Thursday, May 7, 2009

don rags: a different sort of student evaluation

(This post isn't specifically about the teaching of philosophy, so consider yourself warned.)

Michael is busy heroically (I'm not being facetious or sarcastic) refusing to ride the "Student Evaluations of Teaching Are Worthless" Express . Meantime, I thought I'd slightly redirect the conversation about student evaluations to focus on something equally timely at this point of the year: faculty evaluations of students, rather than by students.

A former student of mine is now a faculty member at a US college that has a tradition of holding "don rags" during each semester. As I understand it from her description, a student meets her instructors (i.e., dons) as a group. The student sits there and listens as her instructors discuss her in the third person. They talk about her work in each of their courses, their perceptions of her as a learner ("ragging" on her if the perceptions are negative), what she will need to do if she's to succeed in subsequent years, and even whether she will be asked not to come back. Then the student is invited to comment/respond.

Parts of that practice aren't entirely unfamiliar to me, from my time in graduate school: graduate faculty met each year to discuss their students' progress through the Master's or doctoral program, and sometimes to have difficult conversations about whether some student should be asked to leave the program. They then sent a letter to each student, summarizing their discussion.

Of course, I'm alternately intrigued and horrified by the practice of inviting the student to listen in on that discussion! But I'm also curious about some of the benefits and problems of structured, regular conversation between a student's instructors about that student followed by feedback to the student about the substance of that conversation.

(Some caveats: I don't mean the don rags specifically: they're only one possible model for how to do that. My graduate school department's practice is a different model; there may be still others. And I'm also assuming that these conversations could supplement, not replace, other ways of evaluating our students -- such as comments on their written work, etc. Finally, I'm thinking primarily of how departments could employ this method for their majors, rather than for undeclared students -- who might actually benefit more from it.)

The biggest problem, clearly, is the amount of labor/time that would be required. That would especially be true of departments with many majors and few faculty. My own department would not be especially heavily burdened by doing this, but I'm sure that others would find it very hard to do it annually, let alone once a term.

I can think of a few possible benefits of such a conversation and feedback:
  • a regular -- indeed, mandatory -- opportunity to talk with one's colleagues might help reduce the sense of isolation that many instructors feel, especially near the end of a term
  • we all have students who bring different -- sometimes very different -- personas to their different instructors, and that sort of conversation could help each instructor get a fuller, more complex sense of each student
  • many conversations about assessment that I've been privy to treat the primary object of assessment as the course, not necessarily the student. A "don-ish" conversation could, if it and the subsequent feedback were tied carefully to the "learning outcomes" that the department has established for its major(s), be a consistent way at the departmental level to assess each student's progress through the major
  • I've taught many students who, not necessarily through any fault of their own, treat each course as a discrete experience, related only coincidentally to any of their previous or subsequent coursework. Conversations and feedback of the sort I'm describing might help students develop/strengthen their meta-cognitive skills, helping them become more self-conscious of themselves as learners and as membes of an academic community.
Are there other benefits or problems with this way of evaluating our students? Can those of you who've been through it (either as instructor or student) chime in?


  1. Dr. Sanford AranoffMay 8, 2009 at 2:31 PM

    The goal of learning is understand. Teachers must know how students think, and build from there, and then test their understanding. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

  2. This sounds similar to an 'Academic Review' as it was called at my college. Reports were sent by my tutors (instructors) to my Moral Tutor (academic mentor), the Master (President) and the Senior Tutor (Academic Dean), who would discuss them with me.

    The difficulty was that, particularly because of the presence of the Master, the occasion was too formal and polite. There was a reluctance to issue harsh criticisms of a student in the presence of the Master. I'm not saying that this never happened. Some students did have bad academic reviews, and many students worried about the possibility, but it was a threat reserved for extreme cases.

    In my cases, the reports were always good, and so I really learned nothing useful from the process. So I think this kind of process can only worky well if it is possible to create an atmosphere were criticisms can be made without everyone feeling very uncomfortable.

  3. I went to a small liberal arts college in california where the department in which I majored used the 'Don Rag' model.

    Three observations that I have of this type of student evaluation are 1) it seemed like this kind of evaluation was most effective as a sort of general critique of a student qua student, rather than specific critiques of individual assignments. Written comments on work are still necessary (though I imagine that most people who read about this method guessed that). 2) On a related note, a written summary of what was discussed in the don rag might help a student remember the specifics of the conversation and be able to better make use of the advice the faculty offer. 3) For some students, the experience of the don rag can be VERY intimidating and cause lots of anxiety; we regularly had people, even very good students, reduced to tears even before the meetings. Some efforts by the faculty to reduce the stress might be helpful.


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