Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

An analysis of my course evaluations (Spring 2019)

Posted 18 Jun 2019 / 0

The Dazzler 1 1500pxIt has been awhile since I took the time to chronicle my analysis of my course evaluations. I always take a very deep look at my evaluations, and have been updating my overall history of course evaluations on a regular basis. But actually sitting down to write about my analysis — and sharing what I have found — has not been something that I have made time for in recent years. In general it is hard to find time to make new blog posts, as writing usually takes me a lot of time. But perhaps there is a little bit of extra dis-incentive to write about my course evaluations, as confronting the reality that they can portray is often not that easy. Still, being an excellent teacher is a huge priority for me, so I know that it is important that I confront my course evaluations. Writing publicly about what they say about the current state of my teaching is a way of holding myself accountable. Below I summarize and analyze my course evaluations for the Spring 2019 semester in my Ecology, Environment, & the Anthropocene and Evolution courses.

Evolution Header

This semester I taught one section of my Evolution course. Of my fifteen students in this course section, fourteen completed the evaluation, marking a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree) for a series of criteria. My overall rating for this section of this course was 3.48; at about 87% of the maximum score, this is just a bit below my career average. Here are the results for each of the numerically-scored portions of the evaluation form:

Q#: Evaluation Question: Rating S01:
1 The content of this course was consistent with the Syllabus. 3.93
2 The difficulty of the course was appropriate. 3.00
3 Your response indicated disagreement. Please indicate if the course was too difficult: 100% (1)
4 The course was comparable in quality to other courses at Pratt. 3.29
5 Your response indicated disagreement. Please indicate if the course was worse: 100% (1)
6 The quantity of assigned work was appropriate to goals of the course. 2.86
7 The instructor knows the subject matter thoroughly. 4.00
8 The instructor was well prepared for class. 4.00
9 The instructor presented the subject matter clearly. 3.79
10 The instructor utilized the class time well. 3.79
11 The instructor stimulated my interest. 3.21
12 The instructor promoted a constructive classroom climate. 3.57
13 The instructor was accessible outside of class. 3.92
14 The instructor made the goals of the course clear. 3.93
15 The instructor clearly informed students how they would be evaluated. 3.71
16 Critique of my work was helpful and provided clear direction. 3.36
17 The instructor provided feedback in timely fashion. 3.79
18 The instructor’s evaluation/grading of my work was fair. 3.21
19 I have a good attendance record. 3.43
20 My participation and effort were excellent. 3.36
21 I come to class with completed assignments. 3.64
24 The amount of time I spent each week working on course assignments and activities outside of class was: 6.05 h
25 The instructor achieved the stated goals of the syllabus. 3.79
26 The course improved my understanding of the subject matter. 3.64
27 The course helped me improve my problem solving skills. 3.29
28 I learned to communicate more effectively by taking this course. 3.15
29 This course improved my ability to work well with others. 3.23
30 The course increased my understanding of environmental sustainability. 3.08
31 The course improved my ability to do research to complete course requirements. 3.43
32 I would recommend this course to another student. 2.85
33 I would recommend this instructor to another student. 3.14

To make it easier to analyze these results, I have highlighted ratings that are greater than or equal to 3.75 in blue and ratings that are less than or equal to 3.25 in red. The sections in grey are those where students have evaluated their own performance in the course.

Starting out with the positive, you can see that the ratings in blue tend to relate to the general manner in which the course was run. Most of these are what I call ‘structural elements’: planning, preparation, and execution of the course. These are not surprising ratings, as I know that I am generally a pretty organized professor.

Looking at the more negative ratings, in red, a few major messages emerge. Students think the course is too difficult, asks too much work of them, and is graded unfairly. There’s some question as to how much I managed to stimulate student’s interest. Students feel that some skills (communication, cooperation) and awarenesses (sustainability) are not being taught all that well in the course. And, perhaps most hard to hear: students are not particularly inclined to recommend either the course or me as an instructor to another student.

