Significance Evident Through Student Evaluations
My student-driven approach to teaching has grown as a direct response to student needs I have seen here at Saint Leo. Many of our students, particularly those who are the first generation from their families to attend college, lack the self-confidence and ability to navigate the bureaucracies of higher education than their peers with a family history, and expectation, of college success. By putting students more in charge of the path of their learning, I help students build confidence and support their autonomy as learners. Because this approach places importance on student contributions and downplays my prominence in class, thereby reversing the power dynamic to which students have grown accustomed, handing agency over to students does occasionally generate resistance or even a little resentment from students who would prefer to have a teacher dictate their thinking and actions. Students’ narrative responses to my course evaluations (166 pages, 17.8 MB) reflect both the benefits and the challenges of my approach through their eyes. Comments on some critical student evaluations sometimes request that I play a more directive role in the classroom. I have worked to find greater balance in my classes, whereby students lead discussions and activities after conferencing with me, bolstering their confidence and ensuring students learn the essential content. Additionally, I am working to build a collection of student sample papers that will be included in the course shell for all future WRI 121 & 122 courses, giving students across our institution model texts to emulate. These model assignments will help students navigate the new kinds of texts we will ask them to create, which will improve the quality of student writing on those assignments (Wardle, 2009; Rhodes, 2007). In these ways, student course evaluations have shaped and refined not only my own teaching practice in my classroom but also the design of upcoming UE Foundations courses.
The critical comments discussed above, however, are outnumbered by positive feedback from students who appreciate the confidence I place in them and the opportunity they have to take control over their own learning. A vivid example of this contrast appears in the evaluations from my 2017SP1 ENG 121-CA08 course. One student complained about “the unsure feeling students have” when given more agency over their own learning, while another in the same class praised the “free thinking environment [and] inspirational conversations.” In summary comments, one student complained that they “never really grasped the concept of [my] teaching,” while another student in that same class appreciated the approach, having this to say:
This course was a much needed break through a hectic semester, it allowed for the excess pressure of writing to be done away with while opening my mind to thinking more before I did ANYTHING! The professor taught in a way that made me believe that the concepts were my own and not theories that were ratified years before.
For a birds-eye view of student comments on my evaluations, see the IOTA word cloud shown below. The word cloud indicates the frequency at which specific terms appear in student comments. For example, the word “great” is displayed in the largest size because it is the most common term in my evaluations, reflecting common support from students. The next most-common words, “assignment” and “understand” reflect the relationship of my assignment design and the importance of those assignments to student learning. Overall, the qualitative feedback I get from course evaluations shows both the challenges and the rewards of increased agency. Granting students greater agency allows them to experience meaningful learning in ways they might not have experienced before. Going forward, I want to find ways to continue providing opportunities for motivated students to forge their own paths while also providing more structure and predictability for those who struggle with the unexpected freedom and shift in classroom authority.
Word cloud from qualitative feedback in IOTA. Larger words appear more often.
Because half of my teaching obligations are online, I want to specifically address the ways I engage students in those classes and establish personal connections over distance. Giving students the ability to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions can be challenging in an online environment, especially when the courses are designed by others, and I’m asked mostly to grade and to guide. Yet my approach has created consistently strong feedback, with several students telling me I’m the first teacher they feel like they know, with one student in a 2016SP1 course emailing to tell me, “your videos were great and added a nice personal touch.” Others remark on how much the videos help them process material, such as this student from 2018FA1:
I saw your comments on the recent Critical Analysis paper and I wanted to thank you for the great feedback. It would be perfectly fine if you used my paper and I’m glad you think it is worthy of being an example.
Also, thank you for the comments and video you posted about the first Critical Analysis paper; they really helped me figure out what I needed to change this second time around.
Multiple students have also told me I’m the first teacher to take the time to give them meaningful feedback on their writing. For instance, one student in my 2018FA1 course wrote in an email, “Thanks for your comments on my paper. If I had had more teachers like you who actually gave feedback this writing business probably wouldn’t be so difficult. Last term I had an English teacher who liked to say nope…or doesn’t work. Nothing else.” A student in my 2019FA1 course told me, “You are too dedicated to your class and take the time for REAL feedback, with videos and in depth concepts.” Sometimes that “real” feedback can be to my detriment, given how long it takes to pay intense attention to providing meaningful commentary on students’ writing styles. But reading that students value the attention—and perhaps have not experienced it before at Saint Leo—provides extra motivation to dedicate the time. Furthermore, since I regularly receive favorable comparative feedback, I know that I am improving the reputation of Saint Leo online instructors by setting a new bar for interactivity and personalized feedback.
