I like to end the semester with an optional in-class course evaluation of my own design. I enjoy reading students’ reflections on their work over the semester, and I find their feedback on particular pedagogical techniques very useful. I often ask what their experience was of particular assignments, and if they found certain teaching techniques to be useful or not. I keep this feedback in mind when lesson planning and constructing future courses. I direct students not to write their names on these evaluations, but since I collect them, I know that some students will not feel fully comfortable giving negative feedback. Despite this restriction, my students wrote quite expansive and candid responses to many of my proposed questions, and overall provided a positive representation of their experiences in the class.
This semester, since I was experimenting with a new teaching technique, I was particularly interested to hear students’ feedback on the daily class structure. I structured most classes in the same way, starting with a brief lecture on the historical context of a reading under discussion, then moving into that reading’s main arguments, and then assigning paragraphs to students for closer reading, before coming back together for a group discussion. In the group discussion I would move around the room, calling on every student and giving them an opportunity to speak. Students almost universally expressed positive feedback on this structure. Many commented that they found the short lectures to be important for their understanding of context, and that breaking the readings up by paragraphs helped them comprehend the challenging texts. A number of them also noted that they liked the class discussions because they got to hear how other students interpreted the readings, and to consider the points of view of their classmates. A few students even commented on the classroom dynamics, noting that everyone was respectful and engaged, which made them enjoy the discussions more. The majority of respondents also noted that they enjoyed the chance to write a research paper on a topic of their choosing. Some also commented that they found this assignment challenging, but enjoyed it nonetheless.
I also found the responses to a question about their favorite and least favorite of the course readings extremely interesting. Almost every student wrote specific and thoughtful responses about their favorite readings. Many students liked readings that they felt they could personally connect to, others liked texts that introduced them to completely unfamiliar elements or frameworks of history, and others enjoyed chapters that provided a new interpretation of a familiar event. These responses reaffirmed to me the value of assigning excerpts from the work of many different scholars, and introducing students to subfields within U.S. history. Many students did not respond to the question about their least favorite reading, or noted that they found all the readings interesting in some way. A few students mentioned particular texts that they struggled to understand, and two students named readings that they found ideologically challenging. I found the latter responses interesting, particularly since both texts had been listed by a number of other students as their favorite of the semester. Ultimately, I was impressed by the students’ strong responses to the assigned readings. I had begun the semester with a bit of uncertainty about how students would respond to reading excerpts from scholarly books, instead of a textbook. My experience this semester, as well as the evaluation responses, convinced me of the value of this technique.