Scientific methods

I basically stopped writing this blog last quarter, because I wanted to write about teaching, but I fell into an ethical conundrum: is it fair to write about experiences involving other people in real-time, if they don’t know that they are being written about—even if you leave names out of it?  I’m not even sure that the timing matters; it seems a strange thing to write about other people regardless of whether it’s real time or not, although relating stories about “Funny things that happened to me in the past” already lends distance to the stories, right?  Somehow, writing about past events seems less like nosily intruding on everyone else.

And with teaching, of course, there’s always the possibility that my students (hi, guys!) will find the blog entries and learn more about what I think of the class, or what I’m planning to do with it, than I might normally tell them.  I have to admit, I’m still experimenting on my students, finding what works and what doesn’t, but I’m not necessarily sharing all of the details of the experiments with the subjects—doesn’t that change the results?

However, I suppose there are things I could still say, without tipping my hand or specifically discussing other people.  For example, this quarter, I’ve decided to give my students periodic questionnaires asking for feedback on the class format.  In business-speak, I’m trying to get the students ‘invested’ in the class by giving them ‘ownership.’  I’m willing to adjust how I teach (to a certain extent) based on class feedback, if a number of them feel strongly about an issue, but of course, I can’t know how they feel unless they tell me.

So in the first class, I sent them home with a short survey about what they’ve found helpful or engaging in their favorite discussion classes, and about what they found challenging in discussion classes in general, and our class in particular.  (I’m teaching the 2nd quarter of a 3-quarter sequence, so all of them have had one quarter of this class and can tell me about their experiences with a different instructor.)

The results of the first questionnaire were pretty diverse, and so I found especially surprising the large number of responses that mentioned enjoying classes most when all the students participated.  I always want them all to participate, of course, and I try to formulate the discussions so that they actually talk amongst themselves, with me as more of a guide than moderator who must always be addressed.  I get the impression that many of their classes tend to be back-and-forth discussions between one student and the professor, then another student and the professor, etc., and that’s not the sort of class I want to run.

After reading the first group of questionnaires, I reported back to the students about their assessments of beneficial classes and laid out a plan to drive our class in the directions they indicated.  In order to get everyone to participate, in the next class, I split them into groups and gave them assignments for small group discussions, the results of which they would present to the class to generate discussion.

This time, the survey asks for their input about that small group work.  It will be interesting to hear what they have to say, and actually, I find myself kind of excited about so quickly receiving feedback for techniques I’m trying out.  If the experiment with the questionnaires turns out favorably, I may use it in the future, too.  Why wait for the end-of-the-quarter evaluations, when you can’t change anything, anyway?  I am deeply skeptical of their utility, particularly since they seem largely to be a forum for the airing of grievances.

But I digress.  Evaluation is important.  It will also be interesting to see if my ego can survive multiple mid-quarter responses to my methods…stay tuned.

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