Course evaluation comments

The spring quarter ended in mid-June, so I recently had another chance to review a set of course evaluations. I value course evaluations in general, even though I know that they can have significant problems. I like hearing back from the students about what they felt, and I occasionally get some great ideas on how to improve my classes.

But the lack of consistency in the comments from students in the same class genuinely bothers me. For example, I had the following comments in my course evaluation from my Python class this quarter when asked about grading procedures and exams:

  • “The exams were straightforward but grading on homework was not.”
  • “It’s actually fairer than other professors I had”
  • “Wouldn’t change”
  • “Great process”
  • “Too strict”

Is the grading fair and shouldn’t change? Is the grading too strict? Is the grading not straightforward? Is the process of grading a great one? You could believe any of these reading the set of comments I got.

I tend to simply disregard all the comments when they diverge so significantly, but I’m not sure that’s the right approach either. And I doubt that there is anything that can be done to improve the process of obtaining comments on course evaluations, since I suspect that opinions simply vary significantly between students in the class. It does help to know I’m not alone in the divergent comments, since I’ve heard/read jokes from colleagues about it for many years now.


A new way to do make-up classes

I enjoy going to conferences for all the obvious reasons: I get to see people from around the world doing interesting work in computing education and visit fun places I wouldn’t otherwise see in the process. But the one thing I don’t like about conferences during the academic year is having to make up classes. Travelling is stressful by itself, and having to find time to schedule make-up classes as well as get students to come just adds to that stress.

So I am thrilled that DePaul has a license for Zoom and integrated it with our course management system. I’m about to miss a full week of classes due to a conference in China, which would normally mean multiple days trekking downtown to make-up classes. This time around I scheduled a few hours of Zoom meetings with my students, and got to make up the classes from my home office. They’re recorded automatically, and I can easily post a link for the students who couldn’t make it. Zoom makes the interactivity I like in my classes easy, and students even communicate with each other using chat during the session. The only thing I don’t get is the look on their faces, which I miss, but I’m willing to take the hit given that the sessions can include my online students who would normally be excluded.

I think this is a great change. I just hope the students are as happy as I am.

All men, again

We’ve reached the second week of the Spring quarter, which is when people who aren’t serious about sticking with a class start to drop since the end of this week is the deadline to get your tuition back. One of the classes that I’m teaching is a transitional course between the introductory Python sequence and the Java data structures classes, and it has both in-person and online sections. Due to scheduling constraints the in-person section is smaller (less than 10 students), and today when I went to print my roster so I could take attendance I noticed that the only woman on the roster had dropped. So the in-person section is now a class where I am the only woman. I’m sorry to say it’s not the first time this has happened. But after being spoiled by my linked-courses learning community which targeted underrepresented groups, it’s making me more sad than previous incarnations.

Re-committing to a supportive practice

The Spring quarter started this week, and as part of my activities wrapping up the Winter quarter I reviewed my course evaluations. Course evaluations are both a blessing and a curse, and I try to not use them as the sole measure of my teaching because of their many problems. But I have in the past found them to be a useful source of feedback, so I always read them. As usual, I was glad I did.

Before I get to the comments from the Winter quarter, you need a bit of background. As a part of work that I did with NCWIT starting two years ago, I adopted one of their classroom practices. They recommend using a deck of cards to call on students. The cards have students’ names and pictures on them and are shuffled at the beginning of class. Students answer questions when their card comes to the top of the deck and have one of three possible responses: answer the question, ask a clarifying question, or pass. It’s a really handy way to rein in the tendency for the class to be dominated by a few know-it-all students, which can be a problem in introductory programming classes.

I use the technique in all of my classes, except in the Winter quarter I backed off from it about 2/3 of the way through the term in my Python class. It can sometimes feel like pulling teeth to use the technique since students can be resistant, and for whatever reason (exhaustion?) last quarter I didn’t push through and force it. As it turns out that was a mistake, because I got the following comments on the evaluations when prompted about my weaknesses:

  • It is also good that she calls on students which forces them to pay attention, but the same six students always get called on.
  • Bit too strict, does not seem to call on everyone.
  • I felt like at times she chose favorites in the class, and that discouraged me from participating as much because I felt a little intimidated by her.

So while this is only three comments from 18 responses, I think it’s important feedback that shows students both appreciated the card system and noticed when it was relaxed. I haven’t ever had comments about favorites on evaluations, either before or after I started using the deck of cards. So the technique is making them notice the classroom dynamics, and at least some of them reacted badly when it was relaxed.

Needless to say I’m recommitting to the practice, but this time with a slight change: I’m going to be marking the cards for each person every time I call on them. That way if my random shuffle accidentally favors some students, I’ll have a way of noticing it and correcting it. I don’t want students to believe that I have favorites, and I think that the changed approach will help. I’ll also push through and use it consistently¬† no matter how resistant they may appear (or tired I may be).


The Winter quarter is ending for us today, and I filed my grades this morning. I still have to get ready for Spring quarter which starts in 10 days, but it feels good to have my toughest quarter of the academic year over. I had a 2-credit class overload this quarter, and it’s the busiest time for SIGCSE business during the year, so I was often tired, stressed, and bit crabby. Sometimes it leaked into my interactions, both with students and colleagues.

So I was especially touched to get a thank-you card from a student this week. She wrote:

Thank you so much for all the work you put into helping me, as your student. I have never felt so supported and comfortable asking questions in a college class. It is clear that you really do care about helping students learn and grow, which is not a characteristic that most of my professors have. I am grateful I had had the opportunity to learn from you. It is inspiring to see female professors who are extremely knowledgeable in their field. Because of your classes I feel empowered to pursue a degree in computer science. I know your (sic) an incredibly busy person and I appreciate your dedication and help throughout this Quarter.

I don’t think she’ll ever know how much what she said means to me. I plan to keep the card in my office and re-read it when I’m especially tired in the Spring quarter.

Small things buoying my spirits

February and March tend to be tough months for me. For the past several years I’ve had a half class overload from January through March which makes a surprising difference in my workload. The largest SIGCSE conference also takes place at the end of February or beginning of March, and that conference involves a SIGCSE Board meeting with lots of people beyond the Board as well as a business meeting for the SIGCSE community. Since becoming treasurer in 2013 (and then chair in 2016) that’s meant a crush of work starting sometime in January. This year it’s meant that a blog post about email and faculty time that I’m itching to write just isn’t happening right now.

But today a few things hit my swollen inbox that really cheered me up. A current Java student of mine (and a Python student from last quarter) is struggling to understand her current Python instructor. She’s been emailing me to get my notes, which she says helps a lot, and tomorrow she’s coming to a make-up class I scheduled (because of the SIGCSE conference) to hear me talk about recursion. It makes me happy that she thinks my Python teaching is so helpful that she’ll show up to extra classes.¬†Today I also got a notification from LinkedIn that one of my former learning-community students wanted to connect. He has a job with a computing-related title at Guaranteed Rate, and seeing one of my former students out there successful in the world makes me happy. And finally an advisee of mine emailed me about her systems class. She’s struggling and worried about what it means for her future in the computer science major. I could very happily tell her the (true) story of my failing a systems midterm exam as an undergraduate to reassure her that a struggle with systems doesn’t mean that computing isn’t the right field for you.

These are all small things, but they each make me feel like what I’m doing is making a difference for some people. And that feeling is a good one to have when you’re tired and overwhelmed.

The exhaustion isn’t a surprise

I had an advising appointment today, and the student I met with was one who took a programming class with me her first quarter two years ago. We had a great meeting, in no small part because she’s an amazing planner. She had had drawn prerequisite chains for the programming classes and mapped out all of her classes from now until she graduates. We had to shift things a bit since she’s in the information technology program, which is smaller and offers classes less frequently. But overall it was exactly how I would want advising sessions to go.

When the session was over she was making small talk and wished me a good night. She then hesitantly asked me if I was working late tonight. I told her no, that I had one more thing to do and then I was heading home. She commented that was good because she remembered me working really long days interspersed with many days of travel. I laughed and told her that I only had one trip this quarter. She congratulated me on that and remarked it must be nice to not be jet-lagged like she remembered I was frequently when she was my student. I laughed again and told her that jet lag wouldn’t be an issue until May when I head back to China.

Somehow that exchange makes me feel better about the sense of exhaustion I’ve been feeling this academic year. It’s been a crazy few years, with lots of travel and lots of long days, so much so that a former student remembers it _two years later_. Given what I’ve been doing for the past few years, it would be a surprise if I weren’t exhausted. I’m going to give myself permission to feel a little unmotivated right now. Once my schedule no longer has me flying tens of thousands of miles every year, I bet I’ll stop being so tired and start feeling more focused.