Evaluation of Teaching:But what kind?

 In Wild Pedagogy

Early in my career as an Outdoor Educator at a Canadian University, I ran into a conflict of teaching philosophy and practice that taught me an important lesson. I believe it is a lesson that shapes many a career in outdoor ed. The lesson is:focus on your students, not your colleagues. The topic concerns evaluations of teaching.
My department had a five question Leikart scale(on a scale of 1 – 5, strongly agree to strongly disagree) evaluation of teaching form. By all accounts, it was deemed normal in all respects. Here are the questions:
1) The instructor demonstrates mastery of subject material in this course.
2) The teaching methods used by the instructor were clear enough for me to follow
and learn from them.
3) The course succeeded in stimulating my interest in this subject.
4) The instructor was well organized and followed a explicit, detailed course
5) The instructor’s responses to essays, tests, performance etc. demonstrated
concern for my learning.
Following each numerical response, each individual student could provide specific comments and following question 5 there was ample space for “any other comments?”.
The course in question involved an 8 day field trip followed by student self selected group work presentations and individual work and presentations as course work. Class size was generally 40 students. I taught largely out of class time with meetings to advance student ideas for presentations. There were some lectures I gave. Students had a hand in determining evaluation criteria and weighting and suffice it to say, other course qualities.
Here is what happened.
I tended to get modest numerical scoring and even poorly on a few of the questions, particularly question 2. Students were in 3rd & 4th year and were very familiarized to the conventions of lecture/teacher centered multiple choice test dominated courses. The unfamiliar was a bit daunting for some or perhaps I really wasn’t clear enough etc. The rub is that in the written comment option, the responses would be glowing, (“best course I have ever taken”…sort of thing) For question 2 a common response went something like this: (yeah, the teaching method was so different as to be unclear at times but what a pleasure to have so much responsibility in what we learned, how we learned it and how it was evaluated. Refreshing.)
But for departmental merit purposes, only the number scale was taken into consideration. No matter. I focussed on the student experience and their -some would tell me- best interest as learners.
Then one day it came to me that I could play with this conflictual experience and even conduct a little research project. So, I fashioned another Leikart scale questionnaire as identical in every way except for the following five questions which put a student centered spin on otherwise conventional set of five questions. The five new questions meant’ to match in theme the conventional five, were as follows:
1) The course allowed me to develop some mastery of the subject.
2) The teaching methods we employed in the course allowed me to pursue a relevant and valuable learning experience.
3) The course was engaging and enlightening for me.
4) The course unfolded in a meaningful and relevant way.
5) The instructor communicated concern and care for my learning during the course.
Honestly I can’t remember which set of questions were handed out first but the two forms were presented with as minimum of fan fare as possible. I planned to administer the two evaluation forms for five years and compare the numbers and comments. But after two years, the department changed their conventional form entirely so I dropped the research project idea.
The results of the two years were enough to prove my point. The student-centered evaluation criteria form (my designed form to suit the Outdoor education course, generally received a 4 or 5 of 5 with comments fitting the course. I still got 4 of 5 for the departmental forms {read average} with glowing written responses that were not tabulated by the department. I pointed this all out to colleagues in a departmental meeting but it was instantly clear that it was educational terrain, not to be tampered in.That was the 80’s. It might be different now?
I suppose there is more than one lesson to this evaluation form meddling. But the most significant one for sure would be focus on the student, not the colleague. If I had focused on a collegial perspective, I would have taught a teacher centered course out of step with an outdoor education post field trip experience. I could have matched up with the departmental evaluation form objectives but it would have been to the demise of a quality student perspective which demanded students responsibility and input into evaluation. In essence I shifted the evaluation form to be in keeping with the student centered method and at that point the evaluations accurately reflected the experience.

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