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There were two sections of my Ecology, Environment, & the Anthropocene course this semester. Section 01 was comprised of twelve students, nine of whom completed the evaluation form; the overall average rating in this section was 3.30. Section 02 was comprised of fifteen students, fourteen of whom completed the evaluation form; the overall average rating in this section was 3.15. Both of these scores — at 82.5% and 78.8% of the maximum rating — are well below my career average. Here are the results for each of the numerically-scored portions of the evaluation form:

Q#: Evaluation Question: Rating S01: Rating S03:
1 The content of this course was consistent with the Syllabus. 4.00 3.50
2 The difficulty of the course was appropriate. 3.00 2.43
3 Your response indicated disagreement. Please indicate if the course was too difficult: 100% (3) 100% (7)
4 The course was comparable in quality to other courses at Pratt. 3.22 3.00
5 Your response indicated disagreement. Please indicate if the course was worse: 100% (2) 80% (4)
6 The quantity of assigned work was appropriate to goals of the course. 2.89 2.71
7 The instructor knows the subject matter thoroughly. 4.00 3.79
8 The instructor was well prepared for class. 4.00 3.79
9 The instructor presented the subject matter clearly. 3.67 3.57
10 The instructor utilized the class time well. 3.56 3.50
11 The instructor stimulated my interest. 2.67 2.64
12 The instructor promoted a constructive classroom climate. 3.56 3.14
13 The instructor was accessible outside of class. 3.88 3.50
14 The instructor made the goals of the course clear. 3.67 3.50
15 The instructor clearly informed students how they would be evaluated. 3.56 3.64
16 Critique of my work was helpful and provided clear direction. 3.11 3.21
17 The instructor provided feedback in timely fashion. 3.67 3.36
18 The instructor’s evaluation/grading of my work was fair. 3.11 3.14
19 I have a good attendance record. 3.33 3.79
20 My participation and effort were excellent. 3.22 3.57
21 I come to class with completed assignments. 3.56 3.79
24 The amount of time I spent each week working on course assignments and activities outside of class was: 6.40 h 6.80 h
25 The instructor achieved the stated goals of the syllabus. 4.00 3.43
26 The course improved my understanding of the subject matter. 3.33 3.21
27 The course helped me improve my problem solving skills. 2.71 2.86
28 I learned to communicate more effectively by taking this course. 2.14 2.79
29 This course improved my ability to work well with others. 2.43 2.86
30 The course increased my understanding of environmental sustainability. 3.56 3.29
31 The course improved my ability to do research to complete course requirements. 3.44 3.00
32 I would recommend this course to another student. 2.56 2.50
33 I would recommend this instructor to another student. 2.78 2.43

As above, higher scores are in blue, lower scores are in red, and student self-assessments are in grey.

There are still some positives here, but for these two sections of this course, they are a lot fewer and further between. My preparation and knowledge were consistently appreciated, but that’s about all the two sections agreed on. Looking at the remaining positive ratings from Section 01, it becomes clear that there is pretty substantial disagreement between the two sections.

There are a lot of low ratings for both of these sections. Again, we see that students think that the course is too difficult and too demanding. Disturbingly, a large number of students (six of twenty-three respondents) thought that the course was worse compared to other courses they have taken. Students did not feel that I gave valuable feedback, and they did not feel fairly graded. As with my other course this semester, the students in this course did not feel that the course fostered general education skills such as problem-solving, communication, and collaboration. And, painfully, students are relatively unlikely to recommend either the course or me as an instructor. Ouch.

Are my courses too rigorous?

Trying to figure out what this all means, I tend to gravitate to the negative. It feels good to get good ratings for some criteria, but these are criteria that I know I have a handle on. The lower ratings cause me a lot more distress.

One thing that seems clear to me is that students feel that my course is too rigorous. This can be seen in the ratings for the “difficulty”, “quantity of assigned work”, and “fair grading” criteria. This impression is reinforced in the comments that students make on the evaluations. Here is a sampling of these sorts of comments:

  • Chris is a very harsh grader, a lot of strict guidelines to follow that feel a little rigid and if you don’t say exactly what he wants you to say you will get points off.

  • This course was a lot of work, I’ve spent more time in my Evolution class than I did with two of my studio classes and will probably still receive a lower grade in this class despite that.

