In the next weeks we'll be receiving student evaluations from last semester. We've had much discussion here about evaluations and whether and to what degree they are empirically valid instruments for assessing our work as teachers. I take that for the most part, they are not. But we still receive them, we still read them, and we still need to find a way to read and respond to them, even if they don't do the work that the system takes them to do.
So, what are the benefits and pitfalls of reading evaluations? Perhaps thankfully, I don't get my evaluations back until well after they have been submitted to the administration. This allows me the appropriate amount of time to detach from the particular class, or semester, or whatever stressors that could impede my ability to read them in a way that could be productive. If your institution is different, one piece of advice I would give, then, is: sit on them for a while if you can. Distance can be helpful.
I tend not to read evaluations as evaluations. That is, I tend not to read them as a portrait of what kind of teacher I am. I tend to read them in terms of student experience. In other words: what were their expectations? If their expectations were reasonable, how did I meet them? If the expectations weren't, how might I incorporate more teaching about course goals, more teaching about what particular assignments are designed for, etc. Reading them in this light allows me to be less defensive and to evaluate whether and to what degree I can address what students report in a way that is better on the whole. For example, the last time I taught Philosophy of Language, several students responded that they would like me to give them my lecture notes. I think that this is unreasonable. But! I can meet them half-way: perhaps some handouts on technical terms, etc.
This approach is particularly helpful, I think , when writing teaching self-assessments for review. By approaching student comments as data about how the students are experiencing the learning environment rather than as data about what kind and quality of teacher you are, you are better able to communicate what you want to accomplish as a teacher, rather than reacting. Let's face it: students can say some pretty hurtful things. But even those hurtful things can be dealt with in a productive manner without giving up rigor, high expectations, and a sense that you are responsible for a context that has student learning at its center.