I filed my grades for the fall quarter several days ago, which means that my course evaluations were recently released to me. I’ve learned to take course evaluations with a grain of salt, for a variety of reasons. They are a reflection of the students’ satisfaction with the course, subject, time of day the class was scheduled, and other factors that may or may not reflect on me as a teacher. Helping with this distance are the contradictory comments we all regularly receive. For example, the following comments came from different students in the same class this past quarter: “ By far the best e-mail responder I’ve ever had for a teacher” and “Sometimes the instructor took some time to reply to email for some assistance.” But sometimes I get pleasant surprises in the course evaluations that make me take notice. This quarter there were two surprises.

The first was how well I did in the average evaluation for the course I adopted midway through the quarter. This class was broken in some significant ways when I took over, having half the classes cancelled early in the quarter which left the students two weeks behind. I had no expectation that I would be able to win them over, since they were justifiably upset. Much to my surprise the majority of them embraced me, and I got a 4.42 out of 5 on my evaluation from them. That was better than one of my other two classes, and I’ve never been so happy about a course evaluation number in my life.

The second surprise was in the form of a comment from a student. It read:

Amber Settle was among the best professors I’ve ever had. Being a transfer from another school this was my first semester at DePaul. Though only about half of my professors so far were worse than I had anticipated, the ones that were good were great. Amber was one of the great ones if not the greatest. She is by far the most friendly, charismatic and funny professors I have ever had. No only is she a great person to be around but she absolutely nailed the subject material. Her lessons were crystal clear and her teaching style is superb. She mixes lectures and in class work so well. I felt like I was learning so much, so fast and retaining it all because we would practice in class before each assignment. She is very light hearted as well. I felt comfortable putting little jokes in my code or breaking the fourth wall a bit because she is the kind of teacher that believes the learning environment should be comfortable, and she is right. If I ever get the chance to take a class with Amber again I will without a doubt.I came to DePaul because I expected quality, especially in the Computer Science department, and I got exactly that.

Overwhelmingly positive comments like this make anyone feel good. But what struck me most was the reference to “breaking the fourth wall” and that I “believe the learning environment should be comfortable.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a student liken teaching to a performance in the way that the first quote does, although I can’t argue with the analogy. But more importantly, the second comment by this student captures exactly what I try to do in my classes. I want to relate to the students as people, and I try hard to do things to decrease the distance between me and the students. This goal is part of why I’m such a huge fan of the paper Making Visible the Behaviors that Influence Learning Environment: A Qualitative Exploration of Computer Science Classrooms by Baker and Garvin-Doxas. In that study they found that a few simple changes in the instructor’s behavior, like learning and using names, could influence the classroom dynamic and reduce the distance between faculty and students, producing a more supportive learning environment. That this student understood exactly what I was trying to do made me very happy.