  • This class was too difficult. The amount of work asked was way too much. And the expectations on art students in a science class was way too high, followed then by harsh grades. The instructor was very severe in terms of grade and also attendance in class, even though we are heal or have a reason to not be present, he will be the one in charge to chose if it’s either way a good reason or not and if not he will give us a F for our absence. I felt like I was in middle school for such rules. The amount of work was really too much, I was sometimes working more for this required science class than my major. When a student don’t have a science background, that makes the student already struggling, but we still want to do good so we work twice more than it should be.

  • The work load is ridiculous and unacceptable for a three credit elective. There is too much weekly homework along with big submissions and minor assignment… The grading is harsh and also not appropriate. Students do not have time for such work given their major requirements and since every single activity is graded, even a slight drop in performance for small class activities and weekly homework affects the grade.

  • But it felt like this course does not understand the workload art students have. It’s way too much for an elective and its very hard to deal with the requirements while trying to do the actual projects of our majors. Not only the workload is high, the assessment of them are also harsh. It’s really hard to get a good grade unless you work like this class is not an elective but as if it is your actual major which is very inconvenient for the students of an art school who are taking a science class because its mandatory mostly.

  • The workload is sometimes a bit overwhelm for students that are in some more intense majors, especially the grading is a little strict.

  • Less assignments per week, and not have exactly everything graded.

  • This course is too intense. It has a lot of assignments that need to be completed on deadlines that are too rigid. It is an elective class and sometimes it has more work left than major classes, which at many points in the semester become very overwhelming.

  • Some of the assignments are graded very harshly even though I try my best I still get a bad grade when I don’t fully understand something.

  • Too much reading assignments! I have a lot of work from my major but I still have to complete the reading assignments on time. It was painful. I know this is a required writing intensive course, but I really need more time for completing my major’s project! I cannot produce quality work for my major’s project if too much time is taken by ecology. And also, I wish reading questions are short and quick response questions (like multiple choice questions), but they are actually short-essay questions that requires me to describe every single point from the reading. Annoyed.

  • Chris is a very harsh grader, a lot of strict guidelines to follow that feel a little rigid and if you don’t say exactly what he wants you to say you will get points off.

  • Too much work, it’s too demanding for art students.

  • Too much work. Very high standards.

  • … a lot of homework, on top of our majors.

  • … there is too much work for a [sic] art student.

  • Lessen the reading questions. The subject matter is very rigid. let the students breathe a little and please please please give importance to the majors that students belong to.

  • Ecology is not our major. Let students make use of this subject as a forum that not adds up to their stress level due to their other work.

  • We have other classes and assignments to do! The teacher needs to understand that his course is not our only class.
  • Chris is a very knowledgeable professor but at times I feel as though he gives too many assignments and expects a level of dedication that is hard to achieve.

Reading these comments, it is very clear what my students want: an easier class, both in terms of the amount of work that I assign and the quality of work that I expect in order to earn a high grade. There’s also palpable stress among the students about allocating too much time to this course, which they feel is preventing them from devoting as much time as they think they should be devoting to courses in their major.

It is a bit difficult to know what to do with this feedback. It is not the only negative feedback, but it is the only consistent and abundant negative feedback. Students don’t like how much they are being asked to read. They don’t like how much they are being asked to write. And they don’t like my expectations of their performance on these tasks. But does that mean that my course is too rigorous? It is not an uncommon wish of students — or humans in general for that matter — that their life was easier… so how do I know if I am asking too much of my students?

One way would be to look at the number of hours that my course occupies in their school work week. According to their reporting — which is admittedly pretty approximate because I have to extrapolate based on the broad categories of 0-5 hours and 5-10 hours — students are spending an average of 6.4 hours per week on activities outside of my course. If that number is correct, that means that they are spending under ten hours a week doing work for my course. That sounds about right given federal guidelines, which state that a credit hour “reasonably approximates not less than one hour of class and two hours of out-of-class student work per week“. At three credits each, my courses should require three hours in class and about six hours out of class. What my students report they are working is just above that minimum.

