Good teaching stands in an awkward relationship to student evaluations. On the one hand there’s solid evidence of the biased and pedagogically counter-productive nature of student evaluations (see here and here for recent discussion). On the other hand, good teaching demands that we be aware of the level of student engagement and performance, aware of what is working on the interrelated levels of student learning and motivation. For this reason I have found student evaluations—particularly the more prosaic, qualitative evaluations—extremely helpful. What’s more, I feel a commitment to the current students handing me the evaluation and not just a commitment to their peers who will take the course in a future semester. Consequently, I always administer mid-semester evaluations one third of the way through the semester, and then take time the following week to engage students in class on the feedback I receive. These always make for highly engaged and constructive conversations as I express what it is that I’ve heard from them, solicit clarification or further information, and inform students of any concrete changes I plan to make, or conversely my reasons for not changing.
In my work at CNDLS I often facilitate mid-semester group feedback sessions on behalf of faculty colleagues. This is a three stage process, first working with an individual professor to solicit their thoughts and concerns in order to draft student-evaluation questions; next entering my colleague’s classroom in order to engage students in candid, group discussions evaluating the course; and finally offering a written report that includes a copy of students’ consensus feedback and notes on the discussion overall. In many ways this experience has contributed directly to my own teaching, particularly since student concerns and preferences are often general or generalizable. Each time I walk into someone else’s classrooms, my own classrooms benefit.
Also, I can’t overstate the importance of mentorship in my experience. I picked up a great deal by being a student, but there’s something important that happens when one observes a teacher not as a student but as a mentor–something my graduate experience gave me multiple opportunities to do. Perhaps even more importantly, I’ve had the opportunity in my current position at CNDLS to perform many classroom observations and also to help lead cohorts of faculty throughout a semester or year in order to explore a given theme and discuss best teaching practices. Quality scholarship cannot exist in a vacuum, and I’m convinced that the same can be said of quality teaching. For this reason I welcome peer observation and feedback.