Student Evaluations

I have received consistently strong positive evaluations from students both before and after arriving at JMU.  This page will cover my evaluations at NJIT and at JMU.  Given my teaching awards, consistently above average teaching evaluations, and strong written feedback from students, I consider this to contribute to the evidence for my having met the criteria for Excellent in teaching.

Student Evaluations from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT)

I was employed as a Special Lecturer at NJIT (NJIT’s equivalent of an RTA position) for five years before coming to JMU.  While there I maintained a course load of 4 courses per semester while being a grad student, running a web-consulting business on the side and being the sole provider for my family of four.  I maintained consistently high ratings from students which culminated in being nominated for a university-level Excellence in Teaching Award for which I received an honorable mention:

NJIT Award for Excellence in Teaching

In addition, a course I created while at NJIT in web applications was highlighted in the departmental brochure that was created to recruit new students into the department.  According to the student quoted in the brochure about my class:

To say this experience was valuable is an understatement.  It was the most practical, real-life experience I’ve ever had.
–Francesca Francois, IT Major at NJIT

NJIT College of Computing Sciences Brochure

Instructors were evaluated on a scale of 0-4 by questions 5-12 on the NJIT course evaluation form.  Attached are the summaries of my evaluations.  My average instructor rating was 3.396 out of 4.000 for my entire time as an lecturer and I never received a rating below 3.000.

NJIT Teaching Evaluation Summaries 2001-2005

Students were asked several open-ended questions on the evaluations.   Here are some of the typical responses that I received:

Question:  What are the best features of this course?

The instructor’s ability and attitude.

The teacher, Mr. Benton.

The assignments are relevant to what is in industry.

It is challenging, realistic, learned a lot of useful skills.

We learned by a hands-on approach.

Teacher knows how to get people to learn.

Question:  Would you recommend this instructor to friends?  Why or why not?

Yes! Because Prof. Benton knew what he was talking about.  Always available for help in extra hours after class.

Yes.  If need anything, was willing to help.

Yes, the teacher has sufficient knowledge about the course and knows how to communicate well with students.

My experiences as a teacher at NJIT played a very large role in shaping my dissertation and the research focus that I have carried forth into my work at JMU.  It also led me to seek out employment at a teaching school, as opposed to a research school.  I wanted to find an academic home like JMU where my focus on becoming the best instructor possible would be valued and rewarded.

Student Evaluations from JMU

At JMU I have continued to receive consistently strong, positive reviews from students.  I have pulled more than my share of the load teaching an overload course nearly every semester that I have been here except for the first and this past spring.  One testament to my reputation among students is the number who have sought me as a senior project advisor. I have mentored fourteen senior projects for a total of twenty-six students and had a significant support role in four other projects with a total of eight students.  This is an average of nearly three projects and over five students per year, which is well above the departmental average.  One of my student projects, NextStep by Brian Rapp and David Ramsey, received both the Integration Award and the Best Honors Thesis Award that year.

Figure 1 (click the graph to enlarge it) shows the trend in my evaluations for each individual question on the teaching evaluation form over my entire time at JMU.  The majority of my ratings fall between 4 and 5 on the vertical axis.  While this chart shows a clearly positive record, some of the the lower ratings and overal trends bear some comment and explanation to provide context.

Figure 1--Teaching Evaluations All Semesters

If you would like to see them, you may download all of my scanned course evaluations since coming to JMU (34MB).

The lowest ratings are for Question #13: The textbook makes a valuable contribution to the course.  The low ratings for the textbook should not be surprising given my attitude towards technology textbooks, which clearly has been transmitted to my students.

Questions 11 (Course objectives, expecations, and grading policy are clearly defined) and 10 (The instructor gives timely feedback on student performance) were an issue during the 2007-2008 school year, my second at JMU, but as the chart shows, I improved on those areas, primarily due to the feedback I got on my TAP evaluations.

