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Senate discusses learning goals and new course evaluations

October 23, 2015

The speakers at the Oct. 22 Faculty Senate meeting included Russell Berman, German studies and comparative literature; Jim Campbell, history; Susan McConnell, biology; and Sheri Sheppard, mechanical engineering.

Stanford's new course evaluation, which the university is launching in December, is a "robust new tool that is going to support us in improving our culture of learning and teaching," Professor Russell Berman told the Faculty Senate yesterday.
Speaking at the Oct. 22 meeting, Berman, a professor of German studies and of comparative literature, and the chair of the Course Evaluation Committee, said one of the key elements of the new form is that instructors can customize the course evaluation specifically to the format, teaching practices and learning goals of individual classes.
The new forms represent a significant change for Stanford because the questions – both  customized and standard – are designed to elicit responses about the success of the course in promoting student learning. Previous evaluation forms focused almost exclusively on the performance of the instructor.
Berman said encouraging students to be more thoughtful about their educational experiences would enhance the learning partnership between students and faculty at large.
He said the committee polled faculty, conducted focus groups with hundreds of students, studied the literature on course evaluations, phrased and rephrased the standard questions, read the questions to students to see how well they understood them, and distributed the draft form of the course evaluation to a select group of students as a trial run.
"I think we're ready to move ahead," Berman said. "We see this as an iterative process. We're going to be looking at user experience in the course of this year at least, and see if there are ways to phrase questions more effectively. I think that's the right way to go. I think we've given it a good shot, and I'm sure that we're asking very good questions that are going to be helpful to our culture."
Following Berman's presentation, three Stanford professors discussed their experience developing learning goals for upcoming classes. Learning goals are what instructors want students to know and be able to do at the end of a course.
Susan McConnell, a professor of biology, is developing learning goals for an upper division developmental neurobiology class she will teach winter quarter. 
"It's all about verbs – strong verbs – in these assessments," said McConnell, who used guidelines for developing learning goals that can be found on Stanford's New Course Evaluations website, developed by the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.
McConnell said she asked herself: "How can I use these [learning goals], not only to communicate more clearly with the students in my classroom – what I hope will happen between me and them – but also to be able to assess whether I have been successful."
In an earlier attempt to create learning goals for the class, McConnell wrote that she hoped students would "learn about how the brain gets put together during development."
Her new revised goal: "Describe and explain mechanisms that enable neural circuits to assemble during development."
Instead of "learn how to design experiments and evaluate data" and "learn to think critically," the new goals are "generate hypotheses, design experiments and evaluate data," "critically analyze primary research papers in the field of neural development" and "feel creatively engaged during lectures and in sections."
"It think these are going to make me better able to communicate at the beginning of my class – what I hope – and at the end of the class to remind them what we were trying to do. And that should give them the ability to reflect on those issues before they actually start filling out the evaluation."
The full minutes of the Oct. 22 senate meeting will be available soon on the Faculty Senate website. The minutes will include the Q&A sessions that followed the presentations.