Student Evaluations: Reading Them, Reading Us

I’ve just completed my semi-annual Reading of the Student Evaluations. During the Fall 2014 semester, I had one section that was a joy to meet with, one that seemed to be happy and engaged and learning well enough, and one that was a bit of a disaster (due in large part to one difficult, challenging student).

As usual, there’s good news and bad news.

First, the good news: Perhaps not surprisingly, the class that was a joy to meet with mostly gave me very positive evaluations:

“Everything was well taught and explained.”

“I enjoyed how the instructor asked us to write about topics we could relate to such as social media and celebrities.”

“The professor helped me better my writing significantly.”

Something worked in this class. As I understand it, my goals for the class, and my idea of myself as an instructor aligned with their expectations of the class, and their perception of me as a teacher. Yay me!

Now the bad news: the good-enough class, the class that I thought was just fine, reported being wholly underwhelmed by their experience in 105. Their numerical ratings of me are average, and a number of students actually used the word “average” in their written descriptions of the class. But here are the comments that haunt me in my sleep:  “The instructor should focus more on getting students to write better.” Another student adds that I should focus more on, “Actually teaching and helping [students] improve [their] writing.”

Now of course there were positive comments from that section as well, but somehow these two comments have made it impossible for me to see anything else in that set of evaluations. If I wasn’t teaching them to write, what on earth was I doing? Clearly my sense of how that class was going – of whether and how my students were learning – was pretty disconnected from their experience of the class.   While I thought I was teaching them how to write in every class meeting, they thought I was doing something else, and not especially well.

What to make of this?

What to make of this occasional gap between student perception and self-perception? What to make of such drastic differences between sections? To what magical combination of factors can one attribute the “good class”?  Placing this inquiry in a larger cultural context, what to make of recent studies that report differences in student evaluations of male and female instructors? And to what extent has the “comment section” mindset fostered via social media shaped the way students review now that they do so online?

Finally, I wonder how I — and all of us — can use the feedback that Student Evaluations offer as part of our reflective practice rather than as an occasion for self-congratulation and/or self-pity. Your thoughts?


7 thoughts on “Student Evaluations: Reading Them, Reading Us

  1. So important, Bridget–I’m so glad you’ve opened up this discussion! There’s been some recent dialogue around studies of student evaluations as related to gender, too, which–though you’re not touching on it here, is certainly also fodder for conversation and investigation! Thank you for this post!

    • Coincidentally (or maybe inevitably), I’m planning a short follow-up to Bridget’s post regarding teacher gender and student evaluations, Jess. I’ll have that up the coming week.

  2. Regarding the gap between student perception and self-perception, one of the ways in which I minimize the issue is by constantly being explicit to students about my pedagogical choices and the decisions I make with regard to a class. The primary reason for it is not evaluations, of course, but because I think it makes me a better teacher to have to articulate my reasoning. While it’s not foolproof, it does reduce the chance of students not knowing why I/they are doing what we do, and I find that even if they don’t always agree with the reasons/aims, they appreciate being let in on the reasoning.

    I do also think that students need some guidance in providing useful evaluations. I enjoy and appreciate student feedback and have often done informal mid- or end-of-semester evaluations of various kinds. In my experience, the semesters where I do those are invariably semesters where students provide more insightful and detailed feedback in official evaluations.

    At the end of the day, however, while I take evaluations seriously and do enjoy the positive ones (though nobody ever pays attention to the ones which say I deserve a raise!), I think it’s important to take them with a major pinch of salt. Especially the outliers. If there is a consistent trend in the evaluations, whether positive or negative, I’ll certainly pay attention to it. But if one or two people in a class come up with something that nobody else mentions (or, even better, the others contradict), I’ll get a chuckle out of it at best. We’re used to students missing the point, not performing as well as they should, or sometimes being dead wrong in their papers, class discussions, and such. Sometimes they do that in evaluations too.

  3. I enjoyed reading this honest and thoguhtful post. How do we resolve the differences between student perceptions of a class and our own? I think we need more information: actual student essays, the reflections students write on their work, the comments of colleagues who visit our classes and read our course materials.

  4. Pingback: Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews | Deep Down in the Classroom

  5. Absolutely, Joe–I agree–! Another question I think we’re contending with now too is this: once we figure out how to resolve some of these differences, how might we infuse some of this into our approach to professional development, teacher training…even in-class practices/interactions with students…?

    Today at our faculty meeting we also opened some discussion up around the recent research on gender and student evals. We’re hoping to do some comparative reading of evals through this data, determine what might filter differently in our own evals…

    Anyway–thanks for the post!

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