Interpreting Class Evaluations?

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What are some guidelines for interpreting class evaluations?  I have heard that you should take the best and worst evaluations out of the pile, and look for patterns in the middle group.  Often, with evaluations, I feel that students who get As give you the rave reviews, and then students who did not do as well as they had hoped give you the rotten, mean ones.

I guess my question really is, how do determine what to look for to improve my teaching?  Is there something to be learned from evaluations [so far I have not figured that one out, and seem to get more tips from one-on-one conversations with students and instructors].

You do not state whether you have numerical evaluations where students respond to statements on a scale, or whether you have open-ended questions. If you do not have open-ended questions, I would suggest you ask those on a separate form. Phrase some of the questions in a way that students are asked to offer suggestions on how to improve something they do not like. For example, I ask "What do you believe does not work well with the group projects?" followed by "What do you suggest be changed with the group projects?" Students who only tell me that they do not like the group projects are not useful for me. The answers to the second question give me ideas on how to make improvements. I also look for statements made by multiple students. During my recent mid-term evaluations, a student suggested I do something. I discounted it until I saw that various other students suggested the same. I then more seriously considered the suggestion.

Here is how I improved my ratings in five years from 1.87 to 1.04 on a scale from 1.0-5.0, 1.0 being the highest:

- Dress professionally.
- Don't wear too much make-up.
- Don't use perfume.
- Don't wear too high heels.

- Always be on time.
- Never go over time.
- Return every assignment or test the next day.
- Give a detailed semester plan and follow it exactly.
- Give a written outline for every session.
- Word homework assignments extremely carefully and clearly.
- Summarize once every week where you are in terms of your syllabus.
- Give the students "account statements" about class requirements and assignments.
- Do everything in your power to appear concise, reliable, and totally calculable.

- Change topics, speaking and presentation styles, exercises etc. frequently.
- Have a warming-up story or joke, little test, or engaging reading every session.
- Know a few popular sitcoms and TV programs. Make allusions.
- Connect all content and methodology to your students' background and personal experience.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Don't read from a paper.
- Don't mumble.
- Don't read from the board or screen.
- Don't press on when they are obviously bored. Work to keep their concentration.
- Appear enthused.
- Smile and laugh often.
- Cultivate a little human shortcoming (I for example always forget to bring a watch or clock so I have to ask every now and then what the time is. Whatever they tell me, I say "Perfect!" and continue with a look of satisfaction in my face. My handwriting is also hard to read, and we often make jokes about that.)

- Explain a long time before a test what topics/ skills you are going to test.
- Remind them for the last four sessions before a test what the test will be about.
- Ask them before the test if they have any more questions. If so, answer them.
- Ask them if they are "ready".
- Then hand out the test. Ask them exactly what you said you would ask.
- Write for every question how many points there will be on it, and explain what you want them to do.
- Briefly go over the questions with them before you allow them to start - all at the same time.
- Make it abundantly clear how much time there will be for the test.
- Remind them 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute before the end of the test how much time they have left.
- Be generous with points and grades in cases of doubt or possible misunderstandings.
- Otherwise, be firm. Don't give them the idea that you play favorites.
- In the next class, explain exactly what the right answers would have been. Praise them collectively ("You are the best class I have ever had.") Explain how you distributed points. Answer questions.
- Offer office hours directly after that session.
- Have tissues ready.
- Present bad grades as challenges. The magic bullet sentence is: "Yes, I couldn't believe it either when I saw your answers. You have a real gift for  ___________ (fill in discipline), and you could have done so much better. Believe me, I would have LOVED to give you a better grade!"
- If they insist, tell them that you could be "audited by the the academic standards committee" or similar, and that therefore you have to adhere to the rules even though you really understand their situation. Offer "any other help".
- Challenge them as a group when the next test comes up. Say, "We did so well in the last test. Let's see if we can beat our own GPA."

- Know all your students' names and majors.
- Always greet them when you see them on campus.
- Be available for assistance.
- Come a little early, hang around a little after class.
- Be always in your office during office hours.
- Give them a phone number where they can reach you during the day.
- Answer all emails on the same day, and if only to let them know when you will have time for a detailed answer.
- Make extra appointments for bigger issues.
- Take a few notes so that you can quickly read up on the student when he or she talks to you next.
- Be proactive to follow up on problems and complaints. "Do you still have trouble accessing our Web site?" "Do you feel that (recent changes) make it easier to understand the materials?"
- Keep in contact with students from previous semesters. They will go around and tell everyone how great you are, and that will set positive expectations in later student "generations".
- Help students from previous semesters. Forward information about programs and stipends. Ask them how they are doing. Encourage them to pursue excellence and to aim high. Share their experience, congratulate them on successes.

Last but not least:
- Do it before the final grades are in. Leave a big chunk of the final grade until after evaluations.
- Do it after some little speech that gives a positive summary of the class.
- Leave plenty of time. Don't do it as an afterthought.
- Appear unworried and confident as you administer the evaluation.
- Follow directions exactly. Leave the room while they fill in their sheets.
- For a little boost: Do a tiny little very well prepared and extensively announced test two sessions before the evaluation. Give everyone a (reasonably) good grade.  Then do the evaluation the session after that.
- Do not bring soda and chocolate. Students are suspicious of bribery.

In summary, I would think it's 80% genuine enthusiasm for your subject and your students combined with integrity and hard work, and 20% Psychology 101 and a few sneaky tricks...

I improved a lot over the years, and over time I interviewed 20+ colleagues with killer grades to learn the tricks of the trade (plus, I always read the Chronicle!)

So: More good tips anyone?

I agree with B. F. about open-ended questions.  I have learned virtually nothing from the numerical evaluations on the survey we are required to administer every semester, and even the narrative questions on it are iffy, because they tend to invite "like/don't like" responses.  And, in my experience, the likes and don't likes tend to cancel each other out -- for instance, for 5 who say they hate collaborative work, there will be 5 who say they love it.  

So, like B. F., I do midterm evaluations with my own questions that give me more useful information at a time when I can actually use that information to make improvements to a class's current incarnation.  These questions almost always involve a "why" component to avoid the thumbs up / thumbs down type of response.  

Now, another important question to consider if you don't yet have tenure is how the administration at your university interprets your evaluation.  Although I am at a R-I institution, evaluations are make or break in the tenure process, and the evaluation numbers are taken absolutely uncritically as gospel truth by upper administration.  If your scores don't fall above an arbitrarily set cut-off point, you are deemed a bad teacher and won't get tenure.  They absolutely don't care about what students might say in narrative evaluations, and they don't care what peer evaluations of your teaching say.

  Indeed, in preparing the tenure file, one is prohibited from including narrative evaluations from students.  The students have to give you high numbers for you to be a "good" teacher, and you get high numbers by making students happy (that is, by entertaining them, by avoiding placing "unreasonable" demands like -- gasp -- regular class attendance,  and making sure no one has any reason to complain about a grade).  I mentioned in a post in a different thread that it's a typical pattern in my department that as soon as someone gets tenure, there's lots of student gossip flying around like: "Wow, my room mate had Dr. X last year and said she was easy, but now she's really hard."  Pretty telling, no?

Are you serious Claudia. That is quite a list!

I have problems with numerical scales. A friend who was teaching in teacher education early in the term asked his pre-service teachers what they thought of the university wide evaluation form ... they noticed there was no question that asked: Did the professor/class challenge you? Most of the questions were the typical consumer-oriented questions to make sure the "customers" were happy! They then designed a better evaluation form as a class assignment.

Then near the end of the term he administered the university wide form ...


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