As alluded to in the quoted comments above, my weekly discussion videos have become my trademark. Using this communication tool, I respond to the thinking students display in their discussion posts and give them warnings of upcoming trouble spots that traditionally frustrate or confound students. In these brief videos—typically lasting no more than 5–10 minutes—I show students my personality, my reactions, and my compassion. I use them as an opportunity to develop a sense of community within an online environment, showing students that everyone in the class is working together toward a common goal. Rather than responding to every student post (which makes the discussion board a conversation with me, not the class), I choose instead to read all posts and report back to students about the highlights. I recommend they read certain threads that draw out particularly useful or insightful ideas, or examples of excellent interaction with the material. This summative contribution aligns with findings from Heejung, Sunghee, and Keol (2009), who suggest that, “when the instructor’s intervention was minimal, students tended to more freely express their thoughts and opinions, with a large number of cues for social presence.” To further facilitate social presence in online courses, I infuse a bit of my lighthearted personality, frequently identifying a “Teacher’s Pet of the Week” for any student whose post goes above and beyond or shows outstanding engagement with the material. Students react to this tongue-in-cheek “honor”, as well, joking in future weeks that they have a reputation to uphold, or that they might lose their title the next week, etc. I find it’s a fun way to draw attention to what works well in online discussions and make students more aware of the effort that goes into meaningful discussions.
By creating a forum for addressing the whole class in a medium that goes beyond text and allows for nonverbal cues and more obvious emotional reactions, these videos serve as a hallmark of my classes, helping students feel less isolated as they progress through their online classes. From 2018FA2 through 2019FA1, my videos were viewed 169 times, accounting for over thirteen hours of viewing time. When I post a video, it is always accompanied by what I call a “Cliff’s Notes Version”—the text of the notes I use to make the video. Considering students can simply read the text of my commentary and ignore the video altogether, the fact that students have spent thirteen hours (an average of just under five minutes per session) watching these videos suggests their value to our online students. I intend to continue this practice and search for other ways to present myself as more personable than merely a string of words on a screen when teaching online.
The success of my methods of online instruction can be seen through numeric student evaluations (see “Composite Evaluations by Online Class,” below) and in students’ written comments. For instance, in my 2016FA2 course, students shared the following:
- “I likes Prof Friend’s video critiques of our discussions. These were the best discussions I have participated in at Saint Leo.”
- “Prof. Friend himself was the strength of this course. … He gives feedback on our discussion posts as a whole class using a video. This is something that I enjoyed as I had never seen it before in my previous classes.”
- “Professor Friend was always available for support and I really appreciated his sense of humor and professionalism.”
Composite Evaluations by Online Class (4-point Scale)
Comments from my 2018SU2 course echo the appreciation of my communication style:
- “I wish all my instructors had the teaching style like Prof. Friend.”
- “Professor Friend is excellent to work with. He communicates well and is extremely fair in assessing assignments.”
And these from a 2018FA2 course of soon-to-graduate seniors:
- “The instruction was very interactive with the students. He provided extensive feedback on discussions with polite corrections.”
- “The strength of this course is one of your top instructors. That is Christopher Friend. He is tough and fair. Easy interaction without being condescending like many of your professors. Prof. Friend is, more then likely, responsible for student retention at SL.”
- “The discussions and the professor were the strengths of the course. I’d even go so far as to say with a different professor the course would have been boring.”
- “I believe if you gave Prof. Friend more access to the course development in all his courses(which means let him spend money). Make him a lead Professor or something that increases his salary. You don’t want to loose him.”
