TITLE: Notes to Your Future Self AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 27, 2008 3:15 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I received my copy of the student evaluations from my spring course, which was really three courses that felt like one to me and a few common students. One of the open-ended questions on the form my university uses asks the student to complete this blank:
I could have improved my learning in this course by _____.
After teaching for a while now, I can predict what students will say in this section. This semester was a perfect example. The second most common answer is a variation of ...
reading the textbook
It doesn't what book I assign; how big it is; whether it is mostly exposition or mostly code; or whether it's written in an academic style or in the vernacular. A few students read the book, and a few of those will typically praise it, but most don't read much if any of it. The most common answer is a variation of (drumroll, please) ...
starting the homework assignments sooner
Sooner, so they had more time to work on them. Sooner, so that they could ask questions when they were stumped. Sooner for all sorts of reason, but always sooner. Neither of these bits of wisdom are new to them. If nothing else, they have heard me exhort them to start sooner and to read more. I suppose I could do more to encourage these behaviors, such as giving quick quizzes every day over the reading, but most strategies feel wrong. Do either students or I really want to turn the class into a treadmill of points for their grade? Do I want to have to grade all that stuff? Aren't they adults? For homework assignments, one thing we instructors can do to encourage beginning sooner is to have short iterations with frequent submission. In my spring course, I had small programming exercises due weekly. I could have tried biweekly submissions, or a problem every other day. But that feels like micromanagement to me. Students have other courses and work schedules to consider, and I like to give them at least a few days to navigate through their various duties. And besides, aren't they adults? I don't think that students want to be micromanaged with quizzes and deadlines, and I do think think they genuinely mean well. Maybe the problem is that they view the comments they make on student evaluations as backward-looking, when instead they should think of them as forward-looking. Perhaps we should phrase the question as
I will improve my learning in future courses by _____.
The student's evaluation of the instructor would then be more like a retrospective that benefits the student as much as the instructor, because it asks both parties to consider how they can improve their results in the "next iteration" -- the next courses they take. These comments about the future, not the past. (Ooh, it just occurred to me: perhaps I could try a brief something after one of the assignments early in the course that plays the role of retrospective. Maybe if students consciously consider the value of starting sooner and reading the text during the course they can change their behavior soon enough to affect their performance. This would create more frequent futures!) What did I learn from these evaluations that will help me in the future? In every course, there is a set of common answers to the item "My learning in this course would have improved if the instructor had _____.", but for this item there are also usually an answer or two that stand out as particularly salient or which teach me something new. From this course, students reminded me of the value in reviewing solutions to homework assignments soon after they submit their solutions. This is always a valuable tactic, and especially in a course where students are learning new languages and styles of programming. The best way to learn is to see different solutions, including ones that demonstrate idiomatic usage. It gives students a way to compare their solutions and to learn from differences. I let the fact that most of students this semester were juniors and seniors with a fair amount of programming experience convince myself that maybe we could get by without this sort of follow-up. But that was probably just a juicy rationalization that allowed me to "squeeze in more material", to the detriment of my student's learning. I have written about that before in my blog. This entry is now an example of how I am sometimes no better than my students at practicing what I recommend in a retrospective! Let's see if I can do better at this in the fall. The rest of my evaluation data was pretty good -- a nice ego boost in a week where I needed one. Consider this an open "thank you" to the students who take time to write both suggestions for improvement and positive comments that let me know that, on the whole, they like my courses. Those positive comments help keep us instructors motivated just as much as positive feedback helps students feel better about hanging in there. -----