Do You Evaluate Your Maritime Training? You Should. Here's Why, and How.
Teaching evaluations are a necessary and critical part of any maritime training program. Yet surprisingly, not everyone does them! And even when they are done, it is often the case that they are not used to their full advantage. In this article, I'd like to discuss the (very simple and very effective) practice of performing teaching evaluations, why they are important, how they can be used, and ideas on how to deliver them for maximum effect in maritime training.
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Are you a trainer? Does your organization deliver training? Are you currently a trainee? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then you've probably either been evaluated (as a trainer) or provided an evaluation of a trainer (as a trainee). Teaching evaluations are a necessary and critical part of any training program for the benefit of the trainer, the trainees and the organization as a whole. Yet surprisingly, although they are common, they are not universal! And even when they are done, it is often the case that they are not used to their full advantage. Without teaching evaluations, we are destined to continue to make the same mistakes, unaware, year after year after year. Remember - if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Feedback on teaching is arguably the most important measurement (KPI) to help us improve our teaching.
In this article, I'd like to discuss the (very simple and very effective) practice of performing teaching evaluations, why they are important, how they can be used, and ideas on how to deliver them for maximum effect in maritime training. This is the first part of a short series - so if you would like to receive e-mail notifications of upcoming articles, including the next one in this series (and you have not already done so) please sign up here.
As a faculty member of Computer Science at UBC for about 10 years, teaching evaluations were just a fact of life. Every semester, at the end of term, we would receive a package of blank evaluation forms to be handed out to the students. Once the grades were in, we were then given the forms so that we could see the feedback the students had for us - hopefully to the benefit of both us and future students.
These student evaluations provided great insight into how the students perceived us as teachers. But we also were sometimes reviewed by our peers for a different perspective. At UBC, we would periodically be reviewed by other faculty members who sat in on our classes. These reviews were either for promotion/tenure evaluation, or for the selection of teaching prize winners. In either case, the evaluations were highly supportive and although the experience might have created some apprehension, the feedback was always welcomed due to the positive nature in which it was given.
I also have had experience as a peer evaluee at a college where I would occasionally teach night courses. The environment at this college (which shall remain nameless) was a more adversarial environment than that at the university. And although it was a unionized environment, as a faculty member I did not always feel well supported by my peers. This culture was reflected in the nature of the peer teaching evaluations which seemed to have a more punitive, rather than supportive focus. Having seen both implementations of the same tool (peer evaluations), I quickly learned the important lesson that how you do something is often more important than exactly what it is you do. So throughout this article, keep in mind that for student or peer teaching evaluations to be effective, they need to be conducted with the goal of positive encouragement and support of the evaluee.
Remember that teaching evaluations, whether done by students or peers, are not quite hard data. Instead, they are a compilation of the impressions and opinions of those who have seen us teach. As such, just as it is a mistake to fail to consider those opinions, it is also a mistake to apply them blindly.
In my own experience, it has often been the case that I will receive a recommendation that, after consideration, I decide not to implement. For example, I will sometimes receive a roughly equal number of suggestions to slow down and to speed up. I clearly can’t do both - so instead I have tried to adjust my teaching to better engage those who need more information without losing those who are barely keeping up. This is, of course, a challenge in a classroom, but at least I’ve heard the comment. As another example, I may receive a comment from one or two students that I am disorganized. But in a class of 200 people, a comment which is uncommon might be safe to ignore - or at least not take great pains to address. You need to decide based on what you hear and what you know.
The best recommendations I receive are those that surprise me. Sometimes students will make a common observation about something I was completely unaware of. For example, I recall once giving a new assignment which I thought the students might not like, but I gave it anyhow because of the kinds of skills it exercised. When the teaching reviews came in I heard from the students that they wanted more of that type of assignment - something I would not otherwise have done.
In general, if you have never been the subject of a teaching evaluation, you are in for a treat. You will hear things which surprise you - they open up a whole new world of perspective on something you thought you already knew very well. The lesson is that regardless of the feedback given, learn everything you can from it, and be careful not to fall into the trap of “trying to please everyone”. You can’t please everyone, but you can always improve.
