Evaluation of Teaching and Learning
Obtaining frequent feedback on your teaching
Getting regular insight on student learning
Soliciting student opinion during the term
Assessing a course at the end of the term
Educational researchers have found that effective teachers share several characteristics (e.g., Angelo and Cross, 1993; Davis, 1993; Murray, 1991; Reynolds, 1992; Shulman, 1990). Two of these characteristics stand out:
Through frequent assessment and feedback, effective teachers regularly assess what they do in the classroom and whether their students are really learning.
They try to anticipate the topics and concepts that will be difficult for their students and to develop teaching strategies that present these topics in ways their students will best understand. These teachers make a special point of becoming familiar with their students' preparation, knowledge, and abilities, and adjust their teaching to maximize the class's learning.
Yet, teachers, especially new teachers, may sometimes be too overwhelmed by all that is involved with teaching to assess student knowledge and learning. Creating a syllabus, preparing assignments, developing lectures, designing laboratories, structuring discussions, and writing test questions all take time, thought, and planning. The following sections describe various assessment schemes for both you and your students.
DETERMINING WHAT STUDENTS KNOW
Learning science is a cumulative process; each new piece of information is added to what students already know (or believe) about the topic at hand. If students have a solid foundation, the new pieces fit together more easily. However, if the students' preparation is spotty or incomplete, they may find it harder to grasp the new material. If the new material conflicts with earlier misconceptions or firmly held assumptions, the students
unfortunately may ignore or distort the new information so that it fits into their old framework of understanding (American Psychological Association, 1992; Pintrich, 1988; see also Chapter 4). This suggests the following:
At the beginning of every course, try to gauge the students' prior knowledge of the subject. What are the prerequisites for your course, and have all student taken the prerequisites? There are several ways to identify what students already know (Davis, 1993; Angelo and Cross, 1993); one of the simplest is introduce a topic and then ask a question which brings out their knowledge such as ''What's going on here? How do we know that?" If student answers are recorded, the same questions can be posed again at the end of the topic or term to evaluate students' progress.
A more comprehensive way to learn about students' prior knowledge is to give a brief diagnostic pretest-ungraded and anonymous. The diagnostic pretest might include a list of key concepts, facts and figures, or major ideas. Ask students to indicate their familiarity with each topic.
During the term, frequent diagnostic mini-quizzes can help identify which students are keeping up and which need help. These quizzes also help students to identify the areas on which they need to work. Reading the quizzes will give the instructor a good indication of where to start the next class.
Are Students Learning What You Are Teaching?
Most undergraduate courses include students with a range of academic abilities, interests, skills, and goals. Differences in preparation, abilities, and learning styles are likely to be more noticeable when new information is abstract and complex. Individual students do not make uniform progress; sometimes a student reaches a plateau after a burst of learning. Try to sample how well your students are learning. Typically, when teachers want to assess students' learning, they tend first to think of giving tests or quizzes; however, there are alternatives to the standard test or quiz. Informal ways can be used to determine whether students are learning the material throughout the term. Some suggestions (see, for example, Davis 1993; Silberman, 1996) to try are to:
Ask questions during class. Give the students time to respond. Try to get a sense of whether students are keeping up by asking questions for which answers require students to apply a given concept or skill to a new context.
Ask students for their questions. Rather than ask, "Do you have any questions?," ask instead "What questions do you have?" This implies that you expect questions and are encouraging students to ask them.
Give frequent, short, in-class assignments or quizzes. Pose a question or problem on an overhead or the board, give students time to respond, perhaps in writing, and have students compare answers with their neighbors. Open-ended questions such as "How does food give us energy?" "What does it mean when we say a battery is dead?" or "Which light bulb will be the brightest, and why?" are but a few examples.
Ask students to write a "minute paper." Just before the end of a class session, ask: "What is the most significant thing you learned today?" and, perhaps in addition, "What question is uppermost in your mind at the end of today's class?" These "minute papers'' should be collected as students leave class. Reading these will help you to evaluate how well your students are grasping the material, and you can respond, if needed, during the next class period.
Ask students to jot down three or four key concepts or real-world connections about a recent topic, then start a class discussion by having students compare their lists.
Ask students to keep a learning journal in which they write, once or twice a week, about things they disagree with or how what they are learning is reflected in other things they read, see, or do. Collect and comment on the learning journals periodically.
ASSESSING YOUR COURSE
It is common practice to wait until the end of the term to ask students how successful the course has been. An alternative approach is to request informal constructive criticism throughout the term, when classroom presentations organization, pacing, and workload can be adjusted. Instructors can gather information about the effectiveness of their teaching strategies, the usefulness of instructional materials, and other features of the course (e.g., the turnaround time on exams and assignments or number of problems assigned as homework) that can be changed during the semester.
