Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dispatches from the Teaching Front, Part 1: Student Self Evaluation.

During a recent Twitter exchange with the wonderful Ana Maria Barral (@Bio_prof and and Jennifer Garner (@BiologyJen), the subject of helping students "self-evaluate" their performance and habits came up.  For some years, I have carried out an exercise with students related to this...and I thought I might share it with any interested readers.

There is a pithy and truthful quotation from the great Carl Jung that is much with me:  "You are what you do, not what you say you will do." It's a blessing, a curse, and a warning, all at once.  Most people are not by their natures fans of self-examination.  That goes double for students, especially freshmen who are experiencing a very different "world" in college than they had in high school.

For my freshmen Biology students in particular, I hand out a survey that I have them fill out and return.  Some of the questions are straightforward:  names, prior classes taken, specific interests in the course material ahead, etc.  But others a different intention.

Specifically, I ask two questions in order:

What grade do you expect to earn in this course?

Notice the expression "earn"?  Because it is true:  I do not "give" grades; students "earn" them.  And it is vital to the concept of "ownership" that students internalize and appreciate this basic rule. 

And then:

How many hours per week, outside of lecture and laboratory sessions, will you devote to studying course material?

Obviously, most students don't think deeply, and respond to the first question with "an 'A'" and often add "...of course." Fair enough.

For the second question, I receive...interesting...answers.  Such as "10  hours a week."  Now, I am experienced enough in education to know better.  Such a statement has a different intention than a promise to spend time studying; I think the "meta-definition" is "I want to be identified by my professor as a serious student."

But it is important to me to have the statement about study time spent in my three ring binder.  And I am well aware that a student and yours truly might have very different definitions of "studying." For example, looking at PowerPoint slides while watching television is probably not an optimal strategy.  But that is my opinion, based on watching student performance.

Then comes the Dreaded First Exam™.  The class average for that exam is generally 78%.  But I find the course results are quite often bimodal, and there are a fair number of students who have not performed quite as well as they had hoped.  

I then begin to get requests for student conferences from students who have not performed to their personal standards.  Some of these students will have earned a 55% on that first exam, and are a little outraged---never having performed at that level in high school.

So I sit down with them.  I offer them candy (I find this helps).  I open the binder.  I listen closely and supportively to their concerns. And then I point to their page in my binder.

I look them in the eye.  "So, is this '10 hours a week' answer really true?  You truly do put ten hours a week---outside of lecture and lab---into studying for this class."

There is usually a pause.

"Friend," I go on.  "It's just you and me. I'm on your side. Tell me the truth."

They look down and usually admit to three hours a week.  Which means less, I know.

"Great!" I exclaim, with a big smile on my face.

They look confused.

"No, really," I continue.  "If you were putting ten hours a week into this course, and getting a 55%, I would be worried.  But that's not true.  I know exactly how to fix this!  You just need to study more, come to office hours, and so on.  We will work together on this. Problem solved!"

I shake their hands, beaming.  And it's not fakery:  hard work and partnering with the professor really is the answer.  

I go on to remind them of the class average, and I will often show them a histogram.  So it's not personal, and they can see that there are folks in the class who are meeting their personal goals.    

It's all about ownership.  If they put in the time, come to office hours, are engaged and so forth, things usually work out just fine. There are always exceptions, of course.  But I have found few of them using this approach.

And it is much kinder than the professor-cathartic though student-critical primer by the very tough Dr. Dutch of the University of Wisconsin!

In any event, this is the key:  getting students to see their role in the partnership between student and professor.  To get them onboard working together with professors/educators like you and me.  Why, they may even find they enjoy learning biology!

In any event, I strongly urge educators to try my "survey approach" to help students look at and evaluate their own role in our partnership.  Happy teaching!


  1. this is a really good idea! I am going to use it in my upcoming undergrad classes. thanks!

    1. Thank you, Paul. Getting students to "own" their choices and actions is important. I often hear from students that they "work best under pressure." I reasonably ask them if they have ever, you know, *not* worked under pressure. Clear eyed, they tell me "no," and are surprised when I laugh out loud. How can they know they work best under pressure, I tell them, if they have never worked *not* under pressure?

      Sadly, high school promotes cramming. So *anything* we can do to encourage them taking the reins, owning their choices...and vital.

      Best wishes, MM


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!