And finally, don’t be afraid. Many instructors are very reluctant to receive evaluations for fear that they highlight failings in their teaching. That may be true - students, especially, rarely mince their words about our shortcomings. But remember that the more concerned you are about what you will hear, the more likely it is that you’ll find value in the advice given. Sometimes you’ll even find humor in them. Once a student wrote on their evaluation that my white tennis shoes were no longer in style. Who knew? Buck up, do the evaluations, and read what comes back. You’ll be a better instructor for having done it.
Having your students evaluate your teaching should be a staple of the courses you give. They can be done on paper or electronically - the preferred choice depending on the tools you have available and the size of your class. But regardless of the delivery tool you use, there are a few basic principles you should adhere to in performing student teaching evaluations.
After personally having received many thousands of student evaluations of my teaching, I can say for certain that the ones I find most useful are those where the student has written a sentence or two to illustrate the point they are trying to make. To that end, I feel that the best evaluations are ones with a small number of broad questions, and which (for each question) ask the student to give both a numerical score, and to make a written comment.
The numerical scores are useful because they can be used to track trends. Questions should be simple and broad to allow the students to focus on what matters to them. Keeping the number of questions small helps ensure that they will not experience “questionnaire fatigue” and are sure to consider their responses to each question carefully. Finally, the written comments are most immediately useful to me as an instructor and therefore should be highly encouraged.
The following is a list of questions used at UBC - derived from years of students evaluations in a population of roughly 40,000 students (click here for the source).
- The instructor made it clear what students were expected to learn.
- The instructor communicated the subject matter effectively.
- The instructor helped inspire interest in learning the subject matter.
- Overall, evaluation of student learning (through exams, essays, presentations, etc.) was fair.
- The instructor showed concern for student learning.
- Overall, the instructor was an effective teacher.
These are indeed simple and broad. Remember that if you use those, you should encourage students to also make a written comment for each question.
At UBC where I taught, student teaching evaluations were required in the last week or two of each term. However, I always felt as though this had the unfortunate effect that the comments made by students in the current term would not yield any benefit until the following term. Therefore, students never saw any positive change as a result of the comments they contributed.
Because of that, I decided early in my teaching career to give out teaching evaluation forms twice in each term - once at the end as required by the university, and once roughly ? or ½ of the way into the term. These latter mid-term teaching evaluations gave me the opportunity to discuss the results with the students and to implement positive change that they could actually benefit from. This was wonderful because it made the evaluations very personal for them. They heard, first hand, what the comments were, heard my reaction about what I may be (or may not be) able to do to address the comment, and benefited (and were able to further comment on) any resultant change.
The added benefit of twice-per-term evaluations is that it gave me the opportunity to see if the changes I had made actually addressed their concerns. I had the same group of students giving both evaluations and therefore I could more reliably compare their comments from the first evaluation against those from the second. This produces a much clearer picture than simply looking for trends year over year.
At UBC, teaching evaluations were always conducted anonymously. In addition, for the end-of-term evaluations, instructors were not allowed to see the evaluations until after the grades had been entered for the year. Both of these policies were meant to ensure that comments made by the students could, in no way, adversely affect the student’s grades.
I believe this is very important. The student/instructor relationship is one of unequal power. Students recognize that getting on the “bad side” of an instructor can adversely affect their future and there is not a lot of recourse except in extreme circumstances. As such, the only way students will feel comfortable making useful comments (especially those which highlight areas for improvement) is if they are assured that their grades cannot be affected.
In fact, UBC went to great lengths to ensure this was the case. One mechanism they employed was that the instructors were not allowed to handle any completed evaluations (until they were given to the instructor after the grades were entered, of course). Therefore, the instructor had to leave the room while the students filled out the evaluations, and a responsible student selected by the instructor was asked to collect the forms and return them to the head office.
However you perform the evaluations, do ensure that the students are free to make whatever comment they feel appropriate, without fear of negative consequence.
There is Much More to Say on This …
Next, I’d like to speak about what the instructor should do with the returned evaluations, and what the organization (maritime college, vessel operator, etc) should do to make most effect of these evaluations. Following that, I’d like to speak a bit about peer teaching evaluations and how and why they are performed.
However, this article is already too long and therefore I will leave those discussions to the next article. If you would like to receive e-mail notifications of upcoming articles, including the next one in this series (and you have not already done so) please sign up here. Until next time - thanks for reading!
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About The Author:
Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.
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