Instructors should share self-assessments with students. Do they?

November 17, 2013

In the world of higher education, and perhaps the world of education in general, instructors are expected to engage in “reflective teaching.” That is, we think about and document what is working in our courses, what isn’t working, and what might be done differently next time. (Here are two end-of-course examples: my self-assessment for Music+STEM and my self-assessment for BIOL 485.) This is appropriate and useful. Furthermore, I believe that we should share these self-assessments with our students, for the following reasons.

1. Having to share self-assessments ensures that we actually do self-assessments. Even if most of us are already doing them, as we should be, a little extra motivation never hurts.

2. Sharing self-assessments models metacognition for students. “Metacognition” refers to the fact that we want students to think about the study habits that do and do not work for them. Our explanations of how we optimize our teaching practices may offer parallels to how they can optimize their learning practices.

3. Sharing self-assessments counters the “instructor as policeman” stereotype. Course syllabi are often packed with rules that students must follow … or their grades will suffer! Those admonitions may be necessary, but they imply that the instructor is the students’ adversary — someone whose main job is to uphold the rules of absenteeism, lateness, plagiarism, etc. and punish any violators. In contrast, an instructor who shares self-assessments indicates that he/she actually cares about what the students learn and strives to support them as effectively as possible.

4. Sharing self-assessments provides accountability. Students and their parents/guardians periodically wonder about whether their education is worth what they’re paying for it. Instructor self-assessments underscore that the students aren’t just getting the same old course that their predecessors had — they’re getting a new and improved version of it!

5. Sharing self-assessments encourages students to take course evaluations seriously. Students are more likely give thoughtful feedback if they see evidence that the feedback is received and acted upon.

Some possible objections to instructors’ sharing of self-assessments with students, along with my rebuttals, are as follows.

1. “Sharing self-assessments requires extra work/time.” Not really. We should already be doing self-assessments and documenting them in some way, so posting a PDF file to a course website or spending 3 minutes of class time on them should not be a big deal.

2. “My course has some significant problems, and I don’t want to draw additional attention to those.” Students recognize and gossip about such problems anyway. Why not take the opportunity to explain how the problems can be addressed?

3. “I’ve gotten important feedback from students that I shouldn’t share publicly.” One should certainly respect students’ privacy and anonymity, but feedback can almost always be discussed at a general level without quoting or referring to individuals.

4. “Most students wouldn’t be interested in my self-assessments.” This may be true, but the ones who are interested are probably the ones who care most about the course. Don’t you want to serve those students well? As an analogy, think about the “cool links” on course websites that lead to sites where students can explore material in greater depth. Most students won’t care about those either, yet those who are most invested in the course may find them quite valuable.

5. “I do share this sort of information with my students! For example, when we went over the last exam, I pointed out the topics where confusion was most prevalent.” That’s good, but did you take the additional step of discussing how the confusion might be reduced in the future? Being explicit in this way makes it clear that you take personal responsibility for students’ difficulties.

Convinced of the strength of my argument, I’m now wondering whether other instructors actually do share self-assessments with students on a regular basis. As an attempt to find out, I performed a quick survey of websites of undergraduate biology courses offered at three institutions: Bellevue College, the University of Washington, and Western Washington University. Many course websites (or subsections thereof) were password-protected and thus off-limits to me, but I still was able to access 46 of them: 12 at Bellevue (Biology 100, 130, 160, 162, 199, 211, 213, 241, 242, 260, 275, and 312), 19 at UW (Biology 118, 119, 180, 200, 300, 317, 356, 401, 411, 417, 427, 433, 442, 452, 453, 454, 476, 480, and 488), and 15 at WWU (Biology 101, 140, 204, 322, 325, 326, 345, 346, 348, 349, 416, 432, 445, 462, and 497). For each of these courses, I found a home page with links of multiple files: syllabi, schedules, handouts, rubrics, slides, etc. (If all I saw was an online syllabus, I didn’t count that as a “course website.”)

As far as I could see, none of these 46 course websites included substantive comments on past or current successes and failures of the instructors’ teaching or changes that may be made in the present or future. The closest thing to self-assessment that I found was this note in an answer key for a Biology 401 exam: “I added 6 points to everyone’s score … to account for several locations in the exam where most of you were not clear on how specific you had to be (Q7), how to describe your experiment (Q8) or what type of control you should provide (Q8).” Here was a semi-admission of a problem, at least.

My survey results come with important caveats (beyond the obvious issue of sample size), though. First, I looked at these websites quickly and didn’t check every single file, so I certainly could have missed relevant tidbits. What I can say is that I didn’t notice any sections on assessment of course effectiveness (as opposed to assessment of individual students’ performance) in the syllabi, first-lecture-of-the-term slides, and quiz/exam keys that I did check. Second, instructor self-assessments may be more likely to be included on the password-protected pages that I couldn’t get to. Third, instructors might discuss self-assessments in class even if there isn’t online evidence of this. For example, I’ve heard that Scott Freeman tells his students how research on his courses drives changes in these courses, though the Fall 2013 UW Biology 180 website does not appear to address this. Likewise, an instructor who collects mid-quarter student feedback on notecards and then discusses the feedback during a later class session might not document this on the course website.

Given these caveats, I’m not sure what (if anything) can be concluded about college biology instructors’ frequency of sharing self-assessments with their students.

What do others think?

One comment

  1. […] friend Greg Crowther says that professors should share their self-assessments of their teaching with their students. I sort of do this–I talk to the students about why I teach in the way I do, tell them […]

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