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Year of Learning Autumn Quarter Concludes with a Focus on Fostering Teaching Excellence through Learning Goals and Stanford's New Course Evaluations

Faculty Members Talking

Photos by Misha Bruk. 

A faculty panel explores the intersection of learning goals, teaching excellence, and course evaluations 

At a recent lunch sponsored by Stanford’s Year of Learning initiative and attended by more than 50 educators, a panel of distinguished university teachers discussed how to formulate effective learning goals, how those goals can be used to improve teaching on campus, and how they can be advanced through the new course evaluation system that Stanford has recently adopted.

The overarching topic for the Year of Learning’s Fall quarter has been “The Art and Science of Teaching and Learning,” noted Year of Learning coordinator and VPTL director of interdisciplinary teaching and learning, Petra Dierkes-Thrun at the panel’s conclusion. 

“Today’s event highlighted that the art and science of teaching and learning cannot be separated. We need to think strategically about learning goals and the lessons of learning science, and bring those into the realm of practice, asking, how do you do this as you creatively design your own syllabus and construct your learning activities, so that you are directing your expertise and enthusiasm to further your students’ learning?”

Prof. Pat Burchat Talks

The panel began with physicist and education professor Carl Wieman asking attendees to share experiences that had made them think they were successful in their teaching. The hope, he said, was to underline that the work of articulating learning goals can be much more than just another administrative task. Responses included: getting direct feedback from students, having students ask deep questions, seeing them thrive in later life and applying the skills they’ve learned beyond the class, and hearing that a class had inspired students to change major or their post-college plans. 

Professor of mechanical engineering Sheri Sheppard then shared how her own teaching has changed over time as she’s sought to understand what best helps her students achieve the learning goals she has for them. In particular, Sheppard noted, she has shifted framing her desired learning outcomes from general descriptions (e.g. “students should have a better understanding of the role that analysis and modeling play in design”) to more precisely-defined actions (e.g. “be able to apply analytical skills to evaluate structural responsive systems in static equilibrium”). Whether students achieve the former can be hard to accurately assess. But with the latter, she suggested, “you can see if they are doing the things you are looking for.” 

 

Other elements of Sheppard’s courses that are designed to test whether students “get it” include problem sets that are set in a real world context (where ethical considerations about building safely are included, for example), sessions where students build and test their own model engineering projects, and a final exercise that asks students to map the concepts taught over the class and that shows whether they have grasped how its various elements intersect.  

Sheppard closed her presentation by describing how her own, class-specific student course evaluations have helped her understand whether students have achieved her learning goals – and she noted that with Stanford’s new, more flexible student evaluation forms, she no longer has to create her own and can instead adapt the university-wide form to suit her needs.

Professor Berman Speaks

The panel’s next speaker, German literature professor Russell Berman, followed up on that point, offering a deeper perspective on how Stanford’s new course evaluations can help measure how well students have met their teachers’ learning objectives. “At stake here is the status of teaching in the research university,” suggested Berman, who led the university committee that created the new evaluation system. The retooled forms, he said, “will get us better information and will encourage faculty to articulate learning goals more effectively.”

 

Students don’t always understand why they are being asked to fill out evaluations or know that their teachers take them seriously, Berman added. He encouraged faculty and instructors to set aside time in class to explain what they are doing and why, and to allow students time to at least begin filling the form out while the questions are fresh in their minds.

To maximize the value they gain from student feedback, teachers must optimally frame their learning goals in the first place. To that end, the panel’s final section, led by Carl Wieman and Robyn Dunbar, VPTL senior director of Learning Experience Design, offered a set of tips for creating truly effective learning goals.

These included understanding for whom the goals are useful (not just students and instructors, for example, but other faculty who are teaching related classes), being specific in describing the desired outcomes, and also leaving room for assessing affective measures such as whether a class increases a student’s likeliness to explore further in the field.  

Well-written learning goals have a particular value when it comes to learners understanding that they are indeed learning, argued Dunbar. As a former geology professor, she recalled, she repeated a challenge at the start and end of a class in order to be clear that her teaching had make a difference. Students, though, were often unaware of how much they had learned until they compared their answers. “It taught me that students can have major transformations towards our learning goals and not be aware of it,” said Dunbar. As a result, she said, her evaluations became less about her teaching and more about what students were learning. 

Now that she supports teaching at Stanford, Dunbar sees that students also often don’t understand the organizational structure of a course. Sharing learning outcomes that are clear and revisited through the course, she said, “is a way to help students see what those threads of the course are.”

Questions and observations from the floor covered a wide range of topics, from a caution to remember that student evaluations will always have biases, to a discussion of how courses evolve, to a question about how to develop goals in specific fields, such as the humanities, that often have less easily quantifiable ambitions. 

Discussion by Attendees

Despite the real potential for biases to impact student evaluations, and the subsequent need not to use them as crude tools for assessing instructor and faculty performance, argued Berman, “I don’t think we want to stop listening to students as to how they respond to courses.” His committee’s focus, he noted, has been on how they can offer teachers richer and more accurate feedback as to whether they are meeting their own goals. And in that respect he said, the new forms are a huge improvement over the old. 

Following up, Sheri Sheppard called for a ‘cultural shift’ in how student evaluations are used. It’s not healthy to fret over them in private, she said. Instead, they should spawn conversation with teachers “using each other as sounding boards and part of a design team to move forward with our courses.”

Robyn Closes The Session

A question about which come first, your learning goals, assessment tools, or the topics about which you want to get students excited, sparked a conversation about the practical realities of how classes get created – the art of teaching, in other words. And panelists pushed back at doubts raised that humanities subjects are less amenable to teaching evaluation’s more analytical, or “scientific,” side.  If the aim, for example, is to have student’s “read deeply,” argued Wieman, “faculty have a very clear idea of what that means.” It’s not impossible to then define those actions fairly precisely, he added, and the evaluate whether they are things that students are learning to do. 

 

Concluding the event, Robyn Dunbar, asked participants to reach out to VPTL staff with any further questions they have about learning goals, class organization and course evaluations, and noted a follow up workshop on December 4th (see below).

“This is a community effort,” she added. “Coming together and talking about teaching, thinking about learning goals, getting feedback from colleagues, is something we best do together.”  

Stanford faculty and instructional staff are invited to a follow up workshop, "Using Learning Goals for Effective Teaching," on December 4th, in Sweet Hall between 12:00 and 1:15 PM. Lunch will be provided to participants who RSVP.

Watch video of the event in our Year of Learning Video Gallery