Most universities have systems of formal student evaluation of lectures, involving some form of questionnaire. Sometimes these simply involve students scoring particular aspects of the lectures, such as clarity, pace and relevance. Sometimes they give the opportunity for students to make comments, and sometimes both. If these are to be used to allow you to make improvements to your lecturing, it is important first to establish what that the questions are seeking to evaluate and what assumptions are being made. For example, the questions may focus largely or wholly on you as a ‘performer’, rather than on the student learning experience. A lecturer may be very entertaining and popular with students, but that does not necessarily mean that lectures have been effective in terms of student learning.
If the most effective form of lecture is one where the students are actively learning during and after the lecture, then evaluation questions should reflect this. Students may prefer lectures that allow them to get a clear set of notes which are relevant to their formal assessment. As discussed above, some students prefer to be ‘passive learners’, and may resent lectures that are challenging in terms of material and activities.
The formal student questionnaire is only one means of evaluating your lecture and gaining useful feedback. This section reviews other methods of evaluating the success of a lecture programme.
One of the most valuable means of evaluating your lectures is to reflect on what you are planning to do or have done in terms of student learning objectives. Before the lecture you might consider the following:
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does illustrate the importance of reflecting on the links between what you are planning to do and what the students will actually do and learn (as opposed to what you would like them to). After the lecture, it is important to reflect on what you believe students have learnt and whether you could improve on delivery, content and student activity. It is vitally important to be realistic and not to believe that just because you have said something, students will have understood it. Try to judge honestly what you have achieved in terms of the learning objectives you have set. While self-evaluation is important, this should ideally be backed up with more objective forms of evaluation.
If you are brave, you could ask the students periodically to judge your lecture against some clear criteria. This could be in the form of multiple-choice questions, perhaps using an audience response system. This allows students to ‘vote’ on various aspects of the lecture and the results are instantly displayed for you and the students to see. A less threatening alternative is to ask students to complete short question slips and to deposit these in a box at the end of the lecture. These could be questions about specific aspects of the lecture, or they could be more general. For example, you could ask students to name two things they liked about the lecture, two things they found difficult and two ways in which the lecture could be improved.
It is best to avoid asking students to comment orally on aspects of the lecture, unless the group is small and the students feel very comfortable to state that they are having problems. Whilst traditional forms of lecturing sometimes include asking students orally whether they have understood, this is normally a waste of time as they will generally prefer not to respond.
If you are using a virtual learning environment (VLE), such as Blackboard or Moodle, you could set up a discussion board inviting comments on the lecture. You could arrange this in sections. For example, students could be asked to identify topics they have not understood, questions they would like to ask, and discussions to which they would like to contribute. You could have a section devoted purely to general feedback on the lectures. You could have an FAQ section, where you post the answers on the strict understanding that if a student asks a question, you will answer it only if you have not already answered the same question (or very similar) from another student. As well as providing useful feedback for improving the quality of your lectures, such a system supports students’ learning.
If you do not have access to a VLE, an email list can serve the same function. You could also use email, if you want students to be able to comment to you privately. Alternatively, you could ask students to submit written comments on the lecture, and then come to see you personally to discuss their comments. Provided this is set up in a spirit of being mutually helpful, it could be a very useful and a profitable use of the office hours system. Alternatively, some time could be set aside in seminars to discuss these comments.
Some lecturers provide students with their mobile phone number and encourage students to ring them with any queries. These can be much quicker to resolve than through email as the query can be discussed. To protect their privacy, some lecturers may prefer to have a dedicated pay-as-you-go mobile for this purpose.
Another useful way of assessing how well you have communicated is for students to submit their lecture notes to you for comment. Use of this practice depends on how much time you have to devote to making comments, but verbal comments could be delivered quickly and individual students could see you with their notes in your office hours. This approach can provide the lecture with valuable feedback on the effectiveness of lectures and students with valuable comments on their note-taking.
Many departments have instituted a formal system of peer observation of teaching as part of an appraisal system. Others use it as a confidential and more informal form of staff development. If it is used to enhance teaching, rather than merely judging performance, it can play a very valuable role in improving student learning from classes.
A pairing system, where the two lecturers take it in turns to be observer and observed, can be a relatively unthreatening process and a very useful means of finding out how to improve your lecturing skills. This is especially so if the process is carefully structured, with prior discussion of learning objectives between observer and observed. The action of observing and giving feedback can be as instructive as the feedback from being observed. There is a danger, however, that the partners merely reinforce each other’s prejudices. For this reason, it is normally good practice to rotate partners and also to provide some staff development activity in observing and giving feedback.