A colleague, Professor Stewart Harris, recently published a piece in The Law Teacher with the catchy title: “Sometimes, We Really Do Suck” available athttp://lawteaching.org/lawteacher/2009fall/lawteacher2009fall.pdf. (scroll to page 18). Professor Harris wrote about student evaluations and recommends that professors should regularly look at the written student evaluations and seriously consider how to make changes to address the evaluations that offer “legitimate criticism.” Professor Harris also suggests that students should be specific in their criticism because “if they want me to stop sucking, they had better tell me, with some degree of specificity, just how I suck.”
The end of the semester is a time when I, as a newer professor, try to think about what worked and what didn’t for each class. As part of this process I spend some time during the last class asking students questions about the course and asking for their feedback and suggestions. Following Professor Harris’ advice, I try to get the students to be specific. I start the discussion with questions about the reading material, the assignments, the exercises, and how the class was structured. I usually get suggestions I wouldn’t have thought about. And, every year I find I make changes based on those suggestions. For example, some students negatively evaluated my practice of having discussion leaders in my ADR in Criminal Cases seminar. As a result we now have short debates instead. The debates not only get good reviews, but I think they actually encourage better analysis of the reading.
Some of the classes I teach are skills based dispute resolution classes and for those classes I think it is particularly helpful to ask students to engage in critical thinking about how to improve the class. Often students make suggestions about things I can’t change because of institutional constraints (for example, this year I was asked to provide free hard copies of the supplemental reading…something our budget doesn’t allow). Those suggestions often begin a wonderful interest based discussion. We start by discussing the institutional interest in the particular rule (which contrary to the first thought of many students is not to cause them grief) and then discuss the students’ interests. We then talk about whether there is a better way to address both sets of interests. And, for a moment at least, it takes all of our thoughts off the upcoming final exam or final paper.