The other obvious trend is the sizable dip in evaluations for the Fall 2009 semester, which follows an apparent rise in the Spring 2009 semester.  Spring 2009 was the semester that I piloted my choose-your-own-grade approach to teaching ISAT 252.  As I’ll explore in greater depth in a moment, there was a strong, positive reaction to this experiment from the students.  On the other hand, there was at the same time a strong negative reaction from some members of the IKM academic team.  As a result, I felt compelled to go back to a more traditional form of evaluation.  This led me to have a much less coherent form of evaluation and approach to the course than in past semesters.  The students in my courses in the Fall 2009 semester were mostly ISAT 340 students who had taken my ISAT 252 sections in the spring.  As such, they had a set of expectations for how the class would be run that weren’t met.  While my ratings have mostly recovered since then, I’m still working to find the appropriate mix of traditional and progressive evaluation.

One of the things about this chart I’m proudest of is that my highest ratings are consistently for Question #6 (The instructor shows concern and respect towards students) and for Question #8 (The instructor is effective in helping students outside of class).  I also have high ratings for Question #5 (The instructor acknowledges all questions insofar as possible) and Question #9 (The instructor is fair and impartial).  Above all I want to be known as an instructor who cares about and is committed to his students.  I believe these ratings demonstrate that I’m meeting that goal.

In summary, my teaching evaluations demonstrate that, at worst, that I am performing satisfactorily from the students’ perspective, and, at best, that I am an outstanding instructor.  Personally, I prefer the latter interpretation.  The next section will provide a more qualitative defense of this interpretation.

Written Feedback from Students in the Choose-Your-Own-Grade Class

I have described my experiment with a choose-your-own-grade approach to assigning grades.  In this section, I’ll share some of the comments that students in that section shared with me as part of their semester portfolios.  I believe what the students had to say one of the most profound and exciting results to come of this study.  The comments in this section come primarily from students who did NOT go on to take ISAT 340 or concentrate in IKM.  The students who were truly motivated to excel in 252 that semester have accomplishments in programming that stand on their own and which are highlighted on the page that describes the experiment.  I think the much more interesting impacts are seen in the students who learned that programming was not how they wanted to spend their time in the future.  These are their comments.

The first comment is typical of the students who were taking ISAT 252 only because it was required and who didn’t think they would take IKM as a sector or concentration:

Before the semester started, I thought this class was going to be [my] least favorite because I hadn’t done much programming before, and what I had done I didn’t enjoy…[but] I actually felt the worse [sic] when I didn’t come to your class even though it wouldn’t affect my grade.  The way the class was set up made it so I didn’t even realize I was learning, and it felt like just hanging out.  For example, going into the tests I didn’t study and I was surprised by what I knew….  I like that you let us decide what determined a good quality program because then we knew exactly what should be done….  After being in your class I have a whole new perspective on school.  You made me see that I am here for a reason, and being here is a privilege.  For example, in my other classes I started taking time to actually comprehend the subject because I don’t want to waste my parents’ money….  I have made an effort to stop doing as little as possible for my classes because of your class.  Now I am more concerned with learning the material, rather than just passing the class (and getting good grades is just a perk).  Even my roommates have been making fun of me for how much effort I’m putting into my classes.  I’ve honestly worked a lot harder this semester, and it is because of your class….  Even though we didn’t get grades for your class, the [252] labs usually came before my other homework because I wanted to do it rather than just having to do it.

The student who wrote this did not become an outstanding programmer, but the change in perspective brought about by the pedagogy is arguably more valuable than any programming skills she might have acquired.  I got another similar response from one of the “worst” students in the class:

Morgan, your passion for teaching and enthusiasm for students is unparalleled.  You not only inspired me to rethink how I look at college but the way you carry yourself has helped me mature so much this spring semester.  Whenever I brought up something [of only tangential relation to the topic] such as Candide, or the Washington Capitals you were always up beat and were into it.  After spending an entire semester with you I know that is your genuine personality and I strive to be like that.

This student was paying his own way through school and stopped attending class midway through the semester.  I became worried about him when his roommate related to me that he was skipping his other classes and spending all of his time playing video games.  As a result of that, I went to visit him at his house one evening with my TA.  He explained to me that up until this point his attitude had been that since he was paying his own way through school, that he’d spend his time however he wanted to, even if that meant skipping classes and drinking too much.  That sets up the context for his next comment:

When you came to my house to see how I was doing, that really changed things for me.  I still thought the same about programming [he "despised" it] but it made me realize how genuine you were and how much you cared, and it made me realize how much I missed listening to you in class when you give advice about previous and current experiences in your life….  Another huge thank you I have to give you is getting me really pumped up to do my senior thesis project.  Before it was a means to an end, but now it is something I am really ready to dive into to make a part of my college experience.

