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I’ve just received a whole pile of appraisal forms relating to my A-semester papers earlier in the year. As is common in universities, at the end  a paper, I ask my students to fill in a form relating to my teaching (and the content of the paper). It’s mostly Likert-scale questions (a statement, which then has the options ‘Always’, ‘Usually’,  ‘Sometimes’, ‘Seldom’, ‘Never’ – for example "This teacher was enthusiastic"). But also the students have space to record their own comments.

It’s usually these comments that provide the most useful information on your teaching. I suspect most lecturers are pretty good at predicting what the scores from the Likert questions will be – I seldom get any surprises in these.  But the free comments can be another story. They can give really useful feedback.

I think I’m of the opinion that there is no such thing as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback. All feedback is positive feedback if you choose to pay attention to it. (I’m ignoring the abusive kind of feedback – fortunately I’ve only ever had one comment that I would put into that category). However, it can be pretty sobering to read comments sometimes.

So, this latest bunch has a couple of surprises in it. I won’t write out specific comments (the students of course make them in confidence – I’m sure some of them won’t want their writing plastered over a blog).

One surprise was from the mechanical engineering class, which is that I put too many symbols into my examples and not enough numbers. So, for example, I would use ‘F’ for force, and carry that through my calculations, rather than substituting a value in, say  53 newtons. Now, to me, the physicist, using F is the way to go – for one thing it’s shorter to write, moreover, you end up with a more general expression – one that applies no matter how big the force is. But to the engineer, that’s not necessarily so. Put numbers in where you have them, muliply them out to a single number, then it’s simpler. This is a physics versus engineering thing, I feel. My physics classes don’t complain about it. It’s something I clearly need to be conscious of, however, when I teach engineering classes as opposed to physics classes. This will be particularly difficult in first year, for example, where physics students and engineering students are in the same class. How do I get around that one? Perhaps mix up the methods a bit.

A second surprise was from another third year class (electronics and physics) who suggested that I keep my alternative teaching style.  Alternative style?  This has me a bit worried and slightly perplexed. What exactly do they mean?  I don’t think anything I do is desperately alternative – most is pretty well straight out of the teaching literature. Or maybe that’s what they think IS alternative – being taught according to science/physics pedagogy.  I hope not.

Which, incidently, leads to a final comment which is addressed at any students who are reading this – a lot of the comments are awfully hard to decipher. So be specific about what you write – if it’s vague and I mis-interpret it, it won’t have achieved its purpose of providing useful feedback, and that means next year’s class won’t get the benefit from it.