When you finish grading your students, grade your own performance.

At this time of year, many law professors feel a certain sense of despair. After pulling themselves out from under a mountain of final exams and papers, they must eventually turn their attention to their students’ evaluation of the course. This year, consider your students’ performance and feedback to decide whether you’re making the most out of the time and effort you’ve put into designing your course and grading your students. Engage in practices that will lead to better outcomes next fall.

I know that once we finish grading, we are Ready to Be Done Already! But take some additional time, while the students’ work is still fresh on your mind, to assess their performance in the aggregate. What learning outcomes did your students struggle with the most? Did most students fail to organize their answers? Where were most students missing the point? What separated the strongest performances from the average performances? What was the correlation between the length of a student’s answer and the number of points the student scored? By asking and answering these types of questions, you are embarking on assessment of the class itself, a necessary component to improving your own performance and your future students’ outcomes.

When you’ve sufficiently investigated the students’ performance in the class, recall the formative assessments you used in the course. Did they work? Were students performing better in areas where they received feedback? Were you aware of areas where your students struggled on the final? If not, how can you design formative assessment to address the students’ areas of weakness?

Next, read your students’ evaluations of the class. Are there common themes? Do they point out any weaknesses that may account for their struggles? Is there a disconnect between what they critique and what you were trying to accomplish? For example, students used to complain that I provided different feedback on the various drafts of their papers. Of course, that was my intent – to start with global and structural changes and then move into more specific areas of improvement. Too much change all at once is hard for anyone to handle, especially students who are new to legal reasoning, research and writing. But my students were confused. They weren’t aware of my plan because I never shared it with them.

Systematic evaluation of your own performance allows you to develop better approaches. For example, because students complained about my differing feedback on different paper drafts, I began class the next semester by explaining the science behind how we learn to write. I discussed different stages of the writing process, and I explained why I would be requiring different drafts and assessing different areas of the writing process in each draft. My up-front explanation gave students a schema and a sense of predictability and control over the outcome. Where prior students saw my comments as contradictory, new students saw them as different developmental stages in the process of learning something new.

Finally, are there areas of weakness that students fail to address year after year? For example, do students fail to prepare for and pay attention in class? And is that lack of preparedness resulting in weak performances? If so, design ways to engage students and hold them accountable. For example, try asking them to set the expectations for the class on the first day of class. You may start by asking them what conditions create the best learning environments? What is the professor’s role? What must the students do? You might be surprised by how readily they provide good answers. Next, ask them what methods are best for holding them accountable. Use their own answers to draft rules of the class and the methods by which students will be held accountable. Again, by discussing the process first, students know the expectations, they know that these are the common expectations, and they have strategies for holding themselves and others accountable. For example, if the class has agreed to limit their laptop use to taking notes, a student who asks another student to stop surfing the web during class is doing so because they want to uphold the rules they have designed to make their classroom time specifically targeted to learning the material and becoming better students.

Give these techniques a try. If they work to make teaching more enjoyable, that’s great. If not, they at least provide you with a concrete starting point the next year when students come to you seeking insight on why they failed to perform to their expectations.

One Response

  1. Thank you for this really thoughtful analysis of how to review teaching evaluations and to improve future student learning!

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