Tuesday, January 11, 2011

If I Could Stick My Pen In My Heart/And Spill It All Over the Stage: Teaching Evaluations

If I could win ya, if I could sing ya
A love song so divine
Would it be enough for your cheating heart
If I broke down and cried? If I cried?

"It's Only Rock n' Roll (But I Like It)," Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1974

In the past week or so, as many of us have been putting together classes for the new semester, teaching evaluations have arrived.  I suspect they arrive electronically at most places now, as that is substantially cheaper for the institution. At Zenith we switched over from a paper system, where students filled them out together in one of the final classes, to an online one in which they fill them out alone and receive access to their grade for the course only after having done so. Like everyone else, students are bowling alone.

But I like it, like it, yes I do.  Photo credit.
I have thought for years that fall teaching evaluations, received as the promise of the new spring semester dawned, can have a particularly discouraging effect on new teachers.  One curious phenomenon is that practically everybody I know can get 99% great to good teaching evaluations, and the one nasty evaluation can have a particularly devastating effect.  Regardless of how incoherent it is, or how wrong, an anonymous student cutting you off at the knees about a course that you poured yourself into can feel like a stab in the back.

Because, of course, it is.  It was intended to be.  Or, at least, it's hard to imagine the student furrowing hir brow and thinking, "So how can I say how much I loathe you in a constructive and empathetic way?"

So without further ado, let's talk about how to read teaching evaluations, being hurt by comments, and what your own assessment of the student evaluations you receive has to do with being a good teacher.

Remember that they are students.  While students can have good insights into why a class worked or didn't work, insights that need to be listened to, they are not master teachers, nor has anyone ever taught them how to evaluate a classroom experience.  Because of this, they will say things that are upsetting to you without actually meaning to do so.  They will say, "This is the worst class I have every taken." They will say, "This class reminded me of high school." They will say a number of negative things, and frame it condescendingly by saying, "I know s/he is young and inexperienced, and I am sure s/he will improve."  They will describe you as an adjunct -- when you are in the third year of your tenure clock. They will comment on your appearance (increasingly, I see this showing up in student evaluations of men as well as women):  you are "eye candy;" "not hard to look at;" or "hot."  This feels even more degrading when paired with negative comments like:  "Discussion sessions were really a drag, but fortunately s/he's easy on the eyes."

Comments like this have led to an increasing number of young professors asserting that they are being "sexually harassed" by their students, which I must say, I think is beside the point.  The point is:  the student has so offended and embarrassed you (because you know this will be read by dozens of other people at your next evaluation) that whatever else the student has said that might be useful is lost to you.  At this juncture you must not:
  • obsess about which student it was;
  • obsess about the possible effects on your tenure case of being perceived as a cougar in training;
  • dismiss the rest of the evaluation, and any others with negative comments, as entirely informed by sexism, racism, homophobia or any other form of prejudice.  Even though your view that they are inflected with prejudice is probably accurate, it doesn't mean that there may not be something you need to pay attention to.  Similarly, students who get bad grades are not entirely wrong about whether they were taught well or taught poorly, even though they may misrecognize their own role in a poor classroom experience.
Instead, consider this:
  • Create a grid for yourself, in which you begin to classify comments about what worked and what didn't work that allows you to separate useful from useless comments, and put all the evaluations in a much broader context.
  • See if there are criticisms that repeat, and imagine whether you can re-think some of your methods without giving up aspects of your teaching that you believe in.
  • See if there are substantive compliments that repeat, and give yourself credit for what you have done well.
  • Remind yourself that students do bring prejudices into the classroom that they are not entirely aware of, that they say and write thoughtless things to each other, that Internet culture has aggravated this, and that it is part of our job as adults to socialize them.
Remember that your colleagues know a lot about how to read teaching evaluations.  While students are an important source of raw data, they are experts at consuming a classroom experience -- not experts in pedagogy itself.  Your colleagues are.  Go to them.

Untenured people tend not to want to do this because they are convinced that letting people who will evaluate them know that they have not been 100% successful will be damaging to their reputations.  And yet, this fear can leave an inexperienced person in the frantic position of trying to fix something that might not be broken; or of re-inventing the wheel when a more experienced colleague could easily demonstrate how to address the problem.  Said person might also offer reassurance, a cold beer, and be favorably impressed with your desire to improve your teaching.

It's also worth saying:  you can't exactly hide your teaching evaluations.  People will read them eventually.  Although teaching evaluations do have something to do with whether you will eventually succeed at being a college professor (i.e., get tenure and be permitted to remain in the profession), the relationship is not a direct one, and your senior colleagues can help you shape yourself as a teacher.  Whether student comments please you or do not please you, it is wise to ask someone to help you interpret your first few batches of evaluations so that you can get a sense of what they mean where you are.

For example, when I began my teaching career, I taught two classes at an urban SLAC and two at a public commuter college.  I tended to begin each class by linking the day's topic to a political event that had happened that day and sparking a 5-10 minute exchange about it with the students.  When I received the SLAC evaluations, it was clear that this went over quite well, and that students thought it made the whole course more "relevant" to their interests.  In the public college setting, it didn't:  I received numerous comments in which students characterized me as lazy, wasting time, and unfocused.

Why?  The answer, I think, was quite easy, once I got over being hurt and embarrassed.  
  • What I was doing was good teaching at a residential institution where students hoped and expected to build relationships with professors that would last over a period of years.  They were very political, and had come to this college to have a "relevant" education.  My strategy made them feel valued and respected, and it did help them connect to the material.
  • What I was doing was bad teaching at a college where students were fully embedded in the world:  they usually had families, carried a full course load at night, and worked full-time jobs during the day.  They were sacrificing a lot for their educations and expected every minute to count.  They had come from high schools where teachers felt free to give them standardized tests about material they had never been taught.  Worse, since this was the late 1980s, when adjunctification was becoming the norm in public education, they had reasons to be suspicious of those of us who trooped in and out on our way to somewhere else.
Sharing your evaluations can help you learn a lot about teaching, and can help you acquire some empathy for why students might characterize you in ways that seem wrong.  This empathy can help you teach them better:  one outcome of talking through the evaluations I describe above was also to understand that, although they had evaluated me positively, I might have also made certain assumptions about my SLAC students that needed to be corrected.  More importantly, going public with your evals also have the effect of dispelling paranoia and shame, something we are easily prone to in situations where privacy can cause criticisms to fester without activating their potential to make us better teachers. 


Clarissa said...

I received my evaluations yesterday, and it was REALLY good to read this post today. Thank you! This really helps to gain someperspective on the evaluations.

Anonymous said...

One way I manage the potential kick in the gut is not to read each eval separately. I use a blank eval to take notes on all the responses to Question 1, and then I go back and do Question 2, and so forth. It feels more like data collection than personal critique that way.

Of course, the negative comments still hurt, but not as much.

good enough cook said...

This is great advice. I wish we DID get fall evaluations before the spring semester starts, particularly when I'm teaching the same course both semesters. It's always annoying when I've made some innovation to the course design or put a new text on the syllabus and only a month into the following semester do I get the feedback that would have helped me tweak it effectively.

But yeah, I have also encountered the disabling pain of bad evaluations, and there's excellent advice here on how to cope with it. One thing I've found helpful is, before I open the evaluations, to take ten minutes to write down my own reflections on how the courses went: what I did well, what worked, what I should have done differently, what failed completely. Having that kind of context helps to defang the negative remarks and lend some proportion to the positive remarks. And if there's a profound mismatch between my reflections and those of the students, that gives me a place to start thinking about how to recalibrate the course in ways that will respond more obviously to their needs and expectations.

I haven't tried this, but I've seen it suggested that one ask a trusted peer to read the evalutions first and sort or summarize them in a way that will identify common threads and downplay the harshly negative or fulsomely positive outliers. Seems like a good strategy if one has a colleague who would be willing to do it.

Anonymous said...

This post helps tremendously. I got some really nasty, out-of-left-field reviews for a class that I thought went well. My numbers overall were good, but a lot of the nastiness was exactly as you described: condescending, not reflective, and just outright mean.

I will take your advice to share my evals with someone who can help me read them constructively. I've mentioned them to a couple of people in my department, and they were very supportive and offered great perspective.

GayProf said...

It has always been a mystery to me why universities/colleges don't educate students about the role of evaluations and their own professional obligations in writing them. Some students have a tendency to imagine that they hold the ultimate power to determine faculty salaries (or even to fire faculty members) with their opinions. In reality, the person who actually reads the evaluations most closely (and cares about them the most) is the professor, the person that some students malign.

wes '11 said...

I was surprised by your paragraph on the reviews from the SLAC and public commuter college students.

When you said you tied the discussion to the day's news, I assumed that the commuter students would take to it better than the SLAC students. Maybe I'm massively prejudiced, but I always thought that people who didn't attend LACs expected that their educations be "relevant" and couldn't handle the inherent remove of most humanities courses. I'm rather skeptical when a prof at Wes tries too hard to lay on the relevance in an English, philosophy, or history class. Of course, I think the humanities are vital to understanding the current scene, but I feel that the luxury of a class at Wesleyan is that the material need not be instrumentally valuable. Maybe I even take some kind of class pride in not having to meddle in super-applicable for a few years.

Would you like to comment more on your SLAC and commuter college experiences? Are there actually class politics here, or do you think I'm just off? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Wes '11 -
I teach at a commuter university, and when I read TR's reflection about her experience, I nodded when she explained how the commuter students reacted. Let me try to explain why.

I think there are two issues in play. One, when students at my institution take a literature class (or a philosophy class, or a history class) they want to learn the subject matter of that discipline. They expect to read and discuss literature (or philosophy or history). They don't pay to hear about current events in a literature course. And they resent it if an instructor veers too far from the stated course content because they feel that they are being cheated by a professor who is too lazy to do her job. They perceive the off-topic discussion as "filler" or lack of preparation.

I think a second issue is that my students believe that they deserve the same education - even though they are at a commuter, public, regional, non-elite institution - that a person at an elite institution receives. They believe that going to college - even if they are working full time, even if they already have families and other commitments - should mean that they are being given access to greater cultural, social, and personal opportunities. They don't believe that college for them should mean "job training" while college for people with higher class or social privilege should mean "education." Frankly, I'd agree with my students regarding that second issue because my educational background up until the point that I went on to graduate school is pretty much identical to theirs. Thank goodness my professors taught me literature without assuming I wouldn't be interested in learning about it based on my background and the institution.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) If you have tenure, you should never ever read another fucken "teaching evaluation" as long as you live.

(2) Asking students to evaulate the teaching of professors is the stupidest fucken thinge any dumb mothercuekn administrator ever thought of. Students haven't the faintest fucken clue what they should be learning, how they should be learning it, or whether they are learning it. Asking students to evaluate their professors makes about as much fucken sense as asking army recruits to evaluate their drill sergeants.

Anonymous said...

Except, last I checked recruits aren't paying tuition to do that sergeant's drills.

On the one hand I think teaching evals are fine, simply as one way (obviously not the only way) for the instructor to gauge how s/he did.

However, it seems pretty silly to me that at most colleges the evals are weighed in tenuring decisions. This puts junior fac in a weird position of having to implore their students, "please, I'm begging you, i need tenure, i have kids and a family in this town, we need to stay here, please give me good reviews." Yuck. Conflict of interest for everyone. Creepy situation all-around.

I've been thinking recently that what really skews a lot of academic relationships isn't tenure itself so much as the tenure process. Maybe getting rid of the "junior professor" and simply start hiring people directly into tenure would help? It certainly might help instructors relax about teaching evals somewhat.

Tenured Radical said...

Let me emphasize this point: I believe in evaluating teaching, at all stages of career. I think that when someone isn't teaching well in an institutional setting that is justifying its existence through the reproduction of knowledge in a large audience that will not go on to scholarship as a primary activity, that is a really big problem. The institution either has an obligation to work with that person to improve the teaching, or move hir into a setting where ze does work effectively.

That said: student evaluations have the wrong kind of power, in part because we solicit them but reject them when we don't like what they say. We then curse students for their power to harm us, when in fact the greater problem is the sense of fragility that has been cultivated in all of us by often ill-thought out and incoherent systems of evaluation. We will be harmed by oafish colleagues who never bothered to work with us on our teaching, and then blame us for teaching poorly -- we won't, in fact, be harmed by students.

Do students too frequently take out their own problems on us? Sure. But I would have to say that I often learn a great deal from student evaluations. My suggestion to all of you who get them too late to make a difference for the following term? Put together your own evaluation -- a midterm evaluation can be particularly useful, allowing you to make adjustments before the semester ends (this was suggested to me by a postdoc, who got the idea from Steve Stern.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Let me emphasize this point: I believe in evaluating teaching, at all stages of career.

So do I. But student evaluations of teaching are nearly worthless. Yes, they can be useful in detecting egregious shitte done by grossly malfeasant faculty, but as a means for assessing the effectiveness of teaching they are worthless.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it that, back in the day (like, the 60s), teacher evals were organized and published by the students? I'd be OK with that. it's the cooption of the process by the administration- they pit instructors against students.

Anonymous said...


