Thursday, May 16, 2013

Letters from the Future

My university switched to online evaluations this year, so when a friend showed me Brian Croxall's post on having your students write letters to the future, I was intrigued. Since the online evaluations are done outside of class, the time I normally build into the schedule for them was free, and this seemed like an interesting way to make use of it. To be honest, I also thought I needed a back-up form of evaluation, just in case the experiment with online evaluations didn't work. Less than half of my students completed the university-administered online evaluations, so I'm glad I used an alternate form, but even if my online participation were 100%, I'd still be glad I did these letters.

Croxall asks his students to write a letter to future students in his course, evaluating the instructor, the course, the assignments, and the reading. He also makes his evaluations public, with his students' knowledge, so I was able to see in advance what I might receive. After reading them, I thought that they could be very useful for actual future students, so when I presented the plan to my current students, I told them that I would use their comments publicly. I gave my students 10 minutes in the middle of class in April to write letters to future students about the four elements Croxall outlined. They really took to it, and I was surprised that I had to tell them to stop writing. They wrote so much more than on their standard evaluations, and in this case, more is definitely better.

My course already contained three self-reflection essays, spaced throughout the semester, and I was very pleased to see that they took it upon themselves to be self-reflective in this situation as well. I think that we, as instructors, are often frustrated with evaluations that come down to “I'm angry that I had to take this class and I didn't like that there was work in it.” For some reason, this exercise helped students separate things they didn't like about the class from things they wished they'd done differently. Their comments are really helping me figure out how I can change the class to help them do well in it.

Here are some of the things that emerged:

Lots of surprise at enjoying the class: “I can honestly say I've had a positive experience in History 1501. Being someone who hates the subject, this shocked me.”

Come to class: “The lectures are designed to help you understand the readings.” “In order to succeed in the class, you should definitely come every day and be ready to take notes.” “There are no slides posted online so if you do decide to skip, you'll have to copy someone else's notes which is a pain in the ass.”

Organization (theirs): “The main thing you need to do is to have good organization...” “It requires effort, but Erin never bogs you down with work.” “Don't underestimate the workload that will be required of you...” “Although it might seem like a lot of work, it really is manageable if you start on time and do not do it the night before.”

Organization (mine): “Her lectures are a little disorganized and sometimes jump subject to subject...”

Grading: “Thinkalouds [their weekly assignment] are rigged and the grading system for it is fugged up.”

There will be work:This class is not hard for the material covered, but for the out of class work.” “It's not an easy A, but worth the credits and you might actually learn something too, which is what college is about.”

If you want X, don't look here: “If you like memorizing and being tested on dates and events, this class is not right for you.” “If you like to skip class, this isn't for you.” “Don't take this course if you're banking on memorization to pass.”

And the most valuable piece of wisdom: You can't bullshit a writing assignment that asks you to think critically.”

Some of the complaints about the class appeared more often than others. That grading complaint was, much to my surprise, the only one I received in this forum. The complaints about lecture speed and organization were more frequent, and not unexpected. I talk too fast, I know, and I'm working on it. The comments about my lecture organization interest me. My lectures are fully planned out, outlined, organized to the max...from my perspective. If my students don't see the connections, though, I need to find a way to make them clearer. 
One thing I realized this semester is that no amount of organizing, slowing down, and repeating can make a complex historical concept easier to understand. Sometimes it just takes time to understand the intersection of race and gender in 17th century Virginia or the ramifications of the land crisis at the turn of the 19th century. I'm planning on flipping my classes in the fall (stay tuned for posts as I figure that mess out), so I hope that approach might help my students work through connections at their pace, not mine, while still allowing me to challenge them.

Much of the advice they gave their counterparts in the future is advice that I give them at the start of the semester, but I think it's different coming from them. In the fall, I plan to give my new students excerpts from these letters. I'm hoping that it will mean more coming from them than it does coming from me.

I think I'll make the “letters to the future” assignment a permanent part of my classes, giving my students even more time to do it in the future. I highly encourage my colleagues to consider adding it to their rotation, even if they're currently teaching assistants.