Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.
If you’re reading this, chances are good that you’ve already heard that student course evaluations have some inherent problems. At best, evaluations are scientifically meaningless. At worst, they’re an outlet for insidious biases that don’t belong in any sort of professional evaluation. I wouldn’t dispute any of the faults of the current ubiquitous teaching evaluation scheme. Nor would I dispute the notion that I, a white male native English-speaker, benefited from the same scheme. This doesn’t mean I’m a bad teacher who was erroneously rated as a good teacher, but I don’t think it’s an industry secret that my Spring 2016 students who perceived me as “a chill guy” might be more likely to overlook or forgive my flaws as an instructor, consciously or unconsciously. If, for whatever reason, those students’ other teachers are not chill guys, my ratings end up elevated relative to my peers’ ratings for reasons other than my stellar work. This is inarguably bad, even when it’s unintentional, and stunts the professional growth of everyone being evaluated.
While the student evaluation model might leave a lot to be desired, I would dispute the assertion that evaluations are completely useless. If you can accept their limitations and acknowledge that your teaching almost certainly isn’t as brilliant or as disastrous as your anonymous undergrad evaluators would have you believe, then evaluations can be a helpful tool (one of many available) to guide your pedagogical development. We’re getting this form of feedback whether we like it or not — course evaluations don’t seem to be going away any time soon and some of the alternatives are even worse — so we may as well get as much utility out of them as possible. Here are some ideas on how to maximize that stack of evaluations.
1. Prime your students to give you meaningful feedback. My fellow GradHacker Madeleine shared her strategies for how to communicate to students that evaluations matter and I endorse those ideas fully. As an undergrad, I was convinced that nobody ever read the evaluations I filled out (frankly, I’m still not convinced that anyone does) so I like to remind students that I read and save every evaluation I’ve ever received (and I do!). Hopefully, the knowledge that their ratings will survive in perpetuity encourages them to be thoughtful and honest.
2. When you get that feedback, don’t take it personally. It can be jarring and depressing to read a list of all the ways we failed as teachers, even if that list takes the form of polite constructive criticism devoid of the vitriol that is a too-frequent side effect of anonymous commentary. Writers might be familiar with a workshopping technique wherein an author’s work is presented and everyone weighs in with their thoughts before the author is allowed to respond. Rather than engaging in a back-and-forth with each critic, the author must simply sit there and absorb the criticism, no matter how wrong-headed he or she might find it. I advise a similar approach with student evaluations: just read them without trying to respond. Don’t react, don’t get angry or defensive, don’t try to rationalize or shift blame or figure out which student gave you that low rating in the ‘treats all students respectfully’ category. I admit this is easier said than done. Yet it’s a waste of energy to try to articulate a logical justification for why you assigned so much reading and, more importantly, doing so will detract from whatever benefit the evaluations might provide. You can always vent over a beer with your colleagues later.
3. Separate criticism of the material from criticism of you. Whether you teach Proust, Prussia, or proteins, not everyone will find your subject as interesting as you do; some of the topics I’ve taught could be stand-alone sleep aids. But there’s a difference between the course being boring and you being boring or between the material being confusing and you making it confusing.
For example, a student who writes “There are too many muckrakers to keep track of” is stating an immutable truth that I can’t do anything to change (who among us has never mixed up Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells?). However, a student who writes “We didn’t have enough time to learn all of the muckrakers” is telling me something I can recalibrate for the next semester. I can’t reverse the hundred years of media history which deemed both The Shame of the Cities and The Treason of the Senate essential to our syllabus, but I can think up some mnemonics to keep them straight. If you don’t have much leeway with the material, it’s not terribly worthwhile to fret over curriculum-centric complaints.
4. Since, depending on your specific level of autonomy within the course, some curricular elements might be out of your control, focus on opportunities for feasible, tangible improvements. One of the most helpful student evaluations I ever received came from a student who was not a native English speaker and who wrote that I used too many idioms in class, which made it difficult for students who were less familiar with colloquial English to follow along or even know when I was being literal or figurative. This was an ideal critique: something I was unlikely to detect on my own and something I could work on correcting immediately. Other common remarks like ‘don’t talk so fast in class’ or ‘it was really annoying when your lectures ran long because I need to catch a bus’ are the sort of relatively low-stakes criticism where I recommend starting your self-review. They provide concrete, manageable, and finite objectives for you to work on that can go a long way in resolving students’ frustrations and improving the class experience.
My student’s comment about idioms is also the perfect illustration of when and why student evaluations have merit, despite their shortcomings. His observation helped me permanently improve my effectiveness as a teacher but, had it not been for the medium of evaluations, it wouldn’t have reached me. It’s tough to imagine a student telling a teacher that his country aphorisms do more harm than good in a face-to-face, non-anonymized interaction. Further, I doubt any of my supervisors who observed me teaching once per semester, if at all, would have picked up on that problem, given that they were native English speakers used to months or years of daily conversation with me.
5. Finally, save your evaluations. I mentioned above that I save every evaluation I receive, good or bad. Given student evaluations’ reputation as merely an outlet for unearned rage, it might be tempting to flip through them for a quick chuckle and dump them in the trash. Don’t do this. For one, being able to review past semesters’ batches of evaluations enables you to look for patterns and evaluate your progress. Have students stopped commenting that it takes too long to get feedback? Congratulations on improving your grading efficiency! Do a lot of students still think you talk too fast? Time to readdress that bad habit.
Additionally, student evaluations can be helpful when it comes time to writing your teaching statement for employers. If you’re having trouble summarizing your strengths or identifying ways you’ve grown as a teacher, use your old evaluations to jog your memory. Finally, if you’ve experienced a setback or found your confidence shaken in the classroom, rereading an evaluation from a student who you really helped can be the perfect pick-me-up. When the going gets tough, I routinely revisit one piece of advice I received in Fall 2012 from a student whom I obviously had nothing left to teach: “Do a barrel roll!”
How do you use student evaluations to improve your own teaching? Have any students’ comments had a lasting impact? What do you wish more people knew about evaluations? Let us know in the comments!