Author Archives: Sean OToole

Posts: 2 (archived below)
Comments: 0

The Retrospective Essay as a Course Evaluation Tool

In addition to the official end-of-semester course evaluation, I like to ask my students to write a self-reflective “retrospective essay” about what they have learned and how they have experienced the course. For example, here’s the prompt I use for English 2100 (Writing I):

Please take some time to write in response to the following questions: What aspects of the course have worked well for you? What’s missing or could be improved? What is the biggest change in your writing—or your understanding of writing—since the beginning of the semester, and how are you feeling about it? What specific goals do you set for yourself going forward and how do you plan to achieve them?

I don’t grade or necessarily even comment on these—part of their usefulness is that they are not formal or “official” in any way—but I do count them toward the students’ participation grade. The responses are always interesting and usually fun to read. Students are remarkably honest, and I’ve had several tell me that they were surprised at how much came up for them in this exercise and how much they appreciated it.

As an informal self-evaluation, the assignment gives students a chance to reflect on their progress—to pause and evaluate what has happened for them during the course of the semester, and to articulate for themselves what they still need to work on and/or do in terms of process.

But from a course-evaluation perspective, there are several clear benefits for instructors, too: The responses are content- and course-specific, so I can tell if a particular teaching strategy or tool (the draft workshop, one-on-one conference, outside writing groups, etc.) is having the desired result. Also, the evaluative categories are student-generated, so what rises to the surface in these pieces is often very telling and helps me tailor future iterations of the course in content-specific ways. (I do this exercise at midterm, too, which gives me the chance to address any issues or concerns while the students are still in my course.)

This isn’t just for writing courses, either. There’s the pedagogic value of students writing about course material in their own words, reinforcing what has been learned, giving them a sense of progress, and creating an opportunity for them to take ownership of their goals and produce a game plan for future work in any discipline. Informal writing has been shown to help students learn—and remember—course content.

Another thing I ask students to do at the very end of the term is to write a brief letter to the next semester’s class about their experience over the course of the term and anything they wish they knew at the start that they know now. I then share these with my new classes, either by including outtakes on my syllabus or reading selections aloud in one of the early sessions the following semester.

These techniques don’t replace the official evaluation form, of course, but they do help give me another view into what students are learning and how they’re feeling about the course.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Mind the Gap: Creating Links Between Class Sessions

My classes meet twice a week. And while my syllabus presents a carefully planned series of linked readings, writing assignments, and in-class activities, I know my students don’t always experience the course as seamlessly as I might like. How could they with everything else they have to do?

One simple technique I’ve been experimenting with aims to create stronger links between individual class sessions. It’s a version of the strategy I used while writing my dissertation: to end each day’s work by jotting down a single concrete task to get started with in the morning. Applying this strategy to the classroom is easy and takes only a few minutes of class time; what’s more, it can provide an important form of intellectual communication between students and professor.

Here’s what I do:

Step 1. At the end of class, I ask students to reflect in writing on a still unclear point, a key concept just covered, or a remaining question from that day’s activity or discussion. (3-5 minutes)

Step 2. At the beginning of the next class, I ask students to share some of what they wrote at the end of the previous class and we use that as our new starting point. (3-5 minutes)

Building in time to think and reflect at the end of each class in this way can enable students to create continuity in their learning, and develop the good habit of ending a work session by identifying some next steps. In addition, students get practice summarizing and assimilating what they know, what they’ve learned, and what’s still not clear. And instructors get a better sense of students’ experience of the course.

Since the writing functions as a kind of mental bookmark, to be consulted and taken up at the beginning of the next class, there’s no need to collect it (although you might).


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments