Concluding the Course

The last few weeks of any semester are always hectic.

Especially for graduate students still taking classes, you share your students’ urgency to finish papers, lab work, reports, and projects. Perhaps you will write exams for your students as you prepare for exams yourself. Then come the inevitable tasks of evaluating final student work, and assigning and reporting final grades. In some cases, classrooms, labs, or offices must be closed down or prepared for the next semester or resources returned to departments or the Center for Teaching and Learning. Given the intensity of this part of any semester, it is easy to overlook the need for you and your students to evaluate your teaching performance before the semester and your students slip away. As with any other facet of your teaching, the responsibilities at the end of the semester can be fulfilled more easily if they are considered in the initial phases of course planning. Much of what is said below is greatly facilitated by advanced planning before the semester begins.

Evaluating Student Performance

Balancing Measurement and Judgment

While learning, not final grades, should be the outcome of any course, our system requires the assigning of a final evaluation in the form of a letter grade. Wholistic evaluation of student performance entails measurement and judgment. Traditional methods of assessment--such as tests, exercises, assignments, term papers, lab reports, and final examinations--can certainly measure student learning, and the more opportunities throughout the semester that you provide students with different types of assignments, the better they will be able to show how much they’ve learned. Student learning may also be judged on evidence of improved performance, increasingly meaningful contributions to classroom discussions, and other less empirical assessments.

Whatever your criteria for evaluation, you should clearly articulate to your students all the factors that will influence your final evaluation of their individual performance, and you must stick to that standard. The best way to avoid conflict at the end of the semester is to include a specific grading criteria in your syllabus, complete with descriptions of assignments, due dates, and percentage values. As a legal document, your syllabus is your best resource when determining or justifying final grades.

Final Examinations

It is University policy that each student have the opportunity to take a final examination at the completion of a full semester of instruction. An official examination period for each course is therefore considered to be an integral part of the class schedule. The dates for final examinations for each semester, as well as the general academic calendar, can be found at the website for the Office of the Registrar: http://www.reg.uga.edu
This website is also where you will go to post final grades (see “Faculty/Staff Services”). It is important that you know the exam schedule for the classes that you teach before the beginning of the semester so that you can include the latest information on your syllabus. Your students can then make arrangements well in advance in case there are any conflicts. For resolving student conflicts with the exam schedule, go to: http://www.bulletin.uga.edu

The scheduling of classroom space for exams, however, is done at the department level. Because final exams are often scheduled in rooms other than your regular classroom, find out as early as possible where your classes’ examinations will be held and remind your students for a number of class sessions leading up to the examination date.

Although the University prescribes the exam schedule, the form and content of the final examination is left to the discretion of the teacher. Typically, a written test or written assignment is used for final examinations in introductory undergraduate courses at The University of Georgia, but a number of imaginative, alternative methods of examination have been employed with success. Discussion of testing and grading with your supervisor and other teachers in your department should generate many interesting ideas for developing final examinations.

Let your students know at the beginning of the semester what form of final examination you plan to use so they can prepare accordingly. For instance, if the exam is to be comprehensive, your students will know that they are responsible for all the material in the course. Conversely, if you decide that the final exam will include only the topics covered since the last test, they will know that you wish them to concentrate their studies on those topics only. Likewise, if the examination is to be a written objective test, the class will know that you feel it is important that they be able to remember, identify, or recognize essential information. If it is to be an essay, problem-solving exam, or oral interview, the students will know that you expect them to have a more general understanding and command of the basic concepts and principles they have learned. The clearer you can make your expectations, the more likely your students will expend their energies in productive study rather than futile cramming for “anything the teacher might throw at them.” Also remember that the form of your final examination should reflect the learning goals you established for the class and the learning activities you had them do throughout the semester.

If you do not return final exams to students at the conclusion of a course, keep them for a minimum of one semester in order to provide an opportunity for review and discussion.

Assigning Final Grades

Starting in the Summer of 2006 and continuing for three-years of pilot testing, The University of Georgia will use letter grades and plus/minus symbols for recording specific course grades. While teachers of record are not required to use the plus/minus grading system, it provides more grade options and is thought to encourage student effort as courses progress. For instance, students with an 85 going into the final often see little incentive to studying hard, knowing that whether they do their final work at the A or C level, the result will be a B. That same student under the plus/minus system now has the opportunity to strive for a B+ by trying harder. The corresponding numerical equivalents of the grading letters and symbols to compute grade point averages are as follows:

If further information is needed regarding the University’s uniform grading policy, you should contact your supervisor, department head, or other designated official in your department. Additional general information on grading is included in Chapter 11, “The ABC’s of Assigning Grades,” in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (12th edition).

