First, I think I found a good balance between letting them work on their own and providing the right help. My first semester, I seemed to have very involved, satisfied students. I think some of that was because I just threw them into it without any advance help or suggestions. The second and third semesters I did this, I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the class talking about stuff. They didn't like that at all. This semester, I tried to go over things briefly, but certainly without the depth I had the previous two semesters. I spent a lot more time helping individual groups.
I think (?) that letting them work things out is empowering for them. They start to feel like they can handle it. Talking too much both bores them and makes them think that I believe they can't do it without help.
So the lesson I learned from this is that they want the help, but telling the class as a whole how to handle a problem doesn't go over well. They want you to go over it with them when they get there. Most of the time, they don't remember much about what you say at the beginning of class anyway. But now that I know which problems will send them into frustration overload, I think I am doing a better job of explaining the issues and making sure each group gets it.
On the other hand, you have to let them struggle and discuss it more than I had the previous two semesters. I definitely saw a difference in how much they were learning as individuals when they had to figure more out themselves.
I guess it's hard to find the right balance, but it's obvious when you do.
Second, I spent more time thinking about this post and how my students perceive me because I'm a female.
Let's just say I laid the empathy on super thick this semester. I tried to make sure that I cared about my students' grades. If labs had a particularly low grade, I tried to say that it was a challenging lab and to not get frustrated, etc.
So the end result is that I actually heard from a few students (after I sent them their final grades) that they really enjoyed the class or, if they didn't, that having me as their instructor made the class more bearable. I haven't had that happen any of the previous semesters.
I was made aware of two pieces of data over the past couple days which may or may not affect that.
First, it turns out that evaluations across the board were down last semester. I had horrid feedback last semester, but it may not have just been me. However, I've also heard of other instructors getting a lot of positive feedback from students this semester. So despite the fact that it's somewhat anomalous, it's anomalous for others as well.
Second, I also found out that, of the TAs who have taught both semesters this year, the averages for my final exams were the lowest of all the TAs. (Interestingly enough, there appears to be a trend that TAs who grade harder on exams tend to be higher on assignments, meaning we all average roughly the same.) More interesting, my averages for the final exams were the same as last semester. It would be an interesting exercise to see if there is any correlation on evaluations between, for example, final exam scores and/or lab scores versus 'approval rating'. To be honest, I don't know that there would be, based on how my classes have gone.