Soliciting Students' Opinions About Your Course
It is a good idea for faculty who are teaching a course for the first time or who have significantly revised a course to solicit feedback from students soon after the term begins. Faculty who are teaching a course they have taught many times before may want to wait until midterm before asking for student assessments, although if feedback is solicited immediately after an exam, most of the comments will relate to the exam. If your students are having obvious difficulties with the material or with other requirements, try to find out why, using some of the quick techniques mentioned earlier. Many teachers now use electronic mail. Give students your e-mail address and ask them to mail questions, concerns, or comments about the course (see Chapter 7 for more ideas). Other faculty find it helpful to ask, after the first month, that students bring a sheet, which can be anonymous, with their answer to the question: "How are you getting along in this course? Any suggestions?" This free-form feedback, of the most varied sort, can be extremely valuable in diagnosing what is getting across or whether the pace is right. However, at some institutions, feedback during the term must be anonymous, to minimize any perception that a student's comments influenced his or her grade. In this situation, you might ask a colleague to collect the comments and summarize them for you.
Some faculty members feel awkward soliciting feedback and reporting back to the class. Many find it helpful first to look over the positive things students have said about the course (this step is reassuring and puts the negative comments in perspective). Then they consider the suggestions for improvement and group them into three categories: those that can be changed
this term (e.g., the turnaround time on lab assignments), those that need to wait until the next time the course is offered (e.g., the textbook), and those that cannot, for pedagogical or other reasons, be changed (e.g., content required for subsequent courses). Other ways to respond to advice:
From time to time restate and clarify the course's goals and expectations. If changes are to be made, give a brief account of which changes will be made this term and which will be used in future courses.
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.
Consider making changes to your course or teaching methods based upon the feedback.
Using a Portfolio to Assess Your Course
Faculty members at some colleges and universities are beginning to experiment with teaching portfolios composed of work samples and self-evaluative commentary. A portfolio might include copies of syllabi, assignments, handouts, and teaching notes; copies of students' lab notebooks or assignments; descriptions of steps taken to evaluate and improve one's teaching (such as exchanging course materials with colleagues or using fast-feedback techniques); and information from students (such as student rating forms). Portfolios can also include a statement of your teaching philosophy. Advice on how to put together a portfolio can be found in Edgerton et al. (1991) and Urbach (1992). Less comprehensive than portfolios are self-evaluations that ask faculty to comment on their courses: How satisfied were you with this course? What do you think were the strong points of the course and your teaching? The weak points? What did you find most interesting about this course? Most frustrating? What would you do differently if you taught this course again?
HOW WELL ARE YOU TEACHING?
In addition to evaluating your course using the fast-feedback methods or teaching portfolio described above, other powerful methods for evaluating your teaching include formal end-of-term student evaluations, peer review, and videotaping.
Watching Yourself on Videotape
Evaluating Your Own Teaching
Videotaping is one way to view and listen to the class as your students do; you can also observe your students' reactions and responses to your teaching. You can also check the accuracy of your perceptions of how well you teach and identify those techniques that work and those that need improvement. Many schools have professional development offices which can help with taping or assessing the tapes, but informal recording by the instructor can be useful and effective. However, you may want someone from the professional development office to view the tape with you to avoid focusing on your appearance or mannerisms. An experienced evaluator
Conducting Effective Classroom Observations
Successful peer review programs which include classroom visits share a number of features. These programs work best when faculty members:
can help you focus on those aspects of your teaching that influence its effectiveness (Davis, 1993).
How can you analyze your classroom interactions with students? As you watch the tape, try the technique of stopping every five seconds and putting a check in the following columns: teacher talk, student talk, silence. Or look at your lecture in terms of organization and preparation: Did I give the purpose of the session? Emphasize or restate the most important ideas? Make smooth transitions from one topic to another? Summarize the main points? Include neither too much nor too little material in a class period? Seem at ease with the material? Begin and end class promptly?
Peer Evaluation of Your Teaching
Peer review of one's research results is standard practice in all fields of science, but only recently has this become a mechanism for advancing one's teaching knowledge and skills. The American Association for Higher Education has shown leadership in this area through its "Peer Review of Teaching" project (Hutchings, 1996). Although conceived as an effort to improve the quality of evidence about teaching in faculty tenure and promotion decisions, the project puts greater emphasis on faculty collaboration to improve teaching throughout their careers. Reciprocal classroom visits, mentoring programs for new faculty, team teaching, and departmental seminars about teaching and learning are but a few of the ways that faculty members work with colleagues to improve undergraduate education.
Students' Evaluation of Your Teaching
The most common way to evaluate a course and a faculty member's teaching is to use a student rating form at the end of the term. These forms often are used by faculty committees and administrators to make personnel
decisions about merit increases, promotion, and tenure for faculty. A substantial body of research has concluded that administering questionnaires to students can be both valid and reliable, providing faculty and administrators with a wealth of knowledge about the attitudes, behavior, and values of students (Hinton, 1993). Advice on how to design, administer, and interpret evaluation forms can be found in Cashin (1990), Theall and Franklin (1990), Davis (1993), and Braskamp and Ory (1994).
Despite their widespread use, there is no clear consensus on the connection between students' learning and their rating of the instructor. Some studies suggest that student ratings of the instructor's teaching correlate somewhat with student learning (Marsh and Dunkin, 1992). However, Arons (1990) observes that many vacuous courses in science have been developed which students have rated highly, describing them as fun and exciting. Subsequent testing indicated that these students learned very little. This does not suggest that student perspectives are unimportant. However, before distributing the evaluation forms, many instructors tell students the purpose of the forms. When students know how the forms will be used, and are confident that their comments will be taken seriously, faculty are more likely to receive evaluations that can help them improve their teaching and their course.