Assessment for Learning: Getting to Grips with Student Evaluation

     
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by Shola Adenekan

Many universities around the world have made an annual tradition of student course-evaluation questionnaires as an assessment for learning. The questionnaires are usually given out at the period of the academic year when universities are getting ready for the summer break.  The ways and means of asking students to provide information on their courses, lectures and seminars, are fraught with many serious complications and worries. Many faculties use these forms to evaluate whether they are giving value for money and to see what they need to improve upon next year. For tutors, this yearly feedback serves as a useful diagnostic tool for finding out what is working in the classroom so that they can improve upon the teaching process.

Dr Elaine Fulton, head of Education and a senior Lecturer at the College of Arts and Law, University of Birmingham, UK, says she cannot imagine a world of teaching without student evaluations.

“There are two sides to this,” she says. “We have to do it as part of the quality assurance process and also for us to know what works and what wouldn’t work.”

Dr Fulton points out that the feedback has helped her in developing a module which she piloted this year.

More than ticking boxes

While many tutors see student evaluation as an excellent idea, others see it differently. Dr Wambui Mwangi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Canada, points out that these evaluation forms are often poorly constructed. Dr Mwangi believes that these exercises ask questions which are not within the students’ competence to answer, and can also strike fear in junior faculty members because student evaluations, to some extent, are taken seriously by the administration.

“They are usually in the format of multiple choice questions asking such things as 'was the workload appropriate?' or 'was the teacher prepared for class?' Mostly, they have the effect of causing the faculty to pander to student opinions, which is not helpful for anyone.”

Tutors say that evaluations are over used for analysing teaching, which may compromise academic standards. In addition, they point out that faculties need to recognise that classes, like students, can be fickle; what one group may like this year, the oncoming class may eventually despise.

“Yes, we all need feedback but feedback that is constructive and useful in terms of teaching practice and learning outcomes,” says Dr Mary Harlow, a senior tutor at the University of Birmingham, UK. “We get quite a lot of comments on the timing of lectures – students seem to prefer anything so long as it starts after 12pm. And there are personal comments which are not meant to be there.”

Both Dr Mwangi and Dr Harlow believe that it would be useful if the evaluations measure what the students have actually learned, instead of how the teachers should teach. They suggest that faculties need to focus less on boxes to tick and more on the “three things you would improve on this module” and “three things you liked best.” Other tutors encourage faculties to make students think of what they have contributed to the course rather than just asking what the tutors have done right.

Trick For Boosting Evaluation

While warning tutors against bribing students with biscuits and doughnuts, many lecturers believe that there are creative ways to get student evaluations written. Dr Fulton suggests giving the form out informally earlier in the academic year, before issuing the important form toward the end of the academic year.

“While student-evaluations are extremely useful, they need to be looked at in addition to other pieces of evidence, such as marking and class attendance,” she says. “Tutors also need to recognise that there’s a difference between liking a module and not liking the way it is being taught.”

Dr Mwangi’s ‘trick’ for boosting student-evaluations is to talk to her students about the process of pedagogy throughout the course so that she and the students are engaged in the same project of teaching and learning from one another over the life of the course. Dr Mwangi uses a twin system to evaluate her classes; after all her exams and papers have been done, she gives out the official evaluation forms, but she also asks the students to write what could be more useful for her and what is beneficial to them.

“This is an intellectual autobiography covering the semester,” she says. “I ask the students, in this essay, and having spent a semester or two reflecting on the intellectual production of other scholars, to take their own thinking and writing seriously enough to devote a similar kind of attention to it.”

This, Dr Mwangi says, is to allow the students to reflect on the trajectory of their own intellectual growth.

“It often causes them to be pleasantly surprised by their own achievements, and to see quite clearly what additional skills and capacities they have acquired” she says. “In sum, these intellectual reflections allow students a space to consider what is after all the point of the whole student-evaluation experience – the changes that have occurred within themselves.”

Dr Harlow says pleading “and saying that we will come back to the class to address the issues raised” are her tricks for boosting student evaluation responses. “That way, students see a direct response to their feedback if appropriate and relevant,” she says. “It also allows for a moment of humour about the sort of things that are and are not appropriate on the form.”

Tips For New Tutors

Dr Fulton advises that it is good practice to leave the room when students are filling out the form.

“Be honest and seek honest responses,” she says. “Take the feedback seriously but don’t make it personal. The big thing is to use your critical faculty in reading them.”

Dr Mwangi points out that it is important that the lecturer respects the students’ intellect and capacities enough to make them collaborators in the teaching project.

“I would advise only that new faculty members explain to the students what is it that they are trying to do and how they are carry out these tasks,” she suggests. “If you can give an explanation for the amount and the kind of assignments that you give out, the students themselves will help in constructing new pedagogical possibilities and new modalities of learning.”

 

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