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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Losing perspective

Here's my problem with having students do evaluations: I tend to put more weight than I probably should on the negative comments students make. Over 300 students responded to my online evaluation; of those, 120 made comments; of those, about 70 were critical (while the others said they think the class is going well), and of those, probably only 40 were truly critical (with the others more along the lines of "I'd prefer X but I do like Y"). So I've got less than 10% of the class actively being critical (about the same as being actively complimentary), and a not-small proportion of the critical comments overall are the sorts of things you would expect from relatively immature freshmen and sophomores - my favorites are the "you try to trick us with questions where there's more than one right answer" and "you should do X" where X is something I already do (provide study guides, give them questions from last year's exam, etc.) but for whatever reason, they haven't noticed. On top of that, about half of the students who believe I'm going too fast said that they do not consistently listen to the podcast before class or use the lecture slides provided on Blackboard.

I know that it's impossible to please all of the students, all of the time, especially with a class of 500. And I know that in any class, there are going to be some students in the bottom part of the distribution who don't want to take responsibility for being there, and if I try too hard to appease students at the bottom, I risk boring the heck out of the good students. The vast majority of the students seem to feel that the class is going at least OK, so why am I worrying about this unhappy minority?

It's partly that I don't know if this is a representative sample. Among the 200 students who did not respond to the survey at all, are they more likely to be better-than-average or worse-than-average students? My guess is worse-than-average, so my guess is they are more likely to agree with the negative comments than the positive ones. And I know it's partly my personality - I want every student to think this is the best class they've ever taken and to be as fascinated by economics as I am. I don't want them to be there just to get a grade, and to care more about what will be on the test than about learning.

Sigh. Maybe I just need to go back to teaching upper-division Econ majors...


  1. The 20% of the class that didn't respond can't all be below average. Do ya think? I'm sure that somewhere there are data (survey data likely) on this. :) You're teaching in a touch context; 500 kids in an arena like room,....Suzanne is looking around on the floor, trying to find Jennifer's perspective ;).

  2. ahhhh, gotta love teaching! I have often thought about going back and getting my Ph.D. but I haven't followed through with it yet. Is it worth it?

    Jesse W.

  3. I think you deserve some type of award just for being willing to teach a class of 500 students!

    The results you describe sound reasonable for such a large sample, and I agree with your hypothesis about the 200 that didn't respond.

    It seems to me that the key question is "Are the students learning?" If the negative comments suggest that somehow the course is failing to help students attain the learning goals, then maybe changes are in order. But if these comments are simply whining about what they don't like, then there's no real basis for making changes.

    I get complaints about going too fast in my classes, and I do think that despite clear guidelines about how much out-of-class work is required, most students underestimate the amount of time they need to spend studying to do well in the class.

  4. @suzanne: have you found it yet? :-) What I meant about the non-respondents being below average was that I think A and B students are more likely to have responded than C and D students so on average, the non-respondents are likely to be worse students than the respondents. Either that or they are simply students who have become disengaged with the class which, from the perspective of getting course feedback, probably means they'd agree more with the critical comments.
    @jesse:whether getting your PhD is 'worth it' depends entirely on what you want to do with it - I don't think anyone should get a PhD just to get one. But I got mine so I could teach at the college level and even though this semester has been kicking my butt, I love my job. Of course, I also enjoyed grad school (after the 1st year) so there's clearly a sample selection issue here :-).
    @dispersemos: thanks, you're 100% right. When I'm feeling all defensive, it's easy to forget that the main objective really should be student learning!


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