I think students often give unhelpful commentary because we don't teach them (or even model) how to give good commentary - something mentioned above. We expect them to learn how to write a competent review of an idea or book, why can't we teach them to write a competent review of a course, hence making evals more useful. For me, I try to emulate this in my paper comments, writing out full sentences a coherent page of ideas, instead of a list of complaints or red slashes...then when evals time comes around, I tell them explicitly that I would like feedback for me like I've given them (something like described by Notorious PhD here:


a massive effort, no doubt.) Of course this requires time and resources to actually teach well and write coherent comments as TR has complained about often and loudly before, so I won't go into it here.


Tim Lacy said...

Thanks! I plan to try and trade some evals with a few folks here (if they're willing), or at least offer mine to a senior colleague to give me her/his assessment. - TL

Tigs said...

I have found that mid-semester evaluations are really useful and end of the term evals not particularly.

I do think my students have pretty reasonable ideas about learning--and I've gotten great feedback about what is and what isn't working n the courses. When done in the middle of the course, students feel like they have a bigger stake and I think are more thoughtful.

I stress that I am looking to make the course as good as it can be for everyone, and by and large, my students respond intelligently and productively (at a large public university with a million students in each class).

Historiann said...

My first reaction to this post was like CPP's: you still read your student evals? Tenure means being able to kiss that $hit good-bye.

My best teaching evaluations came the semester in which I resigned a job and just didn't really care any more what those students thought about me. It freed me up to be myself, which amazingly enough, seemed to work.

My classes fill, I get some pretty smart, hardworking students, and I always have a few students who take every course I teach. That's the only "evaluation" I really care about. If any of that changes, then I guess I'll open those envelopes again. But for now, I just hand them in unopened to my department Chair.

Ruth said...

I once directed a program that hired a lot of adjuncts.the course involved analysis of texts. We used our own evaluation form in addition to the university's standard Scantron form. The key question, where the answers mattered to hiring decisions, was not "would you recommend this teacher?" but "which text did you find mosy/least interesting and why?" (can't recall exact phrasing but it was along those lines). If the students engaged with the texts and said intelligent things about what they got out of them, then that was a good teacher, whether the students liked hir or not.

J M Carr said...

As a new professor, about 10% of my comments were actually useful (including positive and negative remarks). Keeping that in mind, I am training myself to recognize that most of what I read is baseless. The useful comments helped me form my upcoming classes, albeit in ~2 days.

The situations where I get upset (happened on occasion as a GTA) is when a student claims I was rude or disrespectful. My department chair encouraged me to just "move on," but it's pretty difficult sometimes.

Anonymous said...

i won't even get into power dynamics, lack of institutional training about how to use their most sacred tool or any other thing that will furrow my brow on this snowy day. my best solution to resolving the "what the hell am i supposed to do with THIS comment quandry?" is to rely on my good colleague relationships. this is where good (trusted, honest, thoughtful, competent) colleagues come in. (and a baked good bribe if need be) :0) i like to hand mine over and ask, simply: what can i learn from this collection of comments? every time, i have grown in my practice. it also helps that i give, at least twice a term my own evaluations - i call them "taking the temperature" then i report back to the class - their comments, my response, and my proposed course (re)directions.

Anonymous said...

Another great post, TR. But I'm conflicted in reading the comments (which may be apt given how I feel about reading evals). I've faced more than a few hurtful/ludicrous comments -- though more appeared online than in actual evals. But I'm taken aback by the arrogance of those here who boast of handing their evals unopened to their chairs. Sure, that's a privilege of tenure, but what gives you the right to be so dismissive? Even in teaching a fairly despised mandatory GenEd class I found the bulk of my students gave thoughtful and constructive feedback.

Miss Trudy said...

Great post, useful, and I also enjoyed reading the comments from readers. In my experience, the bad reviews I received always tended to correlate quite closely with the number of students not doing well in class. Same for the good reviews: they tended to correlate with the number of students doing well. More than feeling that crappy evaluations mean that there are crappy people out there, it just serves to remind me that not everybody will like me, that no matter how hard I try not everybody will appreciate my efforts or like my teaching methods (or material), and that it's okay. I just feel weird because my teaching friends always seemed to care a lot more about the student evaluations than I ever did. Is there something wrong with me? I mean, of course there were negative comments that repeated and led to a re-assessment of my teaching skills or class material or whatever, and of course I have had students who have been really appreciative and taken other of my courses again; in general, however, I have never been able to care all that much nor lose sleep over evaluations. Perhaps because academia is not the center of my life and there are other things I work in and enjoy, such as community-building projects with underserved populations ... and I guess this other side to my professional life puts everything in a different perspective for me. Or perhaps I just have a very thick skin!

