This first time around teaching the survey I have, simply, been starved for evaluations. Do I lecture too much? Do I lecture too little? Are the readings interesting? Are they too long? Am I covering the right stuff? What should I be talking about? Am I asking the right questions? Really, I want to know, am I doing this right? I can only spend so much time torturing myself with these questions and talking things over with colleagues and mentors. Instead I decided to go directly to the source and pose these kinds of questions to my students in the form of a mid-semester evaluation. My objectives were fairly straightforward; I wanted to get a sense of what the students found helpful and/or interesting so that I could make the course more useful to them. I hoped that by taking class time—taking time out of instruction—to administer the evaluation and by emphasizing how this exercise served to make the course and myself more responsive to student needs they would be more inclined to give honest and constructive feedback. And of course I stressed that the responses would remain anonymous.
Courses that I TA’d for did not make use of mid-semester evaluations, nor do I remember any class I took as an undergrad offering the chance for midterm commentary, so I went into the process blind. But I knew I wanted to get a couple things out of it. First, I wanted responses that were narrative, so I avoided asking the students to rate aspects of the course on a scale. Second, I wanted feedback that was general, not focused entirely on individual readings, but instead addressed the course more holistically. With some outside input from a faculty member who actually first suggested the idea of an evaluation I settled on the following list of questions:
- Comment on the readings from the first half of the course. Which have you particularly liked or disliked? Why?
- What are the strengths of the course? What things should we continue doing?
- What are the weaknesses of the course? What would you change if you could?
- What would you like to see added to the course? What things would you like to start doing or do more of?
- What is your overall evaluation of the course and the instructor? Why?
In all, the responses ranged from the expected (“The only thing I disliked [about the readings] was the length…a few were extremely long.”) to the humorous (“Prof. Earle is a bro,” one student commented, showing that either I am way more of a bro than I thought I was, or that Rice students have no idea what bros are). And while there was clearly a lack of unanimity in the responses, there was enough similarities to suggest that some of the things I had been doing were not working. Namely, the students as a whole wanted more substantial engagement with primary sources. As one student commented, “I enjoy the primary source readings and would appreciate further discussion of them in class—how did individuals react/think about these events differently than modern historians.” While another simply remarked, “I would like more primary source reading its really interesting to me.” I guess these kinds of comments really should come as no surprise, since in my own experience (and I would bet in the experience of most historians) looking at primary sources is what initially sparked my interest in the discipline. As we embark on the remaining weeks of the semester my goal as an instructor will be to put those sources in the foreground while privileging students’ voices over my own. I certainly anticipate me shutting up will be the hardest part! The mid-semester evaluation seems to offer the chance to retool the syllabus on the fly in order to address the wants and needs of the students. Also, hopefully by emphasizing primary document readings over the remaining part of the semester, I can more directly engage students with historical thinking in a way that my initially syllabus evidentially did not.
While I hope to report back with how these comments will actually change my approach to the remaining weeks of the semester, I’m curious to know how many other instructors give students an opportunity for mid-term evaluations, how they go about administering those evaluations, and, ultimately, how that feedback influences their approaches to the second half of the semester.