Jeffrey Cordell is Instructional Pedagogy Librarian in the Undergraduate Library. As part of the Assessment Working Group, he has helped to roll out the new evaluation forms being used to assess teaching across the library.
Using Assessment to Build Instruction Strategy
Over the past two years, the library has designed a set of evaluation forms for instruction sessions; over the course of fall semester, we generated reports on those evaluations for each instructor. At a workshop in late February, individual reports were given out and discussed. I want to give a sense of what we talked about in that meeting and to share some thoughts about evaluations and their uses for teaching.
If you weren't able to attend the workshop and would like a copy of your report, contact Jen Green at email@example.com and ask for one. As you look over your report, it's important to remember that while it can tell you much about your teaching, it is not a core sample of who you are as a teacher. Anytime we represent the experience of teaching and learning numerically, we engage in a kind of fiction or wishful thinking that says that we can capture experience quantitatively—that what happens in the classroom can be anything like adequately expressed through numbers. It would be nice to think so, because it would mean that the experience of one classroom could be replicated exactly in another, as if all instructors with a 4.5 were doing exactly the same thing. Rather, the kinds of numbers we see on course evaluation forms are rough approximations of the experience of being a student and inevitably do little to convey the rich complexity of what happens in the classroom, where each instructor works from his or her distinct, incommensurable qualities as a teacher.
Because they are such crude tools, course evaluations can sometimes seem to measure only the entertainment value of a class. However, I do think they measure something useful, and that something is how students feel about their experience in the classroom. At first glance, "feelings" may seem too subjective, even irrelevant to the process of finding information, to bother measuring. After all, learning is not about feelings; it's about acquiring information. But learning is always bound up with one's emotions, and, as Plato told us long ago, learning at its best matches the thrill of falling in love, and is, indeed, indistinguishable from it. When we truly grasp an idea, we feel it lodge in ourselves, and that always carries with it change, change in our perceptions and, therefore, in who we are. More pragmatically, there is a sense in which learning becomes more readily available to our consciousness when we're aware that we are learning. So, the use of course evaluations comes in part from the measure, however tentative and approximate, of students' perception of their learning in a class. While course evaluations cannot do the work of systematic assessment of skills (for that, we need tests), they can suggest to us, however crudely, how students perceive their experience in the classroom and whether they find that experience valuable.
The reports that the library has generated also help us, as instructors, to get a fuller sense of how our teaching fits into the larger mission of the library. The reports present your numbers against the mean for all the responses from a given evaluation form (that is, when you look at your report, you can see whether your numbers are higher, lower, or similar to the library mean for that report, be it "intro," "advanced," etc). That, in turn, can give you a sense of what, in your classes, students seem to appreciate and where you might want to focus your attention as you revise your teaching techniques and in-class exercises. Often, it’s not even so much a matter of changing how you teach as it is explicitly underscoring for students what it is they're learning. An interactive in-class exercise may not be perceived as interactive by your students until you say that it is. Additionally, the evaluation forms give a sense of what we, as instructors at the library, value and hope to achieve. On that level, these reports are part of an ongoing conversation that may take in questions such as: what do we consider successful numbers at the library? How do we want to use them (for example, they could be used as part of teaching portfolios)? What kinds of institutional support would we like to have available to instructors who find things they want to change in their teaching based on these reports? And so forth.
I have had many years experience in reading and using course evaluations, but, being new to the world of the library, am curious to hear your opinions of the new evaluations and reports, and to hear your ideas about how you are going to use the information they give us.
What are your opinions of the new evaluations and reports? How are you going to use the information they give us?