Daisy Deadhead said...

Back in the day before widespread computer usage, I had a job typing up teacher evaluations (and making pie charts of their answers on a Mac) at a local community college... and several teachers kept coming in and rifling through my typed accounts, nearly frantic to see what students had said. My supervisor finally barred them from my workstation. She told me she'd always had to do that eventually, or start continually MOVING the person doing the typing, because teachers would track us/them down and interrupt us to pester us about what students had written.

I don't think I realized until then, that these evaluations were important at all. Certainly, none I'd ever written seemed to garner any more than a yawn, if that. Maybe it depends on the school? Or perhaps they have increased in importance over time.

Anonymous said...

I would like to think I could rely on honest relationships with trustworthy colleagues to sort through the comments I receive. However, our comments are quantified in percentage terms and passed along to various mid-level administrators to be used in making rehire decisions (I'm not on tenure track) every couple of years. I don't even know which administrators see them, but I do know there's a real fear of having any kind of numbers that show you to be something less than "above average" in every category.

When defined by percentages, entirely out of context of the discipline (let alone the specific course) and then evaluated by unknown "others" who hold the prospect of future employment over you - YES, there is a real and palpable and utterly ridiculous sense of worry involved.

Tenured Radical said...

As to kicking the evals to a senior colleague prior to reading them, I took that as a strategy for gaining distance, not a sign of contempt.

I am a little curious about those who don't read them at all, although that would make more sense in certain institutional contexts where students are more or less filling out a scantron.

I would say that my post-tenure self has been less interested in evaluations, not because I don't care what students think, but because over time my sense of how a class has gone pretty much correlates with what I am reading in the evals. That said, this semester I did something in both classes that was very new to me, and comparing my sense of how I was teaching with their sense of how and what they learned was actually very important.

I would observe one thing. A weakness of scholars that cuts across ideological and disciplinary lines is that we are far too sensitive to criticism, and we utterly bristle at criticism from those who we perceive as our social/intellectual inferiors. And yet, we dish it out constantly, which is part of what students are reflecting when they are nasty. What's *that* about?

Jennifer said...

Having read evaluations for many years now (17!), I find I am less upset by negative comments than when I first started teaching. I also prompt students on the very first day about what they hope to get out of the class. When they answer this question, I can be very clear about whether we will address the issue that iterests them. If the course isn't going to address that issue, I suggest kindly that they might consider another course because we won't be studying about x, y, or z. When they do the evaluations, I remind to think about what they said the first day. I also tell them I use their comments for constructing the course the next time around. Some comments have been very helpful -- "such and so book was fantastic, but snored through another one." If lots of students are snoring through assigned reading, I try and find something better for the next time.

That said, the comments that do irk me are those that are about personal appearance. "She always wears pants!" Sin of sins... Of course, this is not going to hurt me or an untenured faculty, but this is not going to improve my teaching. From talking with male colleagues, I gather that this is more likely to happen to women faculty like me. Other thoughts about this issue? And, strategies for defusing it?

Historiann said...

Does refusing to go online to read my ratemyprofessor and other online ratings also qualify as "dismissive" of student opinion? I always thought it was a sign of mental health and that I have my priorities in life correct, but maybe I should listen to an anonymous comment by someone I don't know and rethink this.

LouMac said...

Alas, if students take every class I teach, I can't take it as a sign of anything except how small our department is! I do feel sorry for them, they have literally no choice most quarters, but just have to sign up for whatever is being offered.

A colleague once advised me only to read evaluations when I'm feeling strong. Sometimes this means putting it off for a week, even more. It's been worth it though. I'm more likely to see what's constructive in the criticisms, rather than being reactive / defensive / hurt.

LouMac said...

@ Historiann - I won't visit ratemyprofessor.com either. That truly would redirect my energy to places it doesn't need to go.

@ Jennifer - when I was in my 20s and 30s, I got a lot more comments about my appearance (many of them homophobic, or at least gender-non-conforming-phobic). Now that I have more wrinkles and grey hairs, my desirability (or lack thereof) is no longer a subject of critique for younger people.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I just came back and read this again, TR, because I just got my evals from last semester, where I did what I thought was my best teaching EVER (more scaffolding, more one-on-one meetings, etc.) in a particular class type, spending much more time and effort, and got the worst evaluations ever. To add injury to insult, my second half of this same class has been canceled due to low enrollment, and I've been put in a high-labor service course instead.

Struggling not to take this personally...

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