The fall semester is under way, your courses are exciting, and you are busily "professing" about biochemistry, microeconomics, or Middlemarch to students encountering you for the first time. Surely they will know how much you care, how hard you have worked to be here, how much they have to learn from you.
Well, one would hope so. But at the end of the term you will get some hard data on: (a) how well they performed on the measures you created to test their learning and (b) how well you fared in the measures the university created to test your teaching.
The latter instrument, the end-of-semester student evaluation, is an object of scorn, dread, praise, faith, and power in academe today. For those on the tenure track, there will be other teaching metrics—like peer evaluations (the subject of the next month's column). But student evaluations count as one of the main ways you are judged under the promotion-and-tenure category of teaching, so you should take them seriously. And if you are an adjunct, those evaluations can matter even more to your continued employment, so much of the advice I will offer applies to you, too.
Read them. It seems self-evident to say that the first step in learning from a student evaluation is to read one. But what professor has not been tempted to disregard student comments? Or even insist on ignoring them? I passed through such a phase for a year during my tenure-track days. I didn't want to hear anything negative, so I avoided student ratings altogether.
But read them you must because you will find data that are helpful in improving your teaching and because the department chair will, and the senior faculty members may, read your evaluations. You may be asked, in yearly reviews or in your statements on teaching, to respond to any issues raised by students. Retorting "I pay no attention to evaluations" is unacceptable.
Scan for red flags. Stepping outside of yourself and thinking like a promotion-and-tenure committee as you inspect your own record prepares you for the actual judgment. In the world of student evaluations, certain items cry out for attention in the positive or the negative. Note the latter as ones that you need to deal with in future courses and perhaps in explanation to your department.
For example, students, especially groups of students, almost never invent procedural complaints against faculty members. So if, out of a class of 30, six or seven students assert, "He does not show up on time for class but expects us to" or "I have shown up for office hours three or four times and he wasn't there," then a reader would be likely to believe there is a real and serious problem about your fulfilling one of the sacred obligations of your employment: physical attendance for your contractual duties.
The high-attention items are also an early-warning radar that can help you head off longer-term troubles. If a third of the class writes, "She mumbles sometimes and is hard to hear," then conduct a "sound check" of yourself in the classroom before the start of the next semester. Or if you get a number of students noting, "He doesn't leave enough time to ask questions," maybe you should allot more time during class for that purpose.
Think ahead; evaluate yourself first. Here is a pop quiz: Name three questions commonly listed on student evaluations. You can't? Join the club. Think about what that means. The students will be evaluating you on certain criteria, but you don't know what those are.
Prepare for those questions by taking them into account when designing your courses. I do not mean skew your content, style, and delivery to butter up students. But the questions on evaluations often do serve as a good checklist for you and your teaching. For example, typically there is a question like, "Were the course objectives clearly explained in the syllabus?" Why not read over your course objectives, show them to trusted colleagues or mentors, or even test them out on students you already know?
The second part of preparing for evaluations is to show students how you have fulfilled the criteria on which you will be rated. In the case of course objectives, on the first day of class, lay them out carefully, noting that they are also spelled out in the syllabus. In a later class, perhaps the one previous to the session in which you will hand out the evaluations, reiterate your course objectives and explain how they have been achieved. That's not pandering to students; that's transparent teaching.
Tease out useful data. Quantitative ratings in the evaluations can be easy to understand. Take the question: "Was the grading fair?" If, on a 1-to-6 scale, with 6 being the best score, your median score on that question is 1.2, you have grading issues that you need to resolve. But if in one semester, you get a 5.5 on that question and the next semester you get a 5.4, the "drop" means nothing.
That said, the committees and chairs who are evaluating you are always looking for "improvement." I have joked with probationary faculty members that getting low (but not too low) scores your first year is a shrewd tactical move since you can then "show improvement" more easily in the semesters to come. (Don't actually attempt that.)
The written comments on a student evaluation can be gratifying ("You are the best teacher ever!") or insulting ("Don't quit your day job at the prison"). The problem is that it is easy to see them as a potpourri of random thoughts. Early in my teaching career I was influenced by researchers like Karron G. Lewis, who advised taking written comments and sorting them by theme, or respondent, or item, and then further creating a matrix or analysis grid to identify a pattern or trend.
For example, you might find that students who rate the course and your teaching very highly nevertheless tend to have a problem with how your exams actually test the material presented in class. You can focus with some confidence on that as an issue to tackle because it was raised by people who found your teaching superlative in many other ways.
Show how you have responded to students' concerns. Wherever you are on the tenure track, you will face some system of annual evaluation by the senior faculty members and the chair. (Typically, adjuncts are evaluated by the chair, influenced heavily by student evaluations.) They will look at your student-evaluation numbers and comments and draw conclusions. You will have an opportunity to respond, in writing or in a meeting.
We seniors are impressed when you have beaten us to the punch, when you have spotted issues and are already working to improve for next time. Try to cite some concrete steps that you will apply, or some actions that show your serious regard for the teaching enterprise, such as taking a workshop at the campus teaching center. Certainly consult the teachers in your department whom you really respect—they will be happy to offer advice.
Above all, keep your cool and be constructive in your comments. Explanations are always welcome, but arrogance ("those peasants did not understand my genius") and defensiveness ("the undergrads are part of the departmental conspiracy against me") are not.
Don't read too much into them. You should not be upset over outlier comments and one-shots that signify nothing but momentary or individual disgruntlement. If your overall rating was fine and most of the comments were positive, the fact that one or two students felt "the exams were too hard" is not significant, and no sensible department chair or senior faculty member will scold you.
Accept that you can't please everyone all the time.
Even if it's personal, don't take it personally. As teachers (especially those who are probationary faculty members), we put our egos and self-worth on the line every day before an audience. No profession save stand-up comedy is as prone to both spectator-driven elation and disheartenment. But even if you are insulted, upset, or demoralized by students failing to appreciate some aspect of the class or making inappropriate and nasty personal comments, don't take it personally.
First, on a practical basis, there are no re-dos. You can't teach the same students in the same class again. Every semester you get another chance to start fresh with lessons learned.
Second, recognize that, in the heterogeneous accumulations of humanity before you, there are all sorts of personality types with all sorts of pre-existing challenges.
Finally, 99 times out of 100, any invective that students may express through the anonymity of the evaluation is aimed at the role you play of instructor, not at you as a human being.
Student evaluations—whether you love, hate, respect, or despise them—are a fact of life for all of us but have a special relevance to probationary faculty members. I have found them to be helpful in improving my own teaching, even if the signals they gave were sometimes mixed or murky. Nevertheless, they will play a modest to decisive role in your continued employment. So pay attention to student evaluations, try to understand them, and, equally important, communicate that you do not dismiss them as irrelevant.