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).