Steve Volk, October 7, 2013
(Note: This is a reprised and edited version of two previous “Articles of the Week”: From October 10, 2010 and Oct. 29, 2012.)
Mid-semester evaluations are not required by college (or departmental, as far as I know) policy. But, precisely because they are formative in nature and tucked into an on-going course, they are a valuable way to make small changes to your course that can improve student learning and focus your teaching efforts. To be frank, measuring student learning (assessment) is still a work in progress although significant research is suggesting significant approaches. But I am sure that there are a number of things we do that actually get in the way of student learning … and the mid-semester evaluation is a fine tool to help you figure out if you should stop an approach that is proving problematic or change your game plan to encourage learning.
Here are some suggestions:
Probably the best time to hand out mid-semester evaluations is during the week (or two) before break. The last class before break is usually not a good time (students might have already left for break in mind, body or both). It is also nice to have the break to read over the responses and come to the first class after break prepared to discuss the evaluations with your students.
The Evaluation Instrument
There are a wide variety of questionnaires that you can use. You’ll find examples from 2-8 questions in length at the end of this article.
My own advice:
(1) Keep it simple.
(2) Try to elicit narrative rather than relying on quantitative (1-5) scales. Getting, say, a “4” on a particular question really doesn’t tell you what you need to know in the middle of the semester (other than that you’re doing “ok”), and these evaluations are designed to give you different kinds of information.
One example of a simple evaluation is to ask just three questions:
1. What has helped your learning in the course so far? (Prompt the student to be specific: think about lectures, reading assignments, written works, instructions given for any or all of those, discussions, etc.)
2. What has gotten in the way of your learning so far? (Encourage the students to focus only on those things that you, the teacher, can actually control, not class time, chairs that are stapled to the floor, or dreary lighting.)
3. What, if anything, would you like to see changed in the second half of the course?
You can also ask self-evaluative questions that are intended both to give you a sense of what the students in your class are doing to prepare for classes as well as helping them think about their own learning:
1. How much time do you spend on the class, on average, per week?
2. Are you getting to all the reading? Do you feel that you are spending sufficient time doing reading (or other homework)?
3. How do you feel about your performance in the class so far? If you are not satisfied, how can you approach it differently in the second half?
Handing out the Evaluation Form
Unlike end of semester SETs, there are no specific requirements for how you distribute the mid-semester evaluation, but some simple rules can help:
1. Reserve in class time for students to fill out the evaluation form. Forms that they take with them to complete outside of class largely won’t be returned. It should take 10-15 minutes of class time.
2. Tell students what the mid-semester evaluation is about: a chance for you, as instructor, to take the pulse of the class and for them, the students, to evaluate their own learning. It’s not a popularity contest (you’re not asking if they like you), and it’s not an end-of-semester “how-did-it-all-go” survey.
3. Hand it out and then leave the class, having arranged for a student to pick up the forms, put them in an envelope, and either give them to you or drop them with a department AA. Even mid-semester evaluations should be anonymous. Since most work in most classes is done on computers, there is very little likelihood that you will recognize any student’s handwriting. If you class is very small (e.g. 5 students), you might just ask them how they think such an evaluation process should go.
What can you change now? What will have to wait until next semester?
Analyzing Mid-Semester Evaluations
Try to avoid the temptation of reading your evaluations 5 minutes after class ends. Let a couple of days pass. I would recommend first reading what appear to be positive comments (what’s going well) before the negative comments because it is too easy to be swayed by the negative and not be able to see what is going well.
Depending on the size of the class, either certain themes will emerge right away or you will need to break the comments into categories in order to track them. For each comment a student has written that is about a specific aspect of the course – e.g., the instructor gives no guidance as to how we should be doing the reading; discussions are extremely well organized, etc. – make a check, and then see which categories have the most checks.
Separate the suggestions for improvement into three categories:
- Those you can change this semester (e.g., the amount of reading; the lead time between when you hand out an assignment and when it is due; etc.)
- Those that have to wait until you next offer the course (the books you have assigned, etc.)
- Those that you won’t change because they are an important part of your pedagogy or approach to the course.
It can help to bring in colleagues to help you think about your options for making changes. These can be departmental colleagues if you feel comfortable with that; colleagues from other departments; or CTIE. You have no obligation to share these evaluations with anyone; but if you have any questions or concerns, it is good practice to bring in another set of eyes to take a look and give you advice.
Reporting Back to the Class
The key part of the mid-semester evaluation is letting your students know what, if anything, will change as a result of your consideration of their evaluations. Thank your students for their comments and for their ongoing participation in helping you develop the course. It is always useful to help students understand that our classes are ALWAYS works in progress, that good classes always grow and change.
Respond quickly. If you haven’t already done so, it is important to respond in a timely fashion to the evaluations, usually within one or two classes after they have completed them.
Give a brief summary of those comments which seem to have appeared most often in their responses; you can also mention a few areas in which there were wide differences of opinion (e.g. one student responded that the professor moved too quickly through the material while another wrote that the class was going too slowly). Again, it is useful to let students know that just because they think something is true, it doesn’t mean that others share their observations.
Talk about which of their comments you have decided to act on this semester (and why), which critiques you agree with but can’t act on this semester (and why); and which of their comments you have decided not to act on (and why). This last point is particularly important in that it lets you return to your pedagogical approach and revisit why you designed the course the way you did and how your course design (present in the syllabus) aligns with your understanding of how students learn.
Be sure as well to let students know what they can do in the second module to increase their learning. If some students reported being confused about the content, invite them to your office hours, make sure they are in study group and that they are taking advantage of the many tutoring or other support services we offer.
Faculty respond to mid-semester evaluations in different ways: some only report to the class as a whole; some provide a handout of salient responses; in very large classes, some faculty design a graph or chart of the responses or post summary responses on Blackboard so students can see what others have written (always removing anything that could identify the student).