If my students report that they are working just above the minimum, why are they complaining? What’s clear from their comments is that it is the work I ask from them relative to the amount of time they need to devote to their majors that is too challenging. And I get that. At minimum, Pratt students are taking 15 credits. Many are taking 18 credits, and sometimes more. With the manner in which studio contact hours are credited, that would mean spending at least 50-60 hours weekly if every class required this federal minimum. That’s a manageable amount of work for a full-time residential student who doesn’t have to work or have any other responsibilities, but it is also pretty intense. And here’s the likely problem: many of the majors courses — especially studio courses — likely require a lot more time than the federal minimum (although note that some students suggest that they spend more time on my class). As you look at the comments above, you can feel the tension: in the environment of an art and design school, a class like mine feels like a lot.

The other factor driving my course to make students feel overloaded is the way that we have designed the new General Education (GenEd) program at Pratt. My courses are CORE science courses, which require that I provide a fair amount of scientific content. On top of that, my courses are writing intensive, which adds to what I have to cram into the course. Because Pratt students are required to take only one math and science course, we are really challenging our first-year and sophomore students. To some extent, for students to perceive my courses as in line with their workload expectations, the structure of our GenEd would have to change.

I also have to admit that there is a part of me that is proud that I am considered a tough grader with high expectations. I don’t want my students to struggle or to be overly stressed, but I also know that many students make great strides when pushed to do better work. Would I be doing my students a disservice, depriving them of educational opportunities, if I let up on my expectations?

Contradictory messages are par for the course

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on numbers because they are easy to digest; I led with the numerical ratings because they quickly capture the overall impressions of the students in my courses. But as some of my selections above reveal, the real explanation comes in the comments that students take the time to write out. Unfortunately, sometimes these comments leave my head spinning.

Here’s one example. For almost every class there are activities that involve collaboration and interaction between small groups of students. Should I continue this practice? Well, as this selection of student comments reveals, it depends on which student you ask:

  • I would suggest that the professor not only stick to group activities, but maybe even incorporate games where based on a chapter the next class there is a question game or something and students have to test their knowledge and it helps the students participate more. Perhaps the prize is an extra allowance day or something. I think the professor is a very fun and genuine person and creating scientific games would not only help students participate more, he could see what areas people still don’t understand from the readings.

  • .. I don’t really enjoy the computer lab where we have to mind map with others, because I feel like it’s an awkward and forced interaction.

  • Less group work would make this class less like a highschool class.
  • There is too much group work with worksheets to the point where I feel like I’m back in middle school science class.

  • … too much team assignment…

Again I find myself in a dilemma. Are the students who don’t like group work on to something about the poor design of my courses, or does their discomfort reflect a need to be put in group collaborative situations more often?

Students also don’t agree on the structural components of the course:

  • I think the LMS is structured in a cumbersome way. It feels like I have to go through like three different web-pages to get to the information that I actually need to complete the assignment. And even then, there’s just so much information on the class LMS page that it gets hard to navigate at times.

  • It was extremely helpful to have the whole semester planned out by the professor because I knew when everything was due and I could plan ahead.

I realize that these two comments are not exactly counter to each other, but they point out a dilemma I face. By creating a structure that one student appreciates I am overwhelming another student. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. If there is no one-size-fits-all course, one can expect that a certain fraction of students will be unhappy with how the course is run.

A lot of the comments above point to my course being too “childish”, like a high school or middle school course. But then you get comments like this:

  • … reliance on the LMS and the amount of work that made me feel like I was in a graduate course…

Every student has their own take on what environment and level of rigor feels right for them.

And although the overwhelming majority of students seem to feel that I don’t adequately respect their need to focus on their majors, I still get comments like these:

  • I honestly appreciate that he doesn’t treat his class as if it’s the only existing class at this school, because a lot of professors have the tendency to disregard other classes and claim that their own is the most important.

  • As well as creating an abundance of extra credit opportunities, it makes the students feel like the professor cares about the fact that we are artists at an art school with heavy studio course loads.

What to do about all these contradictory messages?

Let’s not lose the bigger picture

I take my course evaluations seriously, and it pains me that they have been going down over the years. As my analysis above suggests, I have some work to figure out how to make students feel more engaged, have more faith in the work required by the course, and ultimately to make myself and my courses worthy of recommendation. With all the seemingly-negative messages coming from so many of my students, it is easy to lose faith. So below is a collection of some of the more positive messages coming out of my course evaluations:

  • Engaging professor who guides you. Clear and direct constructive criticism he gives in feedback to your rough drafts/work so that for the good copy or later work you clearly know what you can fix.

