Course Evaluations as Thoughtful Feedback

It’s that time of the semester again.

Course evaluations.  True confession time:  I don’t actually read mine.  I am far too thin skinned for that.  I send them to a trusted friend who reads them, tells me the things I need to know to improve my teaching and the course, and we leave the rest unsaid.  I read them eventually.  But right at semester’s end, at peak exhaustion, still raw from the experiences the semester brought, is not the ideal time for me to absorb the feedback.

All it takes is one.  One student to say I “have strong opinions” or “sometimes get off topic” and I’m not thinking any more about what I can learn from that feedback but about how I failed a student or that their perception was that I wasted valuable course time.

See?  It’s best if I don’t read them right away.

I also talk to students about how to write course evaluations.  They are clearly and without any doubt a flawed mechanism for evaluating teaching.  Students are not pedagogical experts, the measures on most evaluations are not meaningful assessments of teaching and learning, and many instructors find ways to dismiss both positive and negative student reports.  However, that doesn’t mean we can not and should not attempt to get the most out of them.  The experiences of learners in our environments are important.  I would argue the experiences of learners may be the most important.  Meaningful learning cannot occur without meaningful relationships.  So the feedback matters.

Students tend to approach course evaluations in one of two ways.

  1. Dismiss them.  Who has time for that?  No one reads them anyway and nothing changes.
  2. Rip them.  Students have waited all semester for the chance to unleash their rage, contempt, dislike of their instructor.  Now is that time.

In response to the first approach, while course evaluations are not great, they do matter.  Depending on the university and the department and the instructor, they may matter in big ways or small ways.  However, if you do not complete them, they do not matter in any way.  Complete them.  Thoughtfully.

As for the second approach, this is the quickest, easiest way to ensure that your evaluation will not matter.  It will be immediately dismissed by the instructor and those evaluating the instructor because they will attribute your anger and frustration to you, and not to your instructor.  Your words and your experience cannot be heard if it’s presented emotionally rather than thoughtfully.

I teach people to be effective, inclusive educators.  Therefore, I must BE an effective, inclusive educator.  Part of effectively teaching is providing meaningful, thoughtful feedback to learners.  I aim to provide ongoing feedback to those learning with me and I ask them to do the same for me.  So when course evaluation time rolls around, we talk about how to provide constructive feedback to instructors.  I guide my students to consider two big ideas first.

  • In what ways did you invest in your own learning this semester and in what ways did you hinder your own learning this semester?
  • In what ways did I invest in your learning this semester and in what ways did I hinder your learning this semester?

Focus on the teaching and learning.  Take responsibility for your learning.  It’s okay for you to dislike my personality, my clothes, my tendency to talk about Netflix at the start of class.  Do those things hinder your learning?  If no, keep it to yourself.  Tell me how I can improve.  Tell me what I should keep doing and why it helped you learn.  Tell me how you would have benefited more from specific learning experiences so I can be better the next time.  Provide me with feedback as you would a learner in your class – tailored for my reflection and improvement.

Those are course evaluations I would read.

How do you approach course evaluations, both as a learner and as a teacher?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Reimagining Quality of Life for Adults with Significant Needs: Finding Holland

Since the tender age of ten, I have been contemplating what will happen to my brother, CJ, when my parents pass away. When I was four, CJ was diagnosed with Autism. And, similarly to how Emily Perl Kingsley felt in her poem, Welcome to Holland, my family dynamic was altered for the better. While some moments were frustrating (aka when he would jump out of the moving car, mimic crying babies, or climb the tallest of trees), when I took a step back I realized that there were times when I, too, did things that were frustrating (aka my middle school years – sorry mom). And from this new perspective, I began to recognize CJ’s many strengths, as he composed beautiful art and memorized the producers of every Disney movie. While living with CJ has fueled my passion for creating my non-profit housing program, “Finding Holland,” I am continuously driven to advocate for equitable housing for all individuals across the spectrum of Autism as well as moderate to severe disabilities.

The Problem

What resources are available when it comes providing long term supports for adults with special needs? While there are transitional and day programs out there, there is little attention focused on future housing arrangements and equitable employment opportunities that are suitable for individuals with moderate to severe Autism. These individuals have numerous strengths and abilities, and they deserve a dignified quality of life. Unfortunately, housing facilities that uplift their abilities while meeting their individualized needs are not readily available throughout the U.S.

My Vision

My house, “Finding Holland,” will work to build a strong community among its members with a state-of-the-art,  integrative wellness center and residential facility for people of ALL abilities. There will be a vision, positive atmosphere, and leadership team focused on supporting people with Autism and creating an “enviable life” with them. A staff of life coaches, occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, special educators, and therapeutic recreational specialists will provide accommodations to each individual in order for them to participate as independently as possible. Finding Holland will allow individuals to set personal goals, establish daily routines, and discover a “work-life” balance that supports individuals in living their fullest life.

In the realm of education, we have made progress in providing students with equitable access to deeper learning. About half a century ago, most individuals with moderate to severe special needs were institutionalized throughout their adult lives once they “aged out” of the school system. Families, guardians, and professionals call this “falling off the cliff.” However, in my opinion, we have not made sufficient progress in providing equitable housing and work resources following school. In my classroom and in the home I create, I am working to teach individuals how to take care of themselves, express themselves, and develop their communication, in order to have a voice in determining their own quality of life.

The spectrum of Autism is wide and not fully understood, and therefore, there aren’t a lot of resources available for this specific population post high-school. Yes, there are day recreational programs and work programs, but absolutely nothing considered to be a standard, “traditional job.”  Additionally, in terms of residential living, the majority of these programs are private, which requires significant financial resources. Following the transition from high school, the amount of supports available are limited and accommodations within work and residential life often don’t meet the specific needs of the individual. I’ve only seen programs that provide factory work, work programs, and government funded programs with an emphasis on working. We need to mix that up and provide social recreation, interaction, and a work-life balance.

Yes, maybe, right now this is all just a vision, but we need to advocate, collaborate, and use our voices to create equitable housing access for people of all abilities! Together, we will find Holland.

Katie Miles works as a Paraprofessional at Barbara C. Jordan Elementary in The School District of University City. She graduated from Saint Louis University in December 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary and Special Education.