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Exit Interviews

For as long as I’ve been a faculty member at Grinnell, my department has done exit interviews with our graduating seniors. Each member of the department sits down with their advisees and asks a series of questions to find out about each advisee’s experiences in the major. (I’ve appended this year’s questions to the end of this essay.) Why do we do these interviews? In part, it’s nice to sit down and talk with each student one more time. In part, it probably provides some important self-reflection for our students (even if they don’t necessarily know that). But it’s mostly that we learn a lot from the exit interviews (or, more precisely, from the day or two in the summer when we sit down and read the comments anonymously). I’d say that most of our major curricular reforms in the time that I’ve been at Grinnell have been spurred, in part or in whole, by patterns of comments that we’ve seen in these exit interviews.

What changes have we made? We added a new lower-level thinking course that focused on pointers and data representation. (Okay, we added a course in C programming.) We moved the position of that course in the curriculum. We looked for ways to add more topics to the curriculum without expanding the faculty. (Okay, our graduating seniors didn’t tell us not to expand the faculty, they just told us they wanted more elective topics. External forces added the other constraint.) Student comments (not just in exit interviews) led us to rethink the math requirements. And that’s just a sampling.

I’m in the midst of exit interviews right now, and, given that I have twenty graduating seniors, it’s a lot of work. However, as I tell the students, it’s worth both my time and theirs. We really do learn a lot from them. As a colleague in another department said, The best assessment is X faculty talking to X students about X.

It’s also always interesting to see how students react to the various questions, most of which are somewhat open-ended. For example, when we ask about experiences in the major, some focus very much on classes and others say I assume that you want to hear about things outside of classes, since I know that you have separate questions about classes. I’ll note that both variations seem to work well. In part, What did you like best is very different than What contributed most to your education. In part, I’m happy to get information from them, in whatever question they find it easiest to respond to. I also have a lot of fun with asking students about courses outside the major (which I generally footnote as Mostly, this is a way for you to suggest things that we should suggest to other students).

What have I learned so far this year? I shouldn’t give things away, since I still have more exit interviews to do, and I think some of my students read these posts. (Perhaps that means that I should have delayed this essay until after I’d done all of these interviews. However, given my limited time to write, I basically have to finish every essay I start, which means I’ll have to write a followup essay. And maybe that’s okay; this essay can serve as an introduction to annual What I learned from exit interviews essays.) Although I won’t give details, I will say that I expect some fairly serious discussions about various aspects of our curriculum when we sit down as a department. I’ll also note that I was surprised not to hear some things mentioned.

I can give away that I was reminded that I need to be more organized in my classes and to give students more timely feedback. (Some students who have multiple classes with me noted that I did a very good job in some courses, so they felt let down in others.) That’s not so much of a departmental issue as an individual issue, but I do know that many members of the department are often less timely than we might be in responding to student work.

I’ve also been reminded how lucky I am to have these students as advisees. As a whole, they are a thoughtful and enthusiastic bunch, and I enjoy chatting with them about a variety of issues. (Yes, our discussions did go off track at times.) I will miss them, but I also know that I will likely hear from them as the years go on. And I hope to be able to tell them that they contributed to an even better curriculum.

1. Highs and lows

a. Looking back on your experiences in the major, what did you like best?

b. What did you like least?

2. Benefits

a. What did you gain from the major?

b. What do you wish you had gained from the major?

3. Courses

a. What courses in the major do you regard as essential to your education
in computer science?  Why?

b. Were there any courses in the major that you took but wish you had
not taken?  If so, which ones and why?

c. Were there any courses related to the major that you wish that you
had taken but didn't?  If so, which ones and why?

d. Were there courses outside the major that you regard as essential to
your education in computer science?  If so, which ones and why?

4. Community

The department cares deeply about its community. Feelings of community
might include awareness that you worked cooperatively with colleagues,
brought different strengths or skills, were treated with respect,
and felt comfortable asking questions.

How would you describe the CS department learning community and your
sense of belonging to it?

5. What suggestions do you have for improving or changing our program
for majors?

6. What else would you like me to know about your experience in the 
major or at Grinnell?

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-18.