söndag 11 december 2011

Gripe session vs course evaluation

I'm not very fond of course evaluations. Or rather, I like to get feedback from the students, but I dislike the fact that I have to summarize these evaluations and write a report (a "course analysis"). That report should (for example) state what the students though about different aspects of the course and what changes have been made in the course since the last time it was given etc. yada yada. During those few occasions when I actually have summarized students' course evaluations, I have not received any feedback and I thus don't see the point of it all. To summarize; I don't think anyone reads what I write. And if they do, I don't get any feedback. And if I do, I don't get any help to discuss and think about new ways of changing or improving the course in question - because that would of course cost money (someone else's time) instead of "just" incurring costs in terms of my time (and work satisfaction). It really is every man for himself; as a university teacher you are free to improve (change) your courses as much (or as little) as you want, but the demands are low and the institutional support for improving the quality of the courses is even lower.

Not writing course analyses is a small act of disobedience on my part. I would actually love to write them if I got something out of it (like constructive feedback from a "qualified" or least interested discussion partner), but since I don't, I often won't. From this year though, I've decided to actually write something that could maybe be regarded as a course analysis of kinds here, on this blog. These coming blog posts will probably not be very interesting for the casual reader of this blog. They will be interesting for the students who have or will take the course, for me (to return to next year) and perhaps for someone in my organization.

For the same reasons that I dislike to summarize students' feedback, students hate to fill out course evaluations. If I ask them to do it on the web, many don't no matter how many times I remind them. And why should they? I can understand that it is hard to motivate yourself when you don't get any feedback, don't see the results and don't know if your opinions have an impact, make a difference or if they evan are acknowledged in the first place, i.e. the same reasons why I myself dislike to produce course analyses.

For those reasons, I decided to exchange the course evaluation for a "gripe session" in my social media course (most recent blog post here) that ended this past week. My experiences of gripe sessions come from science fiction conventions; an informal meeting at the end of the event where organizers get the opportunity to hear both praise and complaints from attendants. Some of those in the audience might attend the gripe session because they are next in line to organize the next convention and thus have an interest in not repeating mistakes that might have been made.

Transferring this feedback format to a university setting, I disseminate a single page with just three questions and asked the students to take a few minutes to think about them and fill them out ("what were the three best things in the course?", "what were the three worst things?", and "what could be improved?"). Posing these questions is also a way to get students to start thinking about the course. I wrote down a number of different categories on the blackboard that students might have opinions about (lectures, seminars, administration, examination etc.). Then students then had the opportunity to raise opinions (both praise and complaints) about different aspects of the course. We unfortunately had only 30 minutes for the whole gripe session and while it was enough time to take down their opinions and also provide short answers, it wasn't really enough time for in-depth discussions about any of the issues. Note-to-self: make sure to have at least 45 minutes for the gripe session next time around

The format has many advantages compared to traditional course evaluations and I specifically see two large advantages:
1) Students know for sure that their opinions are heard and they can even get (short) answers and perhaps also explanations about why things were the way they were right then-and-there from me.
2) Both me and the students get to hear what other students thought, and we will together get a better understanding of what both individual students and what the class as a whole thought about (different aspects of) the course

For any course, some students will like it better and others will like it less. Having a discussion is a great way to "neutralize" (?) outliers. When a student expresses an opinion that is contradicted by another student, I am to some extent relieved of having to defend or explain specific decisions - since the students themselves are of different opinions about that/those issues. The whole event will also give students an idea of if their opinion is shared by others or not.

Since this more specifically concerned a course about social media, I also managed to justify the gripe session format in terms of social media terminology. Ordinary course evaluations are "one-way", based on a "hub-and-spoke" architecture where the center (the teacher) controls all communication. Such exercises turn students into passive "course evaluators" (c.f. consumers, viewers, readers, listeners). A gripe session instead has the potential to turn students into active "discussants" (c.f. producers, participants, storytellers, players). A gripe session makes a one-way conversation social by opening up the a course evaluation so that everyone can participate in the process of evaluating the course.

During a course, I like to be able to post administrative messages to a blog and have students leave comments on the blog if they have any questions. Every course participant can see both the question and the answer and sometimes students can even answer the questions of other students faster than I do. It sure beats having questions mailed to me privately and it offloads my incoming email. Course evaluations (paper or web form) are like e-mail - private communication between each student and the teacher. A gripe session is like commenting on the blog - a discussion out in the open that everyone can listen in to.

I haven't had time to look at the actual course evaluations yet (that's the topic for another blog post), but I very much thought the gripe session was productive and successful and will for sure use that format again in other courses. A "problem" might be that the gripe session format will yield less hard information ("on paper") than a traditional course evaluation. I wonder if that will get an "ok" by "higher-ups" who perhaps expect me to analyze and sum up lots of written information (that I haven't collected) into a report? A gripe session in combination with writing up a text and publishing it on the blog will on the other hand be a lot better than what I handed in last year (i.e. nothing).

4 kommentarer:

  1. Regarding writing evaluations, there are some fundamental and positive things;

    Encouraging documentation of how the course was conducted to pass the knowledge to the next course coordinator, and to make the course less dependence of a specific teacher/lecturer.

    The opportunity to give the students feedback on their opinions and thoughts regarding the course.. This can of course be don in several ways, some might be more or less transparent. One-way to do this (This system is used in Norway), is for an example to have a "mid-course"-evaluation and then a final course evaluation, to offer the students an opportunity to influence their ongoing course.

    Gripe-sessions VS. traditionally evaluation forms: I prefer (as you know) Gripe-sessions, or as would like to refer/compare them with SWOT-analysis of the course.

    Something I found really sad to hear about is the non-existent of received feedback to you as author of (what should have been last years) course evaluation. I sincerely mean that there should be (some possibilities to discuss course design in relation to the outcome of the course evaluations) built in to the UniversitySystem.

  2. Yes, there are pros, but there are also cons (i.e. takes time, energy). It is easy for someone else to always demand more documentation etc. but might not always be worth it for the person doing the documentation. I wrote about that half a year ago in a blog post called "The paradox of planning":

    "How much time should be spent planning an event in relation to the time spent actually doing it? [...] How much time should be spent evaluating a course in relation to the time spent actually teaching it?"


    Of course it is good that students get feedback on their opinions, but it might also be the case that many don't care or aren't that interested, so, there are always two sides of the coin...

    Dependence on a teacher, sure, but instead of spending X hours on documenting a course, perhaps that time should be spent actually *talking* to the next person who will teach the course (instead of one-way communication through documents, which is a pretty... dry way of "communicating").

  3. At my home University (or actually School in the University) in Zagreb we have since few years back the mid-term evaluation. And I've experienced at least one (that I can remember) example of the feedback actually being implemented for the continuation of the course. What is good there is that the teachers are obligated to have dedicate a bit of time after the evaluation deadline to present and discuss the results in the lecture. I think this shows the students that the feedback is actually taken into account.

    However, I think there is another problem here. It seems you really care about feedback, improving and communicating with the students, as do I. However, there are many teachers (my experience from other universities, since I'm new at KTH) that believe that they know how the things should be done and that students will always just complain because they are lazy. And this kind of approach from teachers demotivates students to participate.

    The three questions you've mentioned I also use in my non academical teaching (or as I call it training) and for me it really works well. I've gotten excellent feedback that always helped me to improve for the next session. However I never had a discussion (after the students fill in the paper). This might be something I will be willing to try next time.

  4. The discussion was good (for all the reasons specified above), I recommend it. It also shows the students that you care (i.e. that you're not "one of those teachers" who already know everything.