"Preliminary" Student Evaluations

Nearly all colleges and universities have adopted some system of evaluation of courses and instructor performance by their students. While some might question the merit and validity of these ratings, the practice, reflecting an increasing trend of consumerism, will no doubt continue to grow in its frequency and impact. Professors who fear the comments of disgruntled students sabotaging their budding career need not lower their standards or coddle undeserving students to overcome this obstacle. They must however manage the dynamics of the process proactively. Gambling that students will, by the end of the term, forget, overlook, or not take the time to comment on actions they perceive as ineffective or inappropriate is extremely risky.

How do we reduce the risk? Solicit student feedback informally at before the end of this term, at key points throughout future terms. Such a practice will not only provide some legitimate, useful information upon which you might consider making appropriate changes, but also will serve as a venting opportunity for students, thus reducing their need to "unload" on the end-of-the-term formal evaluation.

Besides at this point in the term, the end of the first class meeting is the first key point at which students are questioning the potential value of a particular course. Therefore, use it as a data-gathering opportunity. Distribute 3 X 5" index cards and write two or three broad, open-ended questions on the board, to which you ask students to anonymously respond. Put a receptacle near the door for collection of the cards. Then take the cards home for review, noting especially any concerns that appear on more than one card. At the next class meeting, address what seem to be significant issues in a constructive, professional manner. Later in the term - perhaps after the first exam or major project is submitted - conduct the procedure with three new open-ended questions, and replicate the procedure at mid-term. A total of three or four terms should provide sufficient opportunities to students to voice their thoughts.

Informal student evaluations reduce the adversarial paradigm so common in many classrooms, and provide you the opportunity to make changes before the formal evaluations conducted at the end of the term, when unacceptable ratings can be so damaging. They also demonstrate that you value student input into the course, increasing their sense of ownership in the course, improving your recruitment of students into your future courses.

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