Thursday, November 3, 2011

Making effective use of students evals

How to Read a Student Evaluation from the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

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.

And last but not least:

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.

Read additional tips here about how to make positive use of students evals.


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One more tip: Feel free to discount evaluations that contain gross spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors (unless the course is Legal Writing, where you bear some responsibility).

Posted by: Norman Otto Stockmeyer | Nov 4, 2011 7:03:04 AM

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