As Summer Sets In, a Chance to Regard the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Student Evaluations

May 30, 2017

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Some of the weirder things students write in course evaluations can be fun to mock. But professors say they get helpful comments, too, and sometimes transformative ones that lead to improvements in how they teach.

Jim Vander Putten, a professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was reviewing his classroom evaluations when he came across an odd assessment of his character. "I did not appreciate it when Dr. Vander Putten engaged in Satanic worship in class," the student had written.

Naturally, Mr. Vander Putten was surprised at the accusation. He scoured his brain for any details that could explain the student’s reasoning and then he remembered a class discussion that felt lopsided.

Professors say they've been dinged for their accents, their wardrobes, their insufferable 'know it all' attitudes. But sometimes the criticism is right on target.

"As a result, to rebalance the discussion, I said, ‘Let me play the devil’s advocate here for a minute,’" he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "… I don’t use that phrase in class anymore." 

At the time he saw that comment, in the fall of 1999, "I was a second-year assistant professor," Mr. Vander Putten said, "and I was quite concerned about the potential effect of that course evaluation comment on my tenure application."

Now, it’s a story that’s always a hit among his colleagues. It’s also one that highlights the dual nature of students’ evaluations of their professors. On the one hand, the students’ concerns can seem off-topic or mean-spirited. On the other hand, students’ unreserved criticism can be invaluable in improving a course.

This time of year, professors at residential colleges who don’t teach during the summer find themselves with time to contemplate a year’s worth of course evaluations. The Chronicle observed examples of the good, the bad, and the just-plain-weird after we asked subscribers who receive the Daily Briefing newsletter to share the most notable student evaluations they received during their career.

Season Ellison, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Bemidji State University, in Minnesota, said that at a former institution she had a class study 18 plays, including one by a lesbian playwright. One student later responded: "The focus on lesbian playwrights was too much. Don’t teach as many lesbian plays."

The next semester, Ms. Ellison included two lesbian playwrights. "I figure if it’s likely to be on my [evaluations], I might as well expose students to more!" she wrote to The Chronicle.

A retired professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Harry Cleaver, took an unusual approach. For about a decade, he posted online all of the comments students wrote on evaluations of his courses for all to see. "Having essentially been hired by students, I felt each generation deserved to know what the previous students thought about my courses. In as much as the pattern — good, bad, ugly — remained pretty much the same over the years, eventually I felt like I had provided enough insight to future students and stopped putting them up," Mr. Cleaver wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Many professors would probably agree that some student evaluations may deserve to be written off entirely. Two professors wrote to The Chronicle saying students had criticized their wardrobes. In another case, one student told Barbara C. Hinkle, vice president for administration and registrar at Seton Hill University, that her "fake" accent was annoying. One problem: "Without apology, it is no fake accent; I’m a proud West Virginian, and the accent comes honestly," Ms. Hinkle wrote.

Other student evaluations can show blatant prejudice, as Nick Kapoor, an adjunct professor at Sacred Heart and Fairfield universities, experienced. Mr. Kapoor said he had received a review saying he was "too gay."

"Now, I am gay, so it’s not that offensive, I guess ... but what’s the story behind the comment? Was my gayness just too much for you to learn? Is that why you got a D? Because my wrist was too limp or I wore too much plaid? I’ve just always laughed at that one," Mr. Kapoor wrote to The Chronicle.

And some evaluations may raise more questions than they answer. John Y. Jones, an assistant professor at Truman State University, wrote that one student said he withheld a lot of information in the classroom. But the same pupil later added, "I really enjoyed having him as a professor because he did not sugar coat things and was very real with his students."

"I’m not quite sure what to make of this," Mr. Jones said.

While wayward or odd evaluations can be fun to mock, sometimes student evaluations can be transformative. Beverly L. Wood, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said specific student feedback on a lack of or poor examples in a textbook served as the basis for changes in the material she used in class.

And altering when evaluations are offered can be useful. Nick Backscheider, an administrator in the office of information technology at Auburn University, said he set aside some class time four to five weeks into the course to solicit feedback. "I usually discover misunderstandings (mine and theirs), and have time left to explain or modify the course," Mr. Backscheider said.

For example, when some students suggested cutting a portion of the course, Mr. Backscheider would ask the class ask why they wanted to cut the section and then try to make it less intimidating to them.

Dan Barnett, a philosophy instructor at Butte College, wrote that in 1994, while he was at California State University at Chico, a student struck a nerve by calling him a "know it all." Mr. Barnett said he had prided himself on being able to argue any side of an issue.

"The student was picking out the very thing that I thought made for a good teacher. I also knew the student was right: The truth was I loved my arguments more than I loved my students," Mr. Barnett wrote. "That one comment was a body blow — and a godsend."

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.