On Saturday I ran a session for final year school students who are soon to take the Scholarship Physics exam. There were just over fifty of them, and they were a lively group. I thought that overall the day (well, half-day really) went pretty well, and we managed to cover more than what I’ve done in previous years. I think that was down to a mix of the students being generally better prepared than I’ve seen them in previous years (if you read examiners’ comments on past exams that is one thing that is repeated time and again – students aren’t prepared for the exam), but also me being more efficient in my teaching.
I know this latter one is true because I’ve been keeping evaluation questionnaires of what students think of the session. It’s the fourth time I’ve run it in Hamilton, and over the last years I’ve continually had feedback that I was going through things too slowly. Each year I’ve speeded things up, and cover more, and still been told I’m going too slowly; finally this year I think I’ve hit it about right. Out of 50 completed questionnaires (that in itself is a good sign – nearly every student completing a questionnaire), there were 5 who said I was too fast, 44 who said I went at the right speed, and 1 who said I was too slow. Seems like a happy balance to me.
The major (quite overwhelming) response is that though the students enjoyed the session and thought it was helpful, they wanted it to go for longer, and do more stuff – e.g. a full day rather than just a day. It certainly could be done, but it’s hard work when you’re the only teacher for it (and have to give up a whole Saturday for it).
Anyway, my point is here that I wouldn’t know any of these things if I didn’t ask the students, and then take the time to go through their questionnaires carefully afterwards (with 50 questionnaires, and a lot of free comments, it is a couple of hours work). But by doing so, I know how to improve things. And that’s the next step – if you’re not prepared to change anything for next time there isn’t a lot of point asking the students about it.
We are now in the last two weeks of B-semester at the University of Waikato, and I, like many other staff, are about to start giving out appraisal forms to my students. These are a great opportunity to learn what’s happening my courses and my teaching (but it’s by no means the only opportunity) and it’s always interesting to have a look at the results. I know from experience that I get more useful information back from the students if I brief them first on why they are being asked about this stuff, and genuinely believe that I might change things as a result. In fact, on our paper outlines (the summary of a paper that students can look at before they enroll) we are now asked to outline how we’ve responded to previous student comments. That, I think, is a good thing – if we show to students that we take what they think seriously, then they will be serious about what they comment.