It’s the end of another semester here at CUNY. I’m not teaching this semester, but this time of year has me thinking about all kinds of evaluations and assessments. As I work on designing and conducting the Humanities Alliance’s program evaluation for this year, I’m reflecting on student evaluations of teaching. I’m also thinking about how we, as educators, assess student learning at the end of the year.
Our students have complex lives and educational histories, as do many of us. We know our own stories well, but in the space of a classroom—a space that is structured by relationships of power—we may not know our students all that well. When a student is quiet, or doesn’t turn in an assignment, it is all-too-easy for teachers to make assumptions about a student’s learning habits or abilities.
I feel it’s important to show my students that I care about their learning, and that I care enough to get to know them better, to try to understand where they’re coming from. One of the ways I do this is to plan a brief “check in,” alongside mini-conferences about their writing.
How did I check in with my students?
Two weeks into class, I used Google Forms to design a check-in form that my students could complete during our one hour of writing lab time (or outside of class, if they were absent or needed more time) in the third week of a twelve-week quarter. This form was not designed to evaluate my teaching or the course; it’s purpose was to engage students to reflect upon their learning needs and goals. Here are some of the questions I asked:
- What is helping you to learn in this class?
- What makes learning difficult?
- List two or three goals that you have for this course
- What do you think would help you achieve your goals in this course?
- What is the one most important thing that you want to take away from this course?
The check-in form also included a “Self-Assessment” section that asked students to:
- Grade their own engagement and participation
- Track the time they dedicate to readings and assignments
- Complete a checklist of submitted assignments
- Indicate the grade they think they would have at this point in the course
- Indicate the grade they are aiming for by the end of the course
Finally, I also asked students, “Is there anything else that you want me to know (about school, work, life) as it relates to our work together this semester?”
I let students know that I read their responses before the “mini-conferences” I hold in class with each student. In other words: I let them know that their responses did not exist in a vacuum; it was part of a conversation we continued in class, in meetings after class, and throughout the semester.
To be sure, it was challenging to make time for one-on-one meetings with twenty-eight students. I used class time for our mini-conferences because my students had very little time to meet outside of class—at the end of our three-and-a-half hour class, some were heading straight into another class, while others were going to work. Using class time ensured that I was able to meet with every single student. During these meetings, the other students in the class worked on in-class writing assignments.
What did I learn by checking in?
I found this process to be incredibly useful with my students, and I think that we all learned a lot from the process. Here are a few of the many things that I learned:
- Several students found emails that detailed clear steps to be helpful in keeping up with the assignments. Some found the readings to be “helpful and informative” resources to consult later and/or noted their appreciation for my mini-lectures. (It was good to receive this feedback, as I sometimes worried that I had spent too much time talking or questioned the value of the readings when more than half the class had not done the reading for class.)
- Many students also found it helpful to have time to talk to one another in groups. For example, one student noted difficulty concentrating in class, but wrote that “Whenever we work in groups or share ideas I wake up and feel more interested” and “Talking to each other helps us learn from one another and uncover new ideas.”
- While this course was a requirement for most students in the class, many were interested in becoming, “a better writer” in general, as one student put it, or they wished to “learn how to write a research paper correctly.” They had high expectations for themselves, and were aiming for grades that were higher than the ones they gave themselves!
- Early on in the course, several students found blogging confusing, as they were used to submitting assignments through Blackboard or were unsure about how to use a new tech tool (the WordPress site)—even with tutorials and in-class assistance.
- A number of students noted challenging aspects of their work, home, or school life: Many of my students were working while taking a full course load and/or commuting long distances, while others were dealing with unpredictable family situations, or living with physical injuries or in/visible dis/abilities.
This is the first time that I did a structured check-in with my students, and I’m glad that I did. The process allowed me to think carefully about the questions I was asking, and to ensure that, in doing so, I was creating a space where students would be comfortable sharing as much or as little as they wished. Some students shared more in writing than they had in person, and reading their responses prepared me to broach difficult topics without putting anyone on the spot.
Instead, I said, “I read what you wrote about ____________. Thank you for sharing that with me,” and asked gently, “Is there anything more that you would like to say about this, or that you would like me to know?”