Some thoughts from teaching appraisals

First of all, sorry for the lack of entries. That’s what having a baby does. To write blog entries, or to try to extract a smile out of the bubba?  Baby wins every time!

Anyway, this morning I was going through some teaching appraisal forms. At the end of every paper, the students have the opportunity to give feedback to the teachers, through questionnaires. They are asked a series of questions on both the paper and the teachers, with a Likert-scale response. For example, there’s the statement "The paper was well organized and ran smoothly", to which they respond by choosing Always, Usually, Sometimes, Seldom or Never.

Always is given a score of 1, through to Never which is given a score of 5, then responses from students get averaged to give lecturers and papers an overall score. What is a good score? That’s not easy information to come by. Partly this is down to privacy – we are not obliged to reveal our scores to anyone – partly I think because people don’t want to be accused of ‘blowing their own trumpet’. I was talking to a colleague yesterday who admitted that he would typically get an average of about 1.1 in papers, and then apologized profusely for this in case I though he was being big-headed. Anyway, one thing we can know for sure is that we’d like to see scores go down from year to year.

So, I was disappointed when I looked at this year’s score for my third year mechanical engineering paper. It’s a pretty mediocre score, really, and, what’s more, it’s exactly the same as it was last year, when I taught the paper for the first time. This year I did a lot of things differently, but the score hasn’t budged.

So, I’ve looked carefully at the free comments the students write on the questionnaires. Hopefully these would reveal to me where I’ve been going wrong. But no. Rather perplexingly, the comments I’ve had are overwhelmingly positive. So why the low-ish scores on the Likert questions. I’m rather baffled. I thought that maybe it was a case that the annoyed students just couldn’t be bothered to write any useful comment on the questionnaires. But it’s not this – there are students who’ve given me some really positive comments and yet have given me lousy scores on the five-point scale. I can’t work it out. Maybe mechanical engineers are just hard to please. Perhaps its a bit of engineering pedantry: ‘Always’ means to them 100% of the time; doing it merely 99% of the time isn’t enough to get that response.

Since the scores are baffling, I won’t dwell on them too much. Much more interesting are some of the comments, particularly on the test, which the large majority students loved (so says the feedback). In this paper I trialled the idea of a ‘test you can talk in’. Here are a couple of comments:

Test format … was choice: learnt heaps


The test format was great. It seems like a good way to have discussion within groups, which helped people learn…

The ‘learning’ through peer-discussion was of course the whole point of the test.  Rather than it being merely a summative, stressful exercise, it was intended that the test would be a learning experience in itself. And, indeed, it appears that this has been the case. That’s great feedback and will encourage me to use this format more widely.

Also, I had a comment from a student who is clearly up-to-date with theories of learning:


(Capitalization and the smiley are the student’s.)  Glad you think so. So do I.

It’s well worth trawling through the appraisal questionnaires and digesting comments. In this case they are far more positive and helpful that the scores alone suggest.



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