I literally just got my student course evaluations back for this past spring.
Clearly, they are not stunning, or else I wouldn’t feel the need to 1. write this blog post or 2. justify myself against every single thing they dinged me for. I would just like to remind the audience that I taught 4 classes and was traveling for job interviews. This is a bad combination.
Anyway, the strong emotional reaction I’m having isn’t unique to me. I’ve talked with many seasoned colleagues over the years who have told me about how they have wept over poor evals too. Further, even though I’ve had really positive evals in the past that validate me as a teacher, getting negative feedback is THE WORST.
So what should faculty, especially new faculty, keep in mind when reviewing their course evaluations? I have some ideas. These pointers have come from my mentors and my own deep thinking to help soften the blow.
Things to remember when reviewing student evaluations, especially when they aren’t great.
1. You have been evaluated by students, NOT experts.
This is the most helpful thing to remember, for me anyway. These ratings and comments are coming from emotional young adults. They are also not evaluating you objectively – they are evaluating you on how well you helped them get a good grade. If your teaching didn’t work for them, then they will tell you that you are doing a poor job of teaching. Any student who didn’t perform well in the course is going to have some ideas on how it’s your fault, and they will let you know in the comments.
2. It is likely that your students withheld issues they were having.
Often, I read the comments and become angry that students complain about things that could have easily been fixed. “The lectures were too fast” or, “She should have given us more handouts”. I frequently invite my students to tell me what they need from me to succeed. If they don’t tell me, I won’t know. I am many things, but a mind-reader is not one of them.
3. This is another learning opportunity.
You have to start somewhere. As a new faculty member, this may be just your first or second time in the class OR this is the first time you have taught an upper-level course. Personally, my non-majors courses are slam dunks – I’ve taught them before and the prep is simply less intense for that audience. My 300+ level courses, however, have always had a bumpy start. To begin with, I am usually familiarizing myself with the material 5 minutes ahead of my students. Also, I have no idea where the issues are going to come up in a new course, and so it’s near impossible to prepare myself for everything that might be difficult for my students. Growing pains. Now that I know what my students struggled with – material, teaching style, activities, labs, etc – I can change and improve those things the next time around. So, take a deep breath and ask yourself, how can this be better for everyone next time?
4. Don’t forget to read the positive comments.
The negative feedback is always hard to take, but I doubt it’s the only feedback you got. Read the good stuff and know that you did a lot of things RIGHT during the semester too! Also, classroom work likely isn’t the only way you interacted with students – did you advise students or mentor research projects? Maybe volunteered for an event on campus? Your reach as a faculty member is beyond the 3 or 4 hours you spend with students in class, so put value in the positive ways you impacted students outside of the classroom.
5. You are not the only one to receive poor evaluations.
Everyone goes through this. The most impressive of your colleagues have had bad semesters or courses too. And to be honest, it’s likely even as get better and better and teaching, every once in a while you will have a class that just doesn’t jive. IT’S OK!! I mean, don’t make it a habit, but don’t let it get to you either.
6. Sometimes it’s you, but sometimes it’s them.
Yes, it is possible that you are less than perfect and it is honestly reflected in your course evaluations. However, sometimes, it can just be a less than ideal group of student evaluators. I taught two identical courses this past semester – Neuroscience for non-majors – and one section rated me worse than the other. Literally, the same course, but my ratings were different, which means that it’s them. In some cases, this could be due to the kind of students making up your class – are they mostly upper or underclassman? When is the class taking place – first thing in the morning or right after lunch during prime nap time? My point is, you could be doing an objectively great job, but your evaluations are dependent on the batch of students in that class, which can differ tremendously!
Goodness, even just writing this all down has made me feel better.
You know what else helps? Calling your colleagues into the office so they can read some of the RIDICULOUS comments students write so you all can laugh about it and put things into perspective.
How do you deal with poor evaluations? What’s some of the best advice you’ve gotten as far as dealing with hyper-critical students?
Oh yeah, Happy Friday!