Whatever you do, try to do it in a timely fashion, avoid being defensive, indignant, or unduly apologetic, and use the opportunity in the way it was intended: to help you think about how to improve student learning, and to help students understand better how to think about the course in terms of its design and objectives and their responsibilities to their own learning.
[A tip of the hat to Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass), 2009, and teaching centers at Berkeley, New Mexico State, Cornell, and elsewhere.]
Midterm Assessment – Some Models and Suggestions
There are a variety of models you can use (some given below, others you can find at the CTIE website). The ones below are come from Brandeis University, Carleton College, and on Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svincki, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).] .
You will likely want to include some introductory language:
- I would like you to complete the following midterm assessment for use in instructional analysis and improvement for this course. A midterm assessment is more likely to affect how this particular course is being taught than one administered at the end of the semester. Please try to be both thoughtful and candid in your written responses so as to maximize the value of feedback.
- You comments should reflect that type of teaching you think is best for this particular course and your particular learning style. Try to assess each issue independently rather than letting your overall impression of the instructor determine each individual section. If you need additional space please use the back of this sheet.
- The purpose of these feedback questions is to help me understand how the course is going from your perspective, so that I can make adjustments, if necessary.
- It has been fun working with you these past “x” weeks and I would like to ask you for a favor. I’d like to know what you thought about our course. Please fill out the following questions and return the form to me at … Your feedback is very important and I really value your input and ideas. Thanks!
- Help! I need feedback. Since this was a brand new course I would like to know your impressions about it. What worked for you and what didn’t? Do you have any suggestions for the future?
Two Questions (NOTE: 2 question formats can be done most easily by handing out 3×5 cards and then collecting them. This can be done at midterm or at other times, as you think is needed)
- Please identify those aspects of the course you have found most useful or valuable for learning.
- What suggestions would you make to me for improving the course?
- How is the class going for you?
- Write one concrete suggestion for improving the course.
- What is helping you learn in the course?
- What is making learning difficult?
- What do you love about the course so far?
- What do you hate about the course so far?
- How can I help you learn better?
- What aspects of the course have been useful for your learning so far?
- Is there anything about how the course is organized that gets in the way of your learning?
- Are there any aspects of the course (lecture style, content, reading, discussions, etc.) that you think I should consider modifying?
- Is there anything that you need to do to improve your learning in this class?
- So far, what are the three most important ideas, sets of facts, concepts, skills, theories you’ve learned so far in this course?
- What classroom activities (lecture, discussion, etc.) have been effective ways for you to learn?
- What classroom activities have been confusing, or not especially helpful?
- What 3-4 things are going well for your learning in the course so far (please be as specific as you can)?
- What 3-4 things are not going well for your learning?
- What can I, the teacher, do differently, and what can you, the student, do differently to improve the second half of this course?
Please assess my specific classroom behaviors for use in instructional analysis and improvement for this course.
- Clarity of teaching
- Effectiveness of teaching style
- Course organization and structure
- Pacing of course presentations and activities
- Clarity and appropriateness of course assignments and grading criteria
- Quality of interpersonal relations between you and me
- Quality of interpersonal relations between you and the other students
- Please identify those aspects of the course you have found most useful or valuable for learning.
Alternative Modes to Gather Mid-Semester Evaluations
Responding to Midterm Evaluations: (Adapted by Barbara Davis and Steve Tollefson from Tools for Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2001; Office of Educational Development, Division of Undergraduate Education, University of California, Berkeley: http://teaching.berkeley.edu/respond.html)
What to do with the information you gather on a midsemester evaluation
A midsemester evaluation is good in and of itself—it gives you feedback and reminds the students that you are interested in what and how they are learning. However, you will also want to report back to your students on the evaluation itself: it lets students know that you have considered what they have said; it helps students to see that not everyone in the course may feel the same way they do; and it reinforces for students that filling out evaluation forms thoughtfully is appreciated and valued. Here are some tips on responding to students’ feedback.
Respond quickly to students’ feedback. Ideally, you will want to respond to your students’ comments as soon as feasible. So schedule midsemester evaluations at those times during the term when you will have the opportunity to immediately review the class’s comments.
Consider carefully what students say. First, look over the positive things your students have said about the course. This is important because it is too easy to get swayed by negative comments. Then read their suggestions for improvement and group them into three categories:
- Those you can change this semester (for example, the turnaround time on homework assignments)
- Those that must wait until the next time the course is offered (for example, the textbook)
- Those that you either cannot or, for pedagogical reasons, will not change (for example, the number of quizzes or tests)
You may want to ask a colleague or a teaching consultant from CTIE to help you identify options for making changes.
Let students know what, if anything, will change as a result of their feedback. Thank your students for their comments and invite their ongoing participation in helping you improve the course. Students appreciate knowing that an instructor has carefully considered what they have said. Clarify any confusions or misunderstandings about your goals and their expectations. Then give a brief account of which of their suggestions you will act upon this term, which must wait until the course is next offered, and which you will not act upon and why. Let students know what they can do as well. For example, if students report that they are often confused, invite them to ask questions more often. Keep your tone and attitude neutral; avoid being defensive, indignant, or unduly apologetic.
Select a method for responding to student feedback that works for you. Most faculty simply discuss the results with the class as a whole. At least one faculty member provides a handout of salient responses to questions, deleting those that are clearly idiosyncratic (e.g., if there is just one comment that says “this classroom is too hot.”) Another faculty member does a short PowerPoint presentation, complete with graphs and charts of responses. Other faculty post summary responses on blackboard so students can see what others have written. Whichever method you select, the most important factor in responding is to do so thoughtfully, and in a timely fashion.