By comparison, my lowest-rated online course, offered 2017FA1, included comments from a student who believes I grade essays based on whether I agree with a student’s position, not based on the quality of the writing according to a given rubric. While I readily acknowledge that a paper arguing a position I have long dismissed as untenable makes it more challenging to concentrate on the writing over the position itself, I am aware of that difficulty and take extra care to assess based on a rubric, not based on personal feelings. The student in question, while holding views that don’t align with mine, also happened to write papers that were severely deficient in clarity and support, which led to his low scores. One 2015FA1 course with a low numeric evaluation included comments from a student saying, “I never understood what was expected about me and other classmate where in the same situation than me,” and another wishing for “Less peer review more Friend review.” That first complaint about understanding was contradicted by other comments from the same class (“Instructions were clear,” “[Friend] also was always there if you had a question, would respond immediately to whatever you asked,” and, “The way that my instructor made up think about how to go about complete each writing assignment was some times difficult but rewarding.”). In response to the detracting comment about peer review, I have made sure to work more directly on teaching students how to review papers helpfully and accurately, improving not only their learning but also their ability to help improve each other’s writing.
Looking through other courses with lower-than-average evaluation scores (seen in “Composite Evaluations by Campus Class,” below), I struggle to find more of a pattern. For instance, my 2016FA1-ENG-121-CA01 was below 4/5, yet a student complaining that they “got bored easily” contrasts with another comment from the same section that “Dr. Friend is one of my favorite teachers I have ever had. He is a great guy, and understands how to get the best out of his students. I love the way his class is set up, and it really promotes an environment for learning.” In my 2017SP1-ENG-121-CA08 course, I experimented with having students publish their work to a course blog instead of the usual LMS, which led to more frustration than liberation, so I have not repeated that experiment. And lastly, both of my SLU101 sections were poorly rated. The content was in flux the first time I taught it (2017), and my evaluations did improve in 2018, but I refrained from teaching another section of that course until the course content stabilizes and I can better understand what kind of value I can add to its implementation with a teaching style emphasizing student agency.
Composite Evaluations by Campus Class (4-point Scale)
Of course, no teacher’s style appeals to all students in every class, and it seems my approach works best with students eager to take control of their own learning, sometimes frustrating those who want an instructor who takes more directive control. That difference in perspective has been the only consistency I have found in comments on student evaluations to explain classes where I am significantly above or below the average composite score for the College of Arts & Sciences. For complete historical comparison, refer to the charts throughout this section. To put my numbers in perspective, I want to point out that more than 78% of the courses I have taught at Saint Leo (online and on-ground combined) have been required fundamentals courses (ENG 002, 121, 122; SLU 101) into which students are placed before beginning work in their majors, rather than courses that they elect to take and select to suit their interests within their field of study. Furthermore, these fundamental courses occur at the beginning of our students’ collegiate careers, and these courses often serve to “weed out” underprepared students, while upper-level courses benefit from having students focused more on graduation than orientation.
Composite Evals by Class, 2014–15 School Year (Paper Evaluations)
Composite Evals by Class, Fall 2015 (5-point Scale, Electronic)
As an aside, the composite scores calculated for the individual and school levels are inconsistent across IOTA reports, with some incorporating numbers about library and other resource use into the faculty score, and some even including the number of hours students report spending on homework—numbers that have nothing to do with the teacher’s performance. Therefore, I recalculated the composite scores for all levels and all courses to generate my reports and charts. Furthermore, I am working with Cheryl Hemphill during the 2019FA2 semester to test new reporting methods that should save time and calculation frustrations for faculty who prepare portfolios in the future, making our statistics more accurate and accessible.
The effect of an academic “weeding out” process can to an extent be seen by analyzing drop/fail/withdraw (DFW) rates, which measure how many students do not successfully complete a course. Online classes, regardless of institution, are notorious for having abysmal completion rates. Saint Leo’s overall online DFW rates tend to hover in the 30–40% range. My DFW rates for ENG 121 & 122 (see below) in AY2106—the oldest data available—were higher than the institutional average in each modality except for my ENG 121 online classes. By AY2018, my DFW rates for each of my Academic Writing courses were lower than the corresponding institutional averages. Rates for my ENG 122 classes are particularly noteworthy, with my online rate dropping to within 5 percentage points of the campus average and my campus rates dropping all the way to zero. I believe this improvement is the result of attention to student orientation at the beginning of the semester and a revision policy built on the opportunity to grow and improve during the term. I recognize the affect low DFW rates have on student retention, and I will continue to look for ways to make students, especially those online, feel supported in their efforts to complete my courses.