In the final analysis, the strategy you choose for determining students' final grades should be one that is as fair as possible to them and best represents their accomplishments. Finally, McKeachie provides this bit of wisdom: “Whatever your grading strategy, being more generous in assigning grades to tests and papers than in the final distribution of grades guarantees visits from aggrieved students.”

Posting Grades and Student Privacy Rights

Individual grades are part of a student’s confidential record and are subject to the provisions set forth in the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). University FERPA policies regarding student privacy indicate that you cannot release student grades to anybody besides the Registrar and the student without his or her written consent, except in the case of a UGA official with a legitimate educational interest. Visit http://www.ed.gov and search for “FERPA” for more specific information. To be safe, do not post grades publicly, even by a numerical identification system. One of the many advantages of using eLearning Commons is a built-in grade reporting feature that allows students to follow their own progression through your course. Otherwise, encourage students to keep up with their own grades. Lastly, inform students that they can have access to their final grades through OASIS as soon as you post them.

Reporting Grades

Among those who have a legitimate reason to know your students’ grades are University officials responsible for establishing and/or maintaining student records. Therefore, you are required to post students’ final grades on the Registrar’s website prior to the submission deadline. Go to http://www.reg.uga.edu and select "Faculty/Staff Services" for online grade rolls, information and links pages, and deadline information. Your MyID and password are required for access to grade rolls. If you have any questions regarding policies and procedures for the security and reporting of grades, confer with your supervisor and/or department head. You must adhere to the deadline for submission of final grades, and you are personally responsible for posting your final grade report to the Registrar’s Office website. If you miss the deadline, your entire class will be assigned “NR” (no record); and you will be required to manually fill out a grade change form for each student in your class.

Grade Changes

Once a grade is reported to the Registrar, it may be changed only by completing the official grade change form. The grade change must be initiated by the instructor of the course, and the grade change form must be signed and approved by the head of the department in which the course was taught. The form must then be forwarded to the dean of the college or school in which the student is registered and finally to the Registrar’s Office. Change of Grade forms may be obtained from your department’s office or from the dean’s office.

Any grade may be changed by the instructor if it is determined that an error was made in reporting the original grade. An “incomplete” may be changed by the instructor to another grade if the student fulfills the requirements of the course within three semesters. Otherwise, the grade will be changed to the grade “F” by the appropriate official. (Example: An incomplete grade given for a course taken in Spring 2006. This grade will convert to an "F" after 9:00 AM on the deadline date for grade rolls for Spring 2007.

Assessing and Evaluating Teacher Performance

Now that you have finished evaluating your students' performance through final grades, it is time to reflect and assess how well you taught them. One assessment of teaching effectiveness is student ratings. While faculty members often question the validity of student ratings, over 2,000 studies have shown a correlation between student ratings and average scores on achievement tests. Although students are not particularly good judges of a teacher's knowledge of the subject, they are very capable of assessing an instructor's preparedness, organization, availability, and fairness.

At the University of Georgia, specific policies and procedures for all facets of course evaluation are generally determined at the division or department level, but each class should conclude with some form of student evaluation of the course and the instructor's performance. Students should complete course evaluations well before the last day of class if possible, and those evaluations should remain sealed until after you have posted your final grades.

In addition to the end-of-semester evaluation, you can have your students evaluate your course and your teaching at mid-term or even earlier. In many ways, mid-term evaluations are better because you can use the feedback you get from students to address concerns they have and perhaps change aspects of the course or teaching. A mid-term evaluation can be as easy as asking students to answer anonymously the following items: (1) What are one or two specific things your instructor does that help you learn in this course? (2) What are one or two specific things your instructor does that hinder or interfere with your learning? (3) Give your instructor one or two specific, practical suggestions on ways to help you improve your learning in this course (Angelo and Cross).

When you get the opportunity to view the student evaluations for a class you are teaching or have just completed, prepare yourself. Teaching is an intensely personal matter for most teachers, and many approach the first evaluation of their teaching with trepidation. Even the most experienced teachers sometimes feel this uncertainty at evaluation time. Even the most accomplished teachers admit having to fight occasional feelings of defensiveness when negative aspects are mentioned in an evaluation of their teaching. This response is perfectly natural. If you believe you are doing your best, it hurts to discover that you still have shortcomings—until you realize that the knowledge of your shortcomings gives you the insight and opportunity you need to improve.

