Assessment not only provides you with feedback on the degree of success that you are having in conveying the intellectual material, but it also gives you a measure of how effective your teaching methods have been. It is a continuous process. Instructors who are new to teaching may want to perform self-evaluations periodically after lectures or class meetings. By doing so you can look back later and determine whether a bad lecture was an anomaly or requires more extensive adjustment. For larger classes, teaching assistants can provide valuable feedback on how well individual topics were understood and how effective certain teaching methods are, but keep in mind that, unless you request this feedback to be anonymous, even teaching assistants may be hesitant to make you aware of any major problems that might arise with your course.
Early Informal Feedback
Assessment should not begin at the end of the end of the semester, but can be incorporated periodically into the course.
There are many ways to get students to offer feedback on how a course is progressing. Typically it will be ineffective, however, to simply verbally ask students what they think of the course, or if they have any questions. Instead, other, simple but more formal, forms of assessment will help you to improve your course in response to student learning and feedback. Here are some suggested techniques.
It is frequently useful to ask students for anonymous feedback after an exam, but before they have been graded. Typically, responses such as, “the exam was too long” or “there wasn’t enough time,” can be weeded out from genuinely problematic issues. On the other hand, if 200 students respond that the exam was too long, then perhaps it was.
Another effective measure of student understanding can be obtained from Mini-essays or Microthemes. These usually are single questions that the students must answer in class. The questions are short, focus on that day’s topic, and should be no longer than 5 minutes. The question can be asked orally and the students then write their responses on paper, which they hand in at the end of the five minutes. Since in ArtH 11, for example, the teaching assistants for this class did all of the grading, it was sometimes difficult to gauge whether or not a topic was sufficiently clear before the exam. These mini-essays provide a type of survey of the success or failure of a certain topic.
Finally, it is strongly recommended that instructors collect “Early Informal Feedback” from their students halfway through the course, so that they can adapt their teaching approach accordingly and improve the course over the second half of the semester. Such informal feedback should be anonymous and the instructor should pose a variety of questions in order to gain the most information from students (exs. What is your favorite aspect of the course so far?, If you could change one thing about this course, what would it be?, etc.). Do let your students know that you will respond to their feedback, and that you will adapt those aspects that it is possible to change, but that certain features of the class (like the number of exams, or the percentage of the course grade based on attendance) simply cannot be changed half way through a course. It is important that once you have received the student feedback and given it your studied attention, that you let your students know this. In the next class period, say something to your students like, “I’ve reviewed the Informal Feedback that you gave me, and I would like to thank you for your comments. I’m happy to know that many of you are for the most part enjoying this class and finding the PowerPoint lectures to be helpful. In response to your suggests, I will be posting each PowerPoint on-line the week after we have the class. While many of you asked that we drop the final exam, unfortunately that would violate the contracted expectations of our syllabus, but in order to make the process easier, I will offer extra office hours and a review session the week before the test.”
NOTA BENE: While many professors do not believe that students will offer valuable feedback, these opportunities for informal feedback can lead to many straightforward improvements in the course that improve student learning, and thereby, student satisfaction. In ArtH111, for example, several students suggested a change to the structure of the course Blackboard site in order to improve its practicality for student use. The suggested change was made, and the students found it to work better and were grateful for the positive response.
Course evaluations are typically standardized forms generated by one’s college or university. At a macro level, they offer a means by which to measure one’s general success or failure in instructing the class. If you have completed Informal Early Feedback half-way through the course, you can expect to have a certain sense of what your final evaluations will tell you. While it is tempting to discard student critiques in your course evaluations as petty or spiteful, try to use these evaluations as an opportunity for improvement. Take advantage of any opportunities your university offers to ask students particular questions in the feedback, and in addition encourage them to offer comments anywhere possible. You may, in addition, offer your own anonymous feedback forms, much like Informal Early Feedback, if you feel that your university’s questions will not help you properly gauge student learning and satisfaction.
Use the results of course evaluations as an opportunity to improve a course for the future. If your students have particular complaints or feedback that are directed at your style of teaching or your format of the course, then you can respond directly to these questions by reflecting on your own teaching, consulting scholarly publications on pedagogy, and/or turning to an experienced faculty member to help you consider approaches for addressing the problem. There is always room for improvement in teaching, and even the most seasoned instructors will receive negative evaluations. Be sure to make note of any exceptionally astute and positive comments from students on your feedback forms, as these can be included in your teaching portfolio and help you on the job market.
Strategies for improving one’s teaching and the course design
It is important for professors and graduate students alike to realize that good teaching is a technique and that it can be learned, just as, with effort, one can grasp any scholarly concept. Every scholar has the opportunity to profit from the scholarly literature about teaching, as well as to contribute to this literature through research and publication. The “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL)” is a growing body of cross-disciplinary literature, with articles and books available on nearly every aspect of teaching. While the literature directly related to archaeological pedagogy is small, some scholarship exists and there is ample opportunity for individuals to contribute directly to the field.
In addition to scholarly resources, most campuses have human and structural resources in place to help the aspiring instructor. Centers for Teaching Excellence, with varying names on different campuses, offer faculty and graduate students alike the opportunity to consult with experts in the field of pedagogy, who can help them diagnose the precise aspects of the teaching and course structure that they need to address in order to improve a course. Do not shy away from bringing Informal Early Feedback into such an office and asking for help or guidance. Likewise, these programs may offer the opportunity to have an in-class observation, or a video-taped class session, and then coaching feedback from someone in the office. While such experiences may be unpleasant or uncomfortable, they definitely lead to better teaching techniques.
Finally, new instructors can always benefit from the advice of a seasoned faculty member who is committed to teaching. Ask a mentor to sit in on your class and offer you observations and suggestions for improvement. If you are new to an institution or are trying to improve a course after negative feedback, run your syllabus and subsequent assignments by this mentor. Perhaps there are simple changes in expectations, structure, or language, that will make all the difference between in the success or the failure of the course.