I spent several hours yesterday and today looking through the student course evaluations of the 45 sections of First Year Seminar that we offered at Plymouth State University this fall. I know that student evaluations are not the best way to judge the quality of individual courses or individual instructors. There’s lots of research about that. I was instead looking at the evaluations to try to get a general sense of what students think about the First Year Seminar program as a whole.
One of the things that surprised me about the evaluations was that, although some instructors were quantitatively judged as less effective than others, there was not a single negative comment about an instructor. When comments were negative, they were about the class itself. In fact, there were several comments similar to this one: “The teacher did a great job teaching the course and worked hard to keep the class engaged and overall did a fantastic job but the course itself and the things we learn through the course is completely useless and a waste of time.” I was a department chair for years and have read many student course evaluations. I have never seen so many comments like this one. Typically, when a student doesn’t like a class, they blame the instructor even when they like the instructor. I suspect students didn’t blame the instructor when they didn’t like their FYS because they knew that the sections were all somewhat similar and part of a “program.” So perhaps when they didn’t like their section of the class, they blamed it on the “program” rather than choices made by the instructor. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
One thing that seems clear from the evaluations is that students did not like having their dorm chosen based on the FYS section they were in. There weren’t a huge number of comments about this but all of the comments about it were negative. This comment is typical: “you should not be forced to take a class to try to room with someone that you want. it would be more beneficial if you roomed with people outside of the class so that you can expected your circle of friends and get to learn about the different first year classes that were offered.”
It is also clear that some students understand what we’re trying to do with the FYS and some don’t. For example, there were many comments like these: “I really enjoyed this class because of the subject and experiencing independent learning.” and “I think the most valuable part of the course was really having the freedom to choose the routes we wanted to go with the class.” On the other hand, there were also many comments like these: “I thought she was going to teach more material rather than us doing all the research.” and “I really thought it would have been more of a lecture where we actually learn but instead it was just like a big book report for half a year.” Oftentimes, the same instructor would get both kinds of comments from the same section of their course.
I think that the pedagogy we’re trying to use in these classrooms challenges traditional notions of what teaching and learning is all about. One student wrote: “I thought there was going to be more teaching done in the class.” They then went on to say: “As I said above we didn’t really do anything in the class. Some activities didn’t really have to do with our wicked problem such as reflections, sticking notes on the board of our skills, etc. I wish it had been more like the traditional classroom style with learning, notes, etc and then at the end having a poster to represent all that we’ve learned. Then we would’ve had a more meaningful solution to the problem.” Clearly, this student’s idea of “learning” doesn’t include the team-building, self-realization activities that were included in their section of the course. From reading the evaluations, I can see that for many students, “learning” only happens when the class is set up more traditionally and is focused on content-related topics.
This makes sense to me. For the featured image on this post, I did a Google image search using the term “college classroom.” Here are the results: https://www.google.com/search?site=imghp&tbm=isch&q=college%20classroom&tbs=sur:fmc Nearly every image shows a classroom with a spot for a lecturer at the front with all of the student seats lined up and facing the lecturer. This is our common cultural understanding of what a classroom looks like and so when we challenge this by de-centering the instructor, it takes time for students (and faculty!) to understand what we’re trying to do.
That said, many students listed non-content related items when answering the question of what they found to be most valuable in the course. For example, one student wrote: “The most valuable aspect of this course was the fact that we were able to acquire different skills having to do with group work, reaching out for help, and planning projects to effectively portray what we learned.” The most common answers to that question included project focus, working in groups, the Habits of Mind, design thinking, getting to know the instructor, time and project management, as well as some content specific things.
When this kind of class clicks for a student, it profoundly changes their relationship to knowledge, knowledge acquisition, and knowledge production. It’s worth the effort. I think we’re making progress although I thought one comment from a student was particularly insightful: “some of the teachers did not understand how they were supposed to be running the course. Some did not tell their students about the symposium until two weeks beforehand. Some teachers did not use in class activities, and just let them research every single day. Some professors made students do papers, some did not. Some used the textbook, a lot didn’t. It is interesting to have friends in the same style classes doing totally different things when this is supposed to be a freshman-wide pretty uniform class. Overall, I think the teachers were unprepared and not the students.”
I think this is true. We have not done a great job of providing coherent professional development support for faculty teaching in this way. Thankfully, we received the Davis Educational Foundation grant starting this month to provide opportunities to build a community of teacher-scholars focused on cluster pedagogy. I’m looking forward to beginning this work!