Photo of crocuses emerging from snow

Laura B. McGrath is a PhD student in English at Michigan State University. You can find her on Twitter @LBMcGrath.

This week marked (what I hope will be) a turn toward spring in West Michigan. I can leave my parka at home, I can see some grass peeking up timidly from the mountains of snow/salt/mud, and I can hear birds nesting outside my window. This is really great: I was feeling stuck in a snow-covered rut in my research, my work, my teaching.

Last week, Liz offered some great suggestions on how to re-invent your teaching at mid-semester and beat the mid-semester slump. As you can imagine, fellow Polar Vorticists, I really identified with that post; I imagine that lots of you did, too. I want to offer an addition to Liz’s great list, one that has helped me get through many a bleak mid-winter: mid-semester teaching evaluations.

I love getting feedback from my classes. Absolutely love it. I don’t love it because it makes me feel good, or because I’m anxious to please, or because I treat my students like consumers. Rather, I find mid-semester evaluations to be a useful way to locate potential disconnects between what I think we’re doing, and what my students think we’re doing. I want to know what’s hitting home with them, and what’s totally falling flat.

This is vitally important to me because I make assumptions, I jump to conclusions, I screw up. Mid-semester evaluations help me get to know my class better, and offer a helpful corrective to my own biases. And every time, every single time, my students are insightful and kind and brave enough to call my attention to my oversights. Evaluating at mid-semester, rather than waiting until the course is over, gives me the opportunity to adjust my actions, and I am so grateful for the chance.

There are lots of methods for low-stakes evaluations. Our friends at ProfHacker have detailed many examples, including four simple questions to askat mid-semester, participation self-evaluations, and conducting evaluations with Google Docs. Most likely, your university has an Office for Faculty Development or Center for Teaching Excellence, which will have great resources on mid-semester evaluation, like this one from Michigan State, this one from Vanderbilt, and this one from the TA Project at Rutgers.

My favorite method is Start-Stop-Continue. Students are asked to write three short sentences:

  • Sentence one identifies one thing they’d like to stop doing in class.
  • Sentence two identifies one thing that they would like to start doing in class.
  • Sentence three identifies one thing that they’d like to continue doing in class.

Simple as that. This helps me to see areas where I’m connecting with students, as well as changes that they’d like to see in class. I like this method because it also asks them to think constructively about their frustrations in the course, asking them to turn their negative feedback into action. They’ve come up with some great ideas, and I’ve incorporated some of them each semester.

Research shows that mid-semester evaluation can help you teach and help your students learn.  A 1980 study by Peter A. Cohen, replicated most recently by HG Murray in 2007, found that mid-semester evaluations can have a positive effect on instruction and student learning and can lead to higher overall evaluations at the end of the semester.

While I was completing my MA, I worked with the Office of Assessment and Quality Improvement. I want to leave you with the most important lesson that I learned there, one that carries over to classroom evaluations: Share what you’ve learned. Summarize the evaluations for your students; tell them what their peers have said (generally), tell them what you heard, and tell them what you’ve learned. This can be tough, especially when the comments aren’t positive. Your students went out on a limb to be honest with you; let them know that you heard them. Reporting your findings shows that you value their input, and can help to establish greater trust within your learning community.

Last semester, I gave daily quizzes. I received the following comments on my mid-semester evaluation (I’m paraphrasing, here):

  • Stop quizzes.
  • Start giving more credit for quizzes.
  • Continue quizzes.

I enjoyed reporting this finding to my students, because it gave me an opportunity to talk about our different backgrounds and different ways of learning. Many students had learned this information in high school, and felt it was a waste of their time. Other students were encountering this material for the first time, and found the quizzes were a helpful motivator. This provided a great teaching moment, in which I asked students to see our class, and to see learning, from a different perspective.

Mid-semester teaching evaluations have also never failed to get me excited about my class. Student responses re-activate my imagination, and get me excited about giving my course a makeover. I start problem-solving, strategizing, and planning. Gone is my slushy class: it’s a new season.

Do you have experience with mid-semester evaluations? What methods did you use? Tell us about it!

[Image by Flickr user ripperda used under creative commons licensing.]


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