Besides student evaluations, there are other assessments of teaching effectiveness, such as peer reviews, critiques by your supervisor or major professor, video recordings, and teaching portfolios. Used together, these different forms of assessment provide opportunities for reflection on teaching that is one of the most consistent characteristics of the most effective teachers.

Learning from Experience

The basis for learning from experience is an awareness that teaching is an acquired skill which deserves the same scrutiny and nurture as any other important work. Probably the most important steps in learning from experience are (1) recognizing the very natural feelings of uncertainty and defensiveness about being evaluated; (2) overcoming those feelings long enough to separate yourself from your teaching so you can take a good, objective look at your own strengths and weaknesses; and (3) accepting the evaluations of other qualified observers regarding your teaching effectiveness. Self-assessment is a very useful form of evaluation, especially when used in the formative sense for improvement of instruction throughout a course.

Improvement

Any steps you can take to learn from experience should be very worthwhile, especially if you are anticipating a career in teaching. If your department conducts regular teacher evaluations, you will have a ready-made source of information which may include student evaluations, peer evaluations, and/or supervisor review. If this information is unavailable, you may wish to develop and circulate to your students an informal teacher-evaluation form soliciting suggestions for improvement, or, you may request the assistance of the Center for Teaching and Learning in conducting a more comprehensive evaluation in which your students may express themselves with the assurance of anonymity.

Inviting your supervisor or a favorite professor to observe your teaching and make suggestions for improvement may be very helpful. Having a fellow teaching assistant critique a class session is often very productive. Sitting in on the classes of outstanding teachers or more experienced GTAs in your department will also give you a base of comparison for your teaching. To see yourself as others see you can sometimes be the most revealing learning experience of all. This self-evaluation can be conducted most effectively by reviewing a video of a class session. Many departments that have regular access to video recording equipment make this evaluation service routinely available to their teaching staff. If your department does not have this capability, however, you may contact the Center for Teaching and Learning for information regarding opportunities for recording your teaching.

Precautions

Any evaluation activity in the classroom should be as unobtrusive as possible to minimize the disturbance of the normal student-teacher interaction. Also, any unusual preparation for a monitored teaching session
should be avoided; the more normal you can be while being observed or recorded, the more useful the evaluation will be. Finally, all evaluation plans should have the approval and support of your supervisor. This preparation will prevent the possibility of a duplication of efforts in case your department is already planning to evaluate your teaching.

Practice Makes Perfect

For the teacher who is determined to continue developing personally and professionally the opportunities for improvement are numerous. A simple first step is listing your teaching strengths. These are your foundation for current teaching activities and should be maintained and enhanced with care. Avoid the trap of relying too heavily on your strong points at the expense of innovation and experimentation. Next, list the weak points revealed by the evaluation of your teaching and then turn the tables on your evaluators. Ask them for suggestions for overcoming the problems they observed. Note their suggestions, weigh them against your personal style and your teaching philosophy, and adopt the acceptable suggestions as your initial plan in your struggle against mediocrity. Here, it is just as important to guard against a defensive attitude as it is during any other phase of evaluation. Some of the suggestions for improvement you get from your supervisor, peers, students, or other sources may seem patently ridiculous at first, but try to be as objective as possible when you review them. Otherwise, your initial reactions may cause you to discard without examination some of the better ideas.

Teaching is a highly individualized activity, and any suggestions for change must be considered in this context. There is no “best” teaching style that will work equally well for all teachers, and the most successful teaching styles are those that develop as naturally as possible from a teacher’s own personal characteristics. If you are by nature an informal person, a suggestion to inject more humor might be very appropriate. If, on the other hand, you are by nature a formal person, an attempt to assume an informal, humorous manner may come across as just that, an assumed posture. In general, it is very important to be your sincere, best self in the classroom. You will have to be the ultimate judge of the acceptability of suggestions for change. Perhaps the best advice is to evaluate input and trust your judgment, but be sure that it is not clouded by a defensive resistance to change.

Periodic reevaluation of your teaching effectiveness will be needed to measure your improvement as well as to monitor the maintenance of your stronger teaching qualities. Reevaluation will probably reveal further opportunities for improvement, but new ideas may also be gleaned from other sources. For instance, observing class sessions of outstanding teachers in related fields may expose you to challenging new teaching techniques. A review of college teaching journals may produce useful information on the problems you are facing. Also, each issue of Teaching at UGA and The TA Newsletter, the CTL newsletters, contain a schedule of seminars devoted to timely topics related to teaching effectiveness and professional development.