The next student was at the opposite end of the spectrum–a chronic overachiever–a double (or triple?) major who routinely took around 26 credit hours per semester.  This student only missed my class twice: once to have an emergency root canal, and the other because of an anxiety attack related to a physics exam she had that day.  In her end of semester narrative she said:

I have always lived my life according to one saying: You are what you do; therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit.  I work hard because all I want from life is to be respected.  And this does not mean that I will always be liked because I do have a habit of going against societal norms and embracing my ideals whether popular or not.  But because I act on what I believe and because I am true to those beliefs, I will gain respect in the long run.  Furthermore, my hard work has always been reinforced by the grade a professor gives me.  But along with this “reward,” I also believe there is a hidden punishment.  The grades come with expectations.  Before college, I was an average student with many extracurricular activities.  Now, I focus the majority of my energy into my academic work and my GPA reflects that.  The pressure to maintain that average is almost unbearable, but I remain sane because I am not obsessed about the number, but rather I am obsessed with excellence and potential.  Your class has proven to me that I can strive for excellence even without the grade on the line.

In a personal letter she wrote to me after the semester she went on to say:

I feel that my obsession with approval and excellence has become detrimental to my health and self worth because of the emphasis on the grade.  Even at the end of this semester my body and mind are in knots in the anticipation of the final judgment that will be passed on me by my professors.  And this judgment allots so much power over me….  Your guidance has helped me see, again, the difference between excellence and perfection in grades.

A few semesters later, when this student got her first B ever in a college class, she made a point of coming to me to let me know that she was not upset by it because she felt she had done her best in the class that semester.  Perfection was no longer something she struggled with quite as much.

Not all of my students were persuaded, however.  Here is a comment from another high-achieving student who did well in 252 despite not gaining a desire to pursue IKM further:

As previously stated, I really like the idea of not having grades.  But unfortunately, our world, or at least the schooling world, runs off grades.  It is a way to determine who is more or less intelligent in a large group of students.  However, grades do not account for effort, and I feel that this is why Dr. Benton is choosing not to use grades for his ISAT 252 class.  The most intelligent person can cruise through college with little to no effort and earn a high GPA.  On the other hand, a student who really puts in the effort but does not perform well on tests, etc., will earn a low GPA, though it doesn’t reflect their desire to do well in the class.  I believe the grading system is skewed and has been for a long time.

This was a student who both worked hard and got good grades.  She was likely headed to graduate school, in which case, her comment on the importance of GPA was sound.  Employers, on the other hand, have a more nuanced approach to interpreting GPA.  She clearly has conflicting feelings about what a grade should stand for: intelligence, effort, desire to do well?  She also has little confidence in how grades are assigned, but nonetheless is resigned to play the game.  That being said, she went on to say:

In not worrying about a grade, I received so much more from this class.  I worked at my own pace and was able to fully understand the material.  There was no rush to understand and because of that, I am confident that I could create a program using my knowledge and a variety of outside resources.  Though I don’t plan on working with computers in the future, I cannot predict how my career will play out.  If I do end up as a computer programmer or something of the sort, I am confident that I will be able to handle anything that is thrown at me.

This is not an inaccurate self-assessment.  One of this woman’s teammates’ father passed away unexpectedly during the semester, and she stepped up to take up the slack during his absence.  I think the outcome for this woman is one of the best we can hope for with the ISAT program–she was exposed to a method of problem-solving, for which she acquired a measure of competence and competence, along with a self-awareness of whether or not that was the kind of thing she wanted to spend her life doing or not.

Summary of Student Evaluations

For ten years, both at NJIT and JMU I have delivered a consistently high-quality experience for my students.  In particular, I believe that the record shows that I am an instructor who is:

  • Fiercely dedicated to his students
  • Committed to helping students discover, define, and act on their own priorities
  • Dedicated to making students more reflective, self-aware people, who value the opportunity they have in college and will become life-long learners
  • Keenly aware of the power over students that comes with being the professor, and very careful not to abuse that power
  • Courageous and creative in making pedagogical innovations
  • Committed to making the course as practical as possible for all of the students, not just the ones who plan to make a career in the programming world