Student Evaluations of the Informal Kind
Over the past couple of decades, the vast majority of colleges and universities have adopted some system of evaluation of courses and instructor performance by their students. While many professors question the merit and validity of this practice, the truth is this procedure will, reflecting an increasing trend of consumerism, continue to grow in its frequency and impact. Professors who fear the comments of disgruntled students sabotaging their budding career need not lower 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 key points during the term. 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.
The end of the first class meeting is a 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.
Informal student evaluations reduce the adversarial paradigm so common in many classrooms. They also demonstrate that you value student input into the course, increasing their sense of ownership in the course. Lastly they provide you the best source of feedback upon which to base mid-course corrections, but to reduce the anxiety so often associated with the formal evaluation process.