Monday, January 28, 2013

How Professors Should Read Student Evaluations

One of the Joys and banes of teaching in higher education is the dreaded course evaluation. I am talking about the evaluations which provide students the opportunity to evaluate a professor and the ten or fifteen week course in which they have just shared considerable time and effort.  On a single piece of paper (usually one sided) the student is able to “rate” the professor, the subject matter, the course textbooks, the professor’s style of teaching, the way the professor interacted with and treated the students and whether or not the student learned anything. In the context of a seminary, the student might also be asked how this class helped them understand their “calling” and whether or not it was “spiritually nurturing.”

All of this happens anonymously, usually on the last day of class when the final exam and papers are due and everyone is tired, perhaps a bit grumpy and ready to make a dash for Christmas, spring or summer break. And rarely have I witnessed students spend more than ten minutes on the evaluation. Many of them go through it as a perfunctory exercise. And they do so very quickly. It is their last required act before breaking free from the professor and the class.

In spite of my rather snarky description of the process, I admit that I can’t think of another way to evaluate a course. Students who have paid good money should get a good course and if they get less than the syllabus claimed and if the professor was unprepared or didn't put forth the effort to educate, then the student has a right to respond, and anonymous evaluations provide a venue for them to speak without fear of being persecuted by said professor. I can recall on two occasions using the evaluation form as a way to let the professor and the administration know that I was not happy with either an absentee professor or he/she’s lack of preparation.

Sitting on the other side of those evaluations has been interesting, however. There is a love hate relationship. I actually find those who simply give me all “10s” with no comments or suggestions to be quite unhelpful. Perhaps the course was everything the student and I both expected, but I doubt it. I greatly appreciate the handwritten notes, both positive and critical, that help me know what I am doing right and what I am doing wrong. And I have made adjustments to my courses based on those comments.

Some comments I simply ignore.  No matter how many times I am told that I require too much reading or too much vocabulary in Greek I simply remind myself that I have given the students what they need to be successful in the course and, hopefully, life. And I check my requirements against other colleagues and institutional standards to make sure that I am not “out of whack.”  

What really gets me going is when I get two evaluations from the same class with completely opposite comments. There are times when I wonder if they were in the same course. I have had evaluations that read as if the two students wrote from a similar script, but from opposing sides. The one that seems to always get me is about my use of humor. One student will comment how they like when I lace humor through my lectures and make funny quips. The other will call me an arrogant, sarcastic individual and demeaning to students. Whew. I am never sure which one of those to work with. I sometimes wonder if I am a bit Jekyll and Hyde.

Along these lines, John Stackhouse, who teaches at Regent College, has a good post on student evaluations. He and others have wondered how students can be so mean sometimes. But he also offers ten valuable tips for reading them. Here are snippet views of his tips, but I suggest you read his full post here.

  1. Read evaluations when you have time to read them slowly. Don’t read them when you can only skim them.
  2. Read them when you’re in a good mood. We all tend to give much more attention to negatives than positives, so don’t begin what will likely be a challenging process already in a less-than-optimal frame of mind.
  3. Read them with a nice snack nearby. Keep a steady supply of goodness running through your system: fresh fruit, nuts, smoothies, chocolate, milkshakes, Cabernet Sauvignon (only California or Bordeaux will do), single malt whisky…be sure to coddle yourself a bit so as to maximize your receptivity.
  4. Read them analytically. I was annoyed this time ’round by a powerful phrase that stuck out: One student decided that he (it might have been a “she,” but I’m guessing “he” is male) didn’t like the number of stories I told to illustrate the various points of epistemology I was teaching to an introductory class last term.
  5. Read them humbly. Upon further reading and reflection, perhaps that student was at least partly right. I probably did overdo the stories.
  6. Read them with intent to improve.
  7. Read all the data. Every place I have taught has used a combination of ranking questions (from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree” or the like) plus opportunities for comments. Don’t look at the average scores in the former questions without also looking at the particular scores. I seem invariably to have one, two, or three people who really, really don’t like me or the course I teach.
  8. Read them with a colleague. A colleague shares your values but doesn't share your responsibility in this course, so she can hear better than you can what’s being said about it, and you, particularly if it is something negative.
  9. Get colleagues to sit in on your classes and critique you rigorously. You've got to really want this, and you've got to pick the colleagues carefully, of course. But there is nothing like peer review to make you self-conscious, and self-consciousness is good especially for veteran professors as we are inclined to get too comfortable in our classes.
  10. Pray over the evaluations. God is the Master Teacher. What does he want you to learn from them? 

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