  • Chris really wants you to succeed and gives you ample room to get things wrong and figure the right answer out for yourself. His lectures are engaging and he makes participating in class easy.

  • Professor is very lively and keeps the class engaged in teachings.

  • Professor is lively and passionate about the subject matter.

  • Chris is extremely knowledgeable about evolution and biology and really helped me to understand things.

  • Christopher Jensen is a great instructor and manages to work well even with students that have no interest/are only taking the course to fulfill a requirement.

  • The instructor was very thorough and helpful. I feel like I really learned from this course, I normally do not like science or understand it very well.

  • The instructor is very careful and responsible in teaching and very helpful in explaining knowledge.
  • Chris knows how to captivate interest in class.

  • Overall it was an interesting course and I think the fact that Chris teaches with a lot of enthusiasm made the class a lot more interesting.
  • The one of the best features of this course are that, though the subject itself can be complex to understand, Jensen teaches it in palatable stages. Science has never personally been one of my best subjects, but I feel that in this class I have learned some valuable information, about concepts such as the need for environmental sustainability, that I can take with me and apply to my art, and daily life. Unlike many professors, Jensen understands that we are not science majors, and takes that into account as he is teaching. He tries to simplify more complex concepts by breaking them down into analogies and smaller concepts, and tries to apply scientific ideas and facts to the art world.

  • Professor Jensen was always on the ball with every graded assignment. He always gave extremely thorough feedback on our projects and responses way before the next class (it amazes me how he managed to do this so quickly) and was always open to answering questions. His feedback provided new insight, posed new questions to think about and pushed me to explaining myself more clearly and concisely. He was quite energetic and made the topic interesting and relevant and encouraged class participation. Professor Jensen also spoke well and sensitively about controversial topics (gender, sex, race, etc.) and was always conscious not to even unintentionally cross any lines.

  • Keep doing what you’re doing Chris!

What’s clear from these comments is that some fraction of my students really value my work. The question, then, is how to increase that fraction.

Where do we go from here?

Every semester I try to take a few of the overall messages delivered by course evaluations and work on making tweaks to my classes that improve student experiences and perceptions. This has gone really well for me in the past. For example, when many students complained about rigid deadlines, I introduced ten “allowance days”, which students can use to extend deadlines throughout the semester. Although I still get comments about the deadlines being too rigid or poorly placed, the intensity of these comments definitely decreased since I instituted allowance days.

For the coming Fall semester I want to work on the group activities that I use in Ecology, Environment, & the Anthropocene. To the degree that they feel too “secondary school”, I want to improve these activities. Unfortunately I think that the course where this is most likely to be a problem is Evolution, and I won’t teach that course next semester. But there’s always room for improvement in how students experience the activities in each of my classes. Students consistently report that the class does not help them learn how to work well with others, and this is something I want to improve. The opportunities to work together are there, but perhaps I need to consider how to model cooperative behaviors that lead to better group outcomes. We often put our students in the position to learn something, but do we actually teach them? When it comes to collaboration, I could stand to design more direct instruction into my activities.

I also think that I could stand to play with rigor a bit in Ecology, Environment, & the Anthropocene. I can see what students are saying: there is a lot packed into this course, and I need to consider where it could be streamlined. If there is a way to allow students to read a little bit less, I might lower the reading load. Evolution has a pretty good reading load, but it is mostly from a single textbook, and for some reason that makes students at least perceive that the reading expectations are more reasonable.

I want to be a professor who teaches courses that students recommend, but clearly I am far from this goal. This is not new: even in years where I get higher overall ratings, the “would recommend” criteria always lead to lower ratings. This is very hard for me to figure out. Students seem to think that I run a pretty organized course and deliver course materials in a clear manner. But they are not that interested by what I deliver, and feel that I am too tough on them. Can I make my class more worthy of recommendation without compromising the learning I deliver to my students?

A Major Post, Assessment Methods, Course Evaluations, Higher Education, MSWI-260C, Evolution, MSWI-270C, Ecology, Environment, & the Anthropocene, Teaching

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