The Productive, the Constructive, the Bizarre: Adventures in Student Evaluations

May 21, 2011
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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… 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?


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3 Responses to “ The Productive, the Constructive, the Bizarre: Adventures in Student Evaluations ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on May 22, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    Midterm evals with pointed questions of use to yourself, not the generic questions allotted by your dept or university, can sometimes be a smart idea. They allow you as instructor either to adapt accordingly or to address why you’re not adapting. For instance, I used them when teaching a 250 person lecture, and one of my questions was whether I was using too many clips, too few, or about enough. Something like 90 people felt I was using too many, about 90 felt there weren’t enough, and the rest felt it was about right. Quoting those numbers back to the students was helpful I think in letting them see that a lot came down to personal preference. Strategically, too, they can take the sting out of final evals, as students get an earlier chance to vent when it’s just you reading them, rather than let it get pent up and get directed into the evals that your dept will read.

    Another tip is to give a small bit of background on how these get used in your dept and why and how they matter. Apart from anything else, most students have no clue whatsoever how ranks work (as evident by those funny evals that demand that a TA be given tenure), and so I think it’s important to let them know how advancement works in a university, and where evals fit into that. But quite simply, when they know, they can be better at writing helpful evals. That can lead into a brief framing of appropriate tone (ie: letting them know that slang and profanities will likely mean their opinion is ignored by whoever reads them, as will comments on my appearance or fashion sense, and encouraging them to be professional).

    My fun example for the above that I usually share with students is a comment I got when I taught an Intro to Composition class. I needed to teach good strategies for introducing an essay one day, then for concluding the next day, and I chose a constant topic for those hypothetical essays so that we could walk through a whole bunch of strategies without getting lost in the content. That topic was gun control. Later on, one of my final evals from the class clown (I know it was him), said “fantastic prof, but enough with the guns already.” Needless to say, that didn’t impress my current dept!

  2. Elizabeth on May 22, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    Although I haven’t had any particularly hysterical evaluations for my own classes, I once T.A.’d a course where a solid fraction of the 130 evaluations (maybe 20 percent?) took the time to criticize the female professor’s clothing – it was a class she team taught with male colleagues. The experience did not incline me to take evaluations terribly seriously, although I have occasionally been given some extremely useful feedback about new teaching techniques I’ve tried when I wasn’t sure if they’d succeeded or failed.

  3. Jason Mittell on May 24, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    The best advice that I was told as a junior faculty member – and that I pass along to my junior colleagues – is that when you read your own evaluations, you’ll probably focus on the outliers, but when others read them, they’ll look for the patterns. I know that I’ll latch onto the few scathing comments in an otherwise strong bunch of evals to feed my own neuroses, or perhaps the singular superlative to bolster my spirits. But review committees & senior colleagues are looking for the trends & repetitions, for the instructive insight that they can provide in the aggregate. When I’m able to heed this advice in reading my own evals (and now those of my junior colleagues), it becomes a much more constructive and calm process than trying to parse out who might have said that horrible thing about me.