The Productive, the Constructive, the Bizarre: Adventures in Student Evaluations
I recently came across an article in which New York City chef Sara Jenkins discusses her frustration with Yelp! reviews of her restaurants. Jenkins’ take on Yelp! got me thinking about my own feelings about student evaluations, and given the fact that most of us in academia will soon be receiving the results of our own end-of-semester evals, I thought the topic warranted a post. Although student evaluations are not truly like Yelp! reviews (perhaps a closer comparison would be RateMyProfessor.com… yikes), several of Jenkins’ comments sounded to me like an educator speaking about evals.
“I believe in criticism and I believe in humbly analyzing one’s faults,” she writes. This rings true for me, as I wholeheartedly—truly!—welcome students’ critiques and suggestions for improvements of both my own teaching and my syllabi. Teaching, after all, requires constant evolution. I’m confident in my own teaching style, but I’m new enough that there’s certainly room for improvement. When a student urged me to play devil’s advocate more often by challenging students in class discussion, I saw it as constructive criticism. And one student this semester gave me several excellent ideas for in-class activities I’m considering using in the fall. I encourage students to give me useful feedback on their evaluations, and tell them that their input is important to me. The result has been generally supportive and constructive criticism.
And yet, as Jenkins explains, “…as I read these negative reviews I sometimes don’t understand what restaurants these people are eating at.” Haven’t we all had this experience with evaluations? Sometimes I’m left wondering what class a student was attending, or what they were expecting to get from my class. Of course, there are always the “No exams!” and “Less reading!” comments that are not really useful (or feasible). But there are also bewildering comments that reveal confusion about the nature and content of the course, including one suggestion that I use less media in my teaching of a media studies course.
In separating the wheat from the chaff, Jenkins encapsulates what I view as the best advice regarding evaluations: “I want to read my criticism and take it on the chin, use it to better see what we are doing wrong and improve… but have to put more faith in what I see in front of me.” Anyone who’s been teaching for any length of time will say this is the key to reading student evaluations: approach with an open mind, and a willingness to embrace practical suggestions, but compare the feedback to your own experience in the class, and if it just doesn’t fit (with your experience, or indeed, with evals from other students!), let it go. This is the only route to turning evaluations into a productive exercise while maintaining your sanity.
I’d love you to chime in below with your own experiences with evaluations. What’s the best advice you have for administering evaluations and/or dealing with the resulting feedback? What’s the best (funniest, most rewarding, etc.) feedback you’ve gotten from a student? The worst?