Improving with experience is a continuous process. Success in teaching can be a source of tremendous personal satisfaction and enjoyment, and any steps taken to improve your teaching will likely enhance that sense of satisfaction. Consequently, a successful effort toward improvement will probably motivate several new efforts toward even better teaching performance.

Every effort toward constructive change carries both the potential for success and the risk of failure. For the students’ sake, it is very important to assess all teaching goals to maximize the chances for success. However, it is equally important to remember that, if teacher evaluations reveal teaching weaknesses, change already indicated and failure to seek improvement would be a disservice to your students. Concern for improvement ranks among the most important attributes of an effective teacher, so do not be timid about seeking improvement. It is expected of you. In the final analysis, your efforts should be rewarding both personally and professionally. But remember, learning is also student-dependent. Even the greatest efforts of a master teacher cannot guarantee success, so it is important to do your best and hope your efforts will motivate your students to do the rest.

Documenting Teaching Effectiveness: The Graduate School Teaching Portfolio Program and Certificate in University Teaching

One of the best ways to assess and evaluate your teaching and to improve it is through the process of assembling a teaching portfolio. To encourage GTAs to develop teaching portfolios, both to enhance teaching and to facilitate the academic job search, The Graduate School has initiated a Teaching Portfolio Program and offers a Certificate in University Teaching.

Teaching Portfolio

A teaching portfolio documents the extent to which you have developed your teaching so that your current department, future employers and promotion and tenure committees can fairly evaluate this important aspect of university scholarship. In addition, the process of reflecting on your teaching by compiling a teaching portfolio will help you to identify areas of teaching which need to be developed, helping you to become a better instructor. The time to start compiling a teaching portfolio is early in your graduate program so that you will have substantial documentation of your teaching philosophy and successes when you begin the interview process.

Different institutions and disciplines lend themselves to different types of documentation; nevertheless, the parameters of teaching you should consider include: the kinds of courses you teach, your methodology,
changes you have made to accommodate different kinds of students and learning objectives, your academic standards, student evaluations, peer evaluations and any special training or experiences that you have been able to use to improve your teaching. Many graduate students find that if they establish a file system when they begin their teaching career they can keep all possible artifacts for their teaching portfolio in one place so that it may be easily organized for use in documenting their teaching.

Every semester the Graduate School accepts portfolios for consideration for the Teaching Portfolio Program. The template for this version of a teaching portfolio includes the following elements:

Letter of nomination
a. A teaching philosophy statement
b. Description of courses taught
c. Sample teaching materials
d. Sample of student work
e. Innovative teaching projects and roles
f. List of professional activities related to teaching
g. List of special training or teaching-related experiences
h. Evaluation of teaching
For more information on teaching portfolios and the Graduate School Teaching Portfolio Program, visit: http://ctl.uga.edu/pages/graduate-schools-portfolio-program.

Certificate in University Teaching

Using the teaching portfolio as a cornerstone document, the Graduate School Interdisciplinary Certificate in University Teaching provides an opportunity for GTAs to further develop their teaching. The Certificate requires an application, a teaching portfolios, and the following additional elements:
a. Four Sections of Teaching at UGA
b. Nine Hours of Pedagogy Course Work
c. A Teaching Project
d. Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching
For more information on the Teaching Certificate, visit the Graduate School's webpage:
http://grad.uga.edu/index.php/current-students/professional-development/university-teaching/.

Closing Down the Classroom

If you will be teaching the same course in the same room next semester, “closing down the classroom” will coincide with the responsibility of preparing for the next semester. If you are graduating or the current semester is your last semester as a graduate teaching assistant, however, there are a few things you will need to remember. For instance, reference books or other personal items in convenient drawers, cabinets, or remote corners of the room should be reclaimed prior to vacating the classroom. Also, if any special furniture or apparatus has been checked out to you for use during the semester, it should be returned to the proper place and a receipt obtained so you can verify its return. Otherwise, your records could be flagged pending its return. Other considerations include reporting any damaged or unserviceable furnishings, fixtures, or apparatus that need repair or replacement. If bulk supplies, such as laboratory specimens or chemicals, were used in your teaching, you may be responsible for reporting any supplies that have been depleted. In laboratory and workshop situations, it is also important to be sure that the work areas and equipment are properly cleaned and stored to prevent deterioration, breakage, or loss. (Ideally, the students should take care of this responsibility at the last class session.) Common sense and departmental policy may dictate numerous other last minute functions. Once all these details are complete, you are ready for your final official responsibility: turning in the keys to the classroom, storage cabinets, supply rooms, and so forth. You will have done your job, and your graduate teaching opportunities and activities will have become your teaching experience and, in turn, a major component of your resume.