Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

First, I should note that we had a high mean for exam 3, and I suspect that has a disproportionate effect on student evaluations of teaching, since that is what is freshest in their minds when they are filling out the evaluations. But I think one reason we had a high exam mean is because of one of my planned changes: after a consultation with the wonderful Meg Bakewell from CRLT, I got rid of almost all the “all of the above”, “A&B”, and “none of the above” type answer choices. Readings CRLT suggests that cover this include this and this and this.

Also related to exams: I tried to make sure my exams weren’t “tricky” — that is, that they wouldn’t feel like they’d missed the right answer because of a silly thing. I’m fine with the course being challenging, but I don’t want it to be tricky. I felt like the feedback I had gotten in earlier semesters indicated some students thought I was tricky. I mentioned this to a friend who is a teaching mentor for me and she said she doesn’t get that sort of feedback, which made me think it was something about what I do, not about the material being hard. So, this was a key thing I discussed with Meg when we did our consultations. Based on that, I decided that I should think of how I’d feel having to explain the right answer to them in person — would I feel okay doing that or like it had been a minor point that tripped them up? Even with that, I think some of them still thought some questions were tricky, but I don’t think they were and feel comfortable with the questions we asked.

A big thing: we replaced their lowest exam grade with the average of their other three exams (this was a very common response on the evaluations when asked about things they liked; I think they liked this even more than I expected). We made this change to try to reduce stress and anxiety and to acknowledge that life happens and to try to reduce the impact of life events on their grades. The downside was that some students completely checked out for the material covered on the last exam. That includes climate change, so I wasn’t really happy about that unintended effect. So, this semester we will downweight their lowest exam grade, but not all the way to zero.

Following on that: I tried to make sure to always start from a perspective of trusting the students — e.g., if a student said they were experiencing anxiety, I worked to give them the accommodations for a student with anxiety, even if they didn’t have an SSD form yet. This many students in a course poses some challenges, one of which is that it can feel – be! – very impersonal. A little compassion goes a long way.

And, following on that, it sounds silly, but I thought of it as though the students and I were on the same team, and I tried to convey that to them and that I wanted to work with them. That includes the way I responded to their questions. (Full post on that topic here.)

That was where my message to my frolleague ended, but it leads to something else I want to do this semester: I want to convey to my students that my goal is not to weed them out, but to encourage them to put down roots. (That framing originated with Luisa Whittaker-Brooks at the University of Utah. I heard it from Tim McKay at Michigan, who heard it from Luisa Whittaker-Brooks.) I think that will be one of my mindset goals for this semester.

All of the above comes with the caveat that the changes I made, and the student responses, are all a big uncontrolled experiment. Was one of them more important than the others? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  Was it something else entirely that changed the feel of that semester? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  There are definitely cohort effects, even in a class this big. But, regardless, I think all those changes were good to make, and I’m glad I got the nudge I needed to reflect on them again as we move into the semester!

7 thoughts on “Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

  1. Thanks for this, Meghan, some important things here. Small changes in the way we evaluate can have a big effect. And I am totally on board with the compassion; there is so much anxiety out there. We need to go the whole way to diminish this from our side.

  2. We’ve done something similar with exams, except we make the final optional and allow it to substitute for the lowest of the 4 midterm exams. Might help with the fade on the last exam.

  3. I like the idea of lowering the percentage of the lowest test score. That way it’s not completely dropped (and no perceived “punishment” for students earning high scores on every exam), but as you said, it accounts for the fact that life happens.

  4. I quite like frolleague and it reminds me of my invented word squirk – which stands for school + work. I’m a postdoc and it doesn’t totally feel like I go to work, but I’m not really in school either, so squirk.

    • My kids get annoyed if I say I’m going to school! But it still feels kind of like going to school for me. I’ll see what they think of squirk! 🙂

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