Teaching and Learning Assessment: Evaluate Early, Often, and in a Variety of Ways

In the final weeks of each semester, TAs university-wide hand out end of semester evaluations to their students. Students rate fairness of grading, instructor organization, instructor preparation, instructor enthusiasm, and many other factors. Months later, composite results are returned, giving feedback on the past semester. Just how valuable are these reports? As a Teaching Assistant, you should continually strive to improve the end-product of your work: your students' understanding. Knowing how your students evaluated the course after the fact can give insights into ways to improve the course in future semesters, but one may wonder: how can you improve things for your students now, when they can see the effects?

Assessment is defined as "the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assessment) Most notably, assessment is a process. It should be a continuous dialogue between you and your students about what learning environment is best for them, and what you can do to help facilitate it. Moreover, while end-of-semester evaluations are an important part of this assessment dialogue, they do not need to be the only part.

Assessment is not just for the rookie TA. It is a process that continues throughout graduate school and throughout your career-- as a faculty member. Strategies that work one semester may not be as successful in a class with different students and personalities. Strategies that work in one course may not work at a different level or with a different course. Teaching is something that must evolve over time, and to learn what best suits your students requires feedback.

Assessing your own teaching requires some self-awareness. First, you should have in mind what your teaching goals are. What ideas are you trying to communicate to your students and what do you plan to have them learn as a result of enrolling in your course? What skills are you trying to help them achieve? The results of student assignments and class discussions are one component of assessment. Are students grasping the concepts and skills you try to convey? If they aren't, can you think of ways to more clearly convey the course material, or ways to engage your students differently in class?

Beyond looking at student assignments as feedback, try to picture how you appear to students in the classroom. One way to do this is to have your course videotaped. While watching oneself on TV may be a little intimidating, it can also help you see aspects of your classroom presentation that may otherwise escape your attention. Is your speaking pace appropriate? Are your visual aids clear? Do you have a subconscious speaking habit? Having your course videotaped can be an instrumental tool in fine-tuning your classroom presentation. The TA Project will videotape your course for free; contact us to set-up an appointment.

Assessment can also occur more explicitly from within the classroom. Instead of just giving students an end-of-semester evaluation, consider handing out periodic evaluations at other points in the semester. The TA Project website has a sample mid-semester evaluation you can distribute one-third or halfway through the term. Distributing an evaluation at a point where students can see the results of their comments may encourage them to give more detailed constructive comments about the course, and allows you to get a more specific picture of your teaching. Having multiple evaluations from the same set of students also gives a more dynamic picture of your teaching. You can see if your response to earlier criticisms was effective and helped students before the end of the term.

Student written evaluations can be even more informal than these preset forms. Consider, after an exam or large assignment, distributing index cards and asking students what one idea they wish they understood better, what the most helpful part of the assignment or subject unit was, and what the most difficult part was. Feedback on very specific components of the course may prove useful too.

Finally, consider getting evaluation input from those outside of your classroom. Many departments have specific faculty who can observe your classroom upon request. If you are teaching one of many sections of a popular course, a course coordinator may offer this service for interested TAs. If you work in conjunction with a lecturer, perhaps you can arrange for the lecturer to sit in on your lab or recitation for a day to offer feedback. These faculty, with more teaching experience, may offer valuable insights about your teaching as they view the class in a different way.

In the Peer Observation Program, groups of interested TAs will reciprocally observe one another's classes, and they will later meet to discuss their observations. Being observed by peers offers two advantages. First, having another graduate student sit in on class may be less intimidating than having a professor in the room. Second, since observers expect to also be on the other end of the dialogue, you may expect more constructive criticism instead of a wholly negative (and thus discouraging) or wholly positive (and thus while initially nice, not helpful in fostering ideas for improvement) review. This should be an approachable way to get genuine feedback on your teaching from an outside source.

In all of these strategies, remember that assessment is a process that alternates between getting feedback, and integrating that feedback to try to create a better end-product: your classroom teaching. Feedback is not designed to only give you a pat on the back, or to find the negatives in your classroom interactions. It is a way to continually and honestly find room for improvement. The more frequently you seek feedback and the greater variety of assessment methods you utilize, the more well-rounded picture you will have of your teaching. So, don't wait for the end of the semester evaluation to roll around. Evaluate early, evaluate often, and evaluate in a variety of ways.