Course Feedback (Part 1)

Thanks to those of you who filled out the two end-of-semester course feedback surveys. Since you took the time to do so, I thought I would take a little time and share some of the results. First, a question from my survey:

To what extent did each of the following activities contribute to your learning in the course?

I've sorted these activities by the "very much" responses, from greatest to least. Working through problem sets was rated as the most helpful course activity, with 73.9% of the 46 respondents to the survey rating this activity as "very much" contributing to their learning. There were four activities (reading the textbook, studying for midterms, discussing clicker questions, and working on midterm corrections) that were essentially tied for second place, with "very much" ratings from 48.9% to 56.5%.

Some statistics here: The difference in the proportions of "very much" ratings for working through problem sets (73.9%) and reading the textbook (56.0%) was statistically significant with a p-value of .0359. The differences in proportions of "very much" ratings for the "second place" activities were not statistically significant. The lowest p-value for these differences in proportions was .2483.

The peer-to-peer activities were the least useful activities according to your ratings, although more than half of you found reading your peers' project proposals at least moderately useful and exploring your peers' bookmarks at least slightly useful. It's possible these activities were rated as less useful because they weren't required (with the exception of that one social bookmarking assignment). I was hesitant to require you to respond to your peers' work in these areas, however, since this course already had enough required components. In the future, I'll consider ways to upgrade any particular peer-to-peer activity (by integrating it more fully into the course without increasing the overall workload) or, failing that, to drop it from the course requirements.

As is clear from the question above, I try to engage students in my courses in a variety of learning activities. Inevitably, most students will find some of these activities more useful than others. One reason I continue to use such a variety of activities, however, is that different students respond differently to different activities. For instance, here are some survey comments on reading the textbook:

  • The book really explained things very well so before tests I would read through the chapter and understand how the concepts in class connected.
  • The OpenIntro Statistics book was very helpful. The language was clear and understandable with good relatable examples.
  • Reading the book before lecture. It kept me up to date (no long reading sessions before tests) it kept me sharp and on top of the material, and it made the lectures more interesting. That was definitely one of the largest positives of the course. The questions reinforced the reading, and made it so that you felt like you knew the material going in and truly knew the material going out of lecture.
  • Used several methods of teaching that I was unfamiliar with and didn't find effective because I'm a visual learner who likes to see examples of things rather than just read the textbook.
  • The constant reading quizzes were also just too much and didn't teach us anymore than just paying attention in lecture.

This is the main reason I gave you some flexibility in earning your class participation points--reading the textbook before class helps some students get more out of class, but other students prefer to have their first exposure to material occur during class. The former group of students could get much of their class participation credit through the pre-class reading assignments, while the latter group of students could do so through in-class clicker questions.

Here's another set of comments, all about clicker questions:

  • It would have been nice to use clickers everyday so that those who were able to make it to every class would be rewarded.
  • The clicker questions were a good opportunity to get instant feedback on the material.
  • Clicker q's- great way to introduce hard topics since it requires discussion with your neighbor and let's you know you're not the only one who doesn't get it
  • One of the best parts of his teaching style is his use of non-traditional lecture methods like examples from the web, graphs, visualizations and thought stimulating clicker questions which keep the lecture varied and interesting and keep students awake. The fact that he engages the class in discussion also gives the course a more personal feel.
  • Clicker questions are useful but they take too much of class time.
  • Way too much class time spent on clicker questions and discussing why students chose their responses to said clicker questions.

What made class time engaging and useful for some students was seen as a waste of time by others. Given the role the clicker questions played in your class participation grades, I tried to use clickers at least briefly in most classes, although my primary concern was having you engage in learning activities during class that helped you make sense of the material. Often, clicker questions worked well for this, particularly around the more conceptual material. But other times different activities were more useful.

For instance, this student appreciated in-class worksheets:

  • I loved the classes when you handed out problems and we solved them. I learned 90% of what I learned in your course in those 4-5 classes. That was so incredibly effective, even though we rushed through them.

My instinct is to view "worksheet days" as a bit lazy. It doesn't take much creativity or effort for me to find a few word problems, have you work them during class, and then go over them on the chalkboard at the end of class. And I tend to see the "going over them on the chalkboard" bit as a little tedious, both for you and for me. But, clearly, this routine works for some students and some topics, particularly the more computational topics. I'll have to get over my bias and use this approach a little more often in future offerings of the course.

I'll wrap up this post by pointing out something that sounds obvious but is worth saying from time to time: My job is to teach all the students in my class. I could use just a couple of teaching methods that work really well for some students, but that runs the risk of leaving a lot of other students out of luck. So I use a variety of methods in the hopes that every student responds well to at least one or two of them. In general, I think this works. Your "overall rating of the instructor" had a 4.41 average, and your "overall rating of the course" averaged 3.86, both improvements over the last time I taught this course, back in 2008. (The improvement in instructor rating was statistically significant, p=.0537, although the improvement in course rating was not, p=.2206.)

There were two themes in the course feedback I haven't addressed here: a perceived over-emphasis on data visualization and frustration with the multiple-choice exam questions. I'll address those topics in a future post.