Evaluating Student Evaluations

Student Evals

Student evaluations have always been something that I’ve found valuable. As a student I was blissfully unaware about the underwhelming power my voice had on a sheet of paper at the end of the semester and as an instructor I hang on almost every word of the student evaluations.
However, I’m not going to talk about the absurdity of the system where no one, except teachers who care, read the evaluations. Instead, I’d like to refute some of the main points laid out in this article.

I’ve only gotten into teaching in the past three years, so what I have is based on personal experience. That being said, I’ve had a very different personal experience than this gal.

The author, Rebecca Schuman, has several different accounts, both personal and documented, where the anonymous feedback system has failed her. She even goes so far as to say,

Asking students to evaluate their professors anonymously is like Trader Joe’s soliciting Yelp reviews from a shoplifter.

The Sexist Comments: 
Sometimes evaluations come back sexist, but I’d like to think we’re getting over that. Maybe I’m naive, maybe those evals are from classes where there are 300 people where the students never felt connected to the professor and they’ve been trolling on the internet for too long. I personally haven’t had any sexist  comments come back to me, but my largest class was 40 and I knew everyone. Perhaps the lacking sense of anonymity stifled any of the “she’s a girl and therefore can’t science” attitudes. However, if the internet has taught me anything, it’s that anonymity entitles people to say whatever is on their mind and that many people still don’t like women in the “internet” or “academic” space. Since I don’t have any personal experience with this, I’m not going to comment any further

Students Can’t Gauge their Own Learning:
Here Rebecca argues that students are particularly bad at assessing what/if they learned anything. She seems to assume that all students feel like they’ve learned if they’ve gotten an “A” and if you’re an easy teacher, then you get high evaluations. I feel like there are three kinds of students (well, okay there are a lot more, but for simplicity’s sake, just go with me).

There are the students who are lost, confused, and/or just being pushed through the system. They’ve been told all their lives “go to school, get good grades, go to college, get good grades, job!” without really considering what they want to get from college or from life. This is a problem in of itself, which should probably be saved for it’s own post.

The other two kinds are both in college for different reasons. One knows exactly what they want to do when they get out and need the education/experience to get there. The other kind has a general idea of what they want to do but are taking everything they can because they enjoy learning and know that they won’t have another chance to take some weird classes. Both of these students, in my opinion, know when they are learning and when they are not.

I think that many students do know when they’ve learned and when they haven’t and saying otherwise is both an insult to their motivation and intelligence. I’ve gotten several verbal and written responses about howstudents feel like they’ve learned something from my class(es).

You are honestly the BEST TA I’ve ever had!!!! And that says a lot seeing how you aren’t necessarily the easiest (I’ve actually learned something).

(This one wasn’t anonomyous and was actually emailed to me).

Finally, thank you so much for a great semester. You are a very awesome TA, and you taught me a lot!

She puts in so much time and thought into teaching students and is very dedicated to help us learn what she is teaching and to succeed at it.

Nancy is one of the instructors I’ve met at this university that truly cares how students do and how much they learn from the course.

If Your Hard, You get Bad Evals:
Another point Rebecca states, which is related to the first, is that because students “can’t judge their learning,” if you’re hard you get bad evaluations. Her anecdote was that her students improved at German but still gave her bad reviews.

I think this point is a bit harder to tackle. There is a professor who’ve I watched who does everything perfectly by the book. The instructor teaches two sections of 300ish students each. The  instructor engages the class, uses clicker questions, allows the students to talk to each other, and there’s a lot of homework to help buffer test grades and improve understanding. However, you can feel the resentment between the instructor and students. The tension is stifling. It seems that the instructor doesn’t respect the students and in turn the students don’t respect the instructor. Even though the instructor has all the tools, and uses them correctly,  it doesn’t work because the professor/student relationship just isn’t there.

So maybe, Rebecca, like this professor, does all the right things, but still comes off the wrong way which could be part of her evaluation problem. Teaching is a service industry. You have to be personable and effective which is hard. Go talk to any waiter and they’ll tell you the same thing.

I try and be really respectful of my students, but still be challenging. I expect a lot out of my students because I want them to give me their best. Why are they in college if they’re not prepared to work hard and learn? Learning isn’t easy, if it were we’d have a more educated world and vote better (but that’s again, for a different time.)I feel like you can be engaging, charismatic, sympathetic, respectful, and challenging at the same time and still get good reviews. I’ve had one negative review where  the student said that  I “graded too hard” and was  “unfair” but it was generally stomped out by the good reviews.

An important thin to point out about Nancy’s teaching style is that she didn’t make good grades easy to earn, she made them achievable through diligent work. There is a considerable difference there, and one that really contributed to my understanding of the material in class.

She was very knowledgeable and eager for us to learn. I appreciated her test format that was widely application-based but wasn’t impossible to understand. Her grading was somewhat strict, but it was fair, and she always gave us opportunities to submit drafts so that we could improve as much as possible and really expand on what we were learning at the time.

She was an excellent TA. Always available to help and the tests were some of my favorite – creative and fun but still challenging.

The instructor was very good, except her grading was a little difficult. She constantly told us how she is such a hard grader, while other instructors were a lot more lenient. She was very interesting and fun which kind of made up for it.

She was well prepared for all classes, and was actively engaged in making sure we were learning the material and her enthusiasm for the material facilitated my learning even more. Even when the course material was not exciting, Nancy found a way to make it more interesting. I appreciated her constructive feedback on writing assignments [.] She cares about her students and treats them all with respect.

The instructor had creative ways to make the material seem interesting and made the assignments less tedious. The take home tests that ere part of the assessments enhanced our learning and all the instructions were well explained each lab. She was respectful of the students and wanted the students to learn and do well. The course load was fair. I liked having the option of turning in drafts for papers before the due date so that it could be improved before grading.

Conclusions:
Maybe I get these good comments because I’m still a TA and not a full professor. Maybe students expect less out of me and so when I do well, it’s surprising. Or maybe students are people too and are annoyed when they pay a lot of money for a service they don’t feel like they’re getting.

One of the major things about teaching is that I think you have to be compassionate. In all my teaching courses, I’ve learned how to give better assignments, engage students, but at the end of the day I think you have to be empathetic, compassionate, and respectful. And those aren’t things you can teach. You either have it, or you don’t. Students, and people in general, can see that you have it or you don’t and well treat you accordingly.

TL;DR
Basically, you can be a hard teacher that expects a lot out of your students but as long as your charismatic, approachable, and respectful, students will also respect you. Also, instructors should think of their students as “people” and not numbers on a paper or faces in a crowd.

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