Saving students: mid-semester evaluations

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

The end of the semester for students brings extraordinary stress with finals, but it also marks a time for professors to face their students’ criticism of the past semester. 

End of semester evaluations can sometimes be treated as a mere nursing of grievances, but students often strive to provide valuable insights for their professors. 

However, genuinely constructive criticism given at the end of the semester is clearly too late to benefit students currently in those classes. Mid-semester evaluations could provide a great service for professors and students alike by creating a low-pressure and consistent mechanism for students to voice their concerns or approval. 

By the end of the semester, many students are deeply concerned about their grades, and these anxieties can affect the quality of their criticism. Mid-semester evaluations could reduce the tension of an imminent transcript since we have much more time to improve our grades, and are not feeling quite so frantic. 

In many cases it would be unfair to blame a professor for the shortcomings or hardships of a course as some class formats are already somewhat outside of the professor’s control.  Organic Chemistry can always make us come to terms with our own fragile mortality, Junior Poet can always tear apart the fiber of our being and Quantitative Research can always subdue the human spirit with incomprehensible spreadsheets.

However, there are also many occasions where the teacher has some flexibility, and students may be genuinely helpful in shaping the class conversation.

Ultimately, the professor is always “where the buck stops.” Our hard-earned education should also be genuinely beneficial for students, and we possess a different perspective to figure out what is going right or wrong in a class.

Dr. Gregory Roper, associate professor of English, has seen the benefits of these mid-semester evaluations throughout the last 20 years. 

However, he sometimes struggles to provide evaluations consistently. One year, he did not offer mid-semester evaluations for a class and regretted it by the end of the semester. 

“Probably 10 years ago, my students had to contribute twice a week to an online discussion,” Roper explained. “I’d done some things like that earlier in my career, and students always complained, ‘Oh, I had to traipse all the way up to the computer lab to do this.’ By this point, of course, everyone had their own computers. I thought that I wouldn’t have that objection anymore. And I got more objections to it! I just had students toast me in the end of semester course evaluations. They hated it.”

“I wish I’d known that halfway in the semester, that I was doing something that created so much negativity that it really kind of affected the class,” he concluded. 

Roper also stressed that even when he did not change anything in his class, mid-semester evaluations often revealed the gaps in his own explanations for students. “There have been little things…even if I didn’t change something, it was often really good to realize I hadn’t explained why I was asking them to do something.”

“I think students today are rightfully interested in wanting to know why we do things in our pedagogy,” Roper said. “I think students have a liberal education enough to want to know the purpose if they’re going to invest this much time into it.”

Roper’s classes have always been too busy to allow for in-class evaluations, but he encourages students to use anonymity. In fact, he suggests that students type their answers or disguise their handwriting. However, he also recognizes that a lack of response in some years may have to do simply with how busy students are. 

“It makes me think that I probably ought to save time in class for it, the way we do at the end of the semester,” Roper said.

Evaluations certainly don’t work for every class or even every teacher. “You have to learn to read evaluations with critical thinking skills, you have to learn to look for patterns and not just outliers, and you have to have a little bit of a thick skin,” Roper explained. “People have to do what they’re comfortable with and how much they’re comfortable with.” 

Mid-semester evaluations do not have to be a sign of anarchy in the classroom, where the teacher is unjustly ruled by the whims of petty students. Rather, they can create a helpful dialogue about how our education is forming us into better thinkers.

One question on Roper’s evaluation asks, “How could I help you learn more about this subject in the second half of this semester?” 

Mid-semester evaluations can give students the opportunity to receive a more fruitful education in their own semester, rather than expressing themselves once it’s already too late. 

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