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COLUMN: Course evaluations should be more than an afterthought

Friday, December 3, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Finals week is closing in quickly. Before long, we’ll all be enjoying our monthlong hiatus at home with our families, clocking in extra hours at work or just lounging around with friends.  Handing in my last exam, breathing a sigh of relief and realizing I can do nothing but play video games for a month are all wonderful. But there’s something else I look forward to during finals week, and believe it or not, it’s class evaluations.

There’s a thrill I get in the pit of my stomach when a professor enters the room with that mustard-colored folder, ready to hand out the evaluation sheets. I immediately gather my thoughts and concentrate on how the professor has conducted the class over the entire semester. From the very first day of the semester, I had already started taking mental notes about what does and doesn’t work in each class. Yes, I know I’m crazy. Considering I want a career as a video-game critic, training myself to evaluate something from the top of the act is a good exercise, even if it is for a class.

The bubble sheet is first. I give each question careful thought. Was the professor’s enthusiasm excellent or was it only quite good? I also have to make sure I fill in each bubble correctly because I swear whoever invented the bubble sheets was dyslexic. On just about every other question, the scale on the bubbles reverses. Whose bright idea was that?

After filling out what grade I think I’ll earn in the class, the real fun begins — the short answer page. If I could compare the excitement I get out of eloquently inscribing what a professor did right and wrong on this page, I’d probably put it up there with roller coaster riding or getting tattoos.

I try not to be a person who picks out negative qualities first, but I have to admit there’s a certain amount of pleasure I get from unleashing a list of things the professor should fix within the class. I believe that for the amount of money we pay to go to MU, the professors should take our feedback wisely and try to organize their classes with student input in mind.

However, the evaluation sheets are double-edged swords. The professors can only take them as seriously as students do. And it never seems as though students really take the time to fill them out carefully and accurately. Instead of the evaluations being the lovely exclamation point to a semester, they become an ellipsis, an afterthought. They’re something to fill out as quickly as possible to get out the door and on with life. Trust me on this: Breaks will still happen if you take an extra 15 minutes to carefully fill out an evaluation.

Next time you fill one out, take a few minutes and really think about it. Fill out the second sheet, too, not just the bubble sheet. I’ve heard professors say over and over that they prefer the written comment sheets to the bubble sheets.

If you didn’t like a professor, be fair on the review. Don’t just write that he or she sucks. Actually provide criticism and use examples from the semester, if it’s possible. The professor will take arguments toward why he or she was not up to task more seriously if they are well thought-out you write them professionally and legibly. Depending on how professional your execution is, you can embarrass yourself here or you can really make a difference.

And for the love of honesty, don’t be afraid to write down what you really think. I once took a class that only had one graduate student in it. The student was too nervous to write down what she really thought about the professor because of fear that the professor would know it was she. Do not be afraid. The professors don’t see the evaluations until after our grades are turned in. Why is it so bad to express an opinion, even if it critiques something?

As for the professors, the quality of evaluations you get back isn’t completely up to the students either. There are some guidelines you need as well.

Make sure you give the students enough time to fill out the papers. I honestly don’t know if giving them at the beginning or ending of the period is best, but allowing at least 20-30 minutes is appropriate. If you have a lecture of 300 people, handing them out and asking everyone to finish in 5 minutes is not fair to you or the students.

It’s also nice to let the students know in advance when the evaluation will be given instead of springing them on the students at the end of a period, like a pop quiz. Oddly enough, I’ve put more critical thinking into short answers on evaluations than I have on actual quizzes.

Last but not least, and most importantly, do not — I repeat, do not — hand out the evaluation after the students take a final exam. This has happened to me before, and it was not an excellent decision. It wasn't even quite good or satisfactory. It made me think a little less of a professor with whom I had enjoyed having class all semester. That is perhaps the most unfair thing to do to students. Sneaking it in after (or even right before) a final exam or presentation is just unethical. Probing a student for feedback on the entire semester after the student's brain is fried from two hours of final-taking probably won't be a successful venture. I would expect drool on the page, if anything. Or a list of words that would make your mother blush. Just don't do that, professors. Period.

Now that you've been briefed on Corey Motley's official rules on how to give and fill out class evaluations, please act accordingly. The things we write could change courses for the better for future generations of students at MU. Why wouldn't you want to make things better for the future? Just because something has been in effect for a long time doesn't always make it OK.

Corey Motley is a columnist for the Columbia Missourian. He reviews video games for Vox and blogs about them on 1Up.com. He’s an avid Twitter user under the name CoreyMotley and he’s always the last student left in each class filling out an evaluation at the end of every semester.


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