played as professor and mentor, that made a difference in their and my successes and failures.
Barnes, Candice. (2013, August). IN HER OWN WORDS:
Improve Teaching: Your Role, Relevance, Relationship. Women in Higher Education, 22(8), 22-23.