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?