Monday, January 2, 2012

How to Respond to Student Evaluations

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.


  1. Thanks for this post, Becko. I agree that the evaluations give good insight into student expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable, and that this approach is a good way to process and make use of the data. And meeting them halfway when possible is a great idea, when it is so much easier to react and do nothing as a defense mechanism!

  2. Undoubtedly student responses are both: they are evaluations AND reports of student experiences. But I believe in a division of labor here: The evaluations should ask students about their experiences (since we can reasonably assume them to be competent and reliable reporters of their experiences), but the "evaluation" of instructors should be done by instructors, other faculty, etc. In other words, I'm skeptical of students "evaluating" instructors, less worried about their evaluating their experiences. So instead of asking "is this instructor prepared?", we ask "were the class meetings and activities well prepared?," etc.

    That said, Becko's advice is good. I would add that evaluations improve when instructors talk about their expectations with students and bother to justify them. Becko's students asked for lecture notes. She might (for instance) tell her next course that students have asked for the notes and explain why she doesn't provide them (note taking is a skill, it undermines motivations to attend class, whatever). Call me crazy, but I've had some success in giving students reasons for my practices and expectations. Most students seem to see our authority as a kind of arbitrary tyranny and often don't appreciate why we teach as we do. Why should they, really? They've never been on 'the other side' or given much thought to what might justify some practice or expectation. But students respond positively when you let them see a bit of our pedagogical motivations.

    One thing I'd like to see on eval forms is a focus on that experience. Institutions may use this information to evaluate instructors, but students are only really qualified to

  3. Michael,
    You make a very good point about giving students reasons for our expectations and practices. In the past, I've done my own mid-semester evaluations with students, and then shared the results and how I intend to respond with them. They seem to appreciate that, and it makes them realize that I try to be thoughtful and effective in how I teach.

  4. I like Micheal's distinction, which I think is right on target. Student evaluations are not _evaluations of teaching_ they are _evaluations of experiences_. In truth, there are lots of questions on typical evals that get at experience evaluation (such as the ones Michael notes) - unfortunately, these are given (in my experience) no weight. What administrators (and P&T committees) look at are questions like "is so-and-so and excellent teacher?" and "was this an excellent course?" These are horrible questions to focus on. At my own school I have been (still am) leading the charge to get those questions ignored by P&T and admins, and to have the _experience_ questions (gives timely feedback, etc) foregrounded in their place.

    Evaluation of _teaching_ should be done by other teachers, period.


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