Student evaluations are a part of every faculty member’s life. Some consider them to be a positive part of the academic life and others dismiss them as a meaningless exercise (or even worse, as a detriment to good teaching).
You might as well know that I come down on the side of student evaluations being a necessary and worthwhile component of teaching at the college and university level. I also received — and I believe, earned — great student evaluations over the 19 years that I taught undergraduate and graduate students. This wasn’t a fluke (and I’m clear that I am writing this from all kinds of privilege and I can compare myself to other people who had the same privilege or even more privilege than I did and still make the following statements).
Here are my top ten tips for earning and receiving high evaluations from students:
- Teach well. You can’t get good student evaluations if you don’t first have this in place — so study the best teachers, access your teaching and learning center, evaluate your own teaching, just keep getting better and better. The best teachers are always seeking to be even better. No one starts out as a great teacher, but some people work at becoming better and better over the years regardless of their starting place. Be one of those teachers.
- Determine what you want students to write on your evaluations. For example, I wanted to students to write “I’ve never worked so hard in a class and I’ve never learned so much.”
- Tell students on the first day of class, “Here is what I am expecting to have you write on my evaluations at the end of the semester.” Then tell them. Say it with authenticity and one hopes, from a place of having seen it written on some or your evaluations in the past. Note: A few years into my teaching, at the end the course that I taught every semester, I had students write a letter to the students who were taking the course the next semester to tell them what they needed to know about me and the course. They sealed those letters, which I then kept them until the next semester to pass out on the first day of class. IT WAS VERY SCARY TO DO THAT. And although I knew I was a good teacher and that most of my students were fans of me and what they learned, I knew it was not universal. But I passed out all the letters anyway. And then I let students share what they read for a few minutes. The themes I hoped would be there were there.
- Teach and keep in mind whatever it is that you want students to write on your evaluations. The idea is that you are delivering on the “goods.”
- Begin doing course evaluations no later than the end of the third week of class. The time for getting written feedback is early while you still have time to capitalize on what’s going well or rectify — if you can — what isn’t going well. The evaluations can be as simple as “What are 3 things that you think are going well in our class and what are 3 things you think that could be improved.” I always told students I wanted THREE AND THREE. Not nine and two or one and five. I wanted THREE AND THREE. Ask your teaching and learning center (TLC) for other early course evaluation tools they recommend. It’s worth the effort.
- Figure out what is going well and what is not going so well right from the beginning. Use that information.
- Ask for a faculty consultant from your teaching and learning center to observe you and give you feedback. If you are at a university that doesn’t have a TLC, then ask a colleague you trust (or preferably more than one colleague) to observe you. Note: I won every teaching award for which I was eligible at my university. In my 14th year of being a professor, I was teaching a class that was NOT going well and I couldn’t figure out why. I invited two other people to come and observe me and help me understand what was going wrong. It’s humbling and helpful.
- Maintain high expectations for your students and yourself throughout the semester — including during the inevitable wax and wane of energy and attention that tends to come about the eighth or ninth week into a 15-week semester.
- Tell the students, prior to your official course evaluation, that you appreciate their professionalism and respect of this process. Make it clear that you will read all of their evaluations with care (assuming this is true — never tell your students anything that isn’t true).
- Avoid listening to colleagues who dismiss teaching evaluations. If you are getting good ones, they will try to make it a bad thing (because they aren’t getting good ones). If you are getting not-such-great ones, they will try to indicate that it has nothing to do with you, but rather it’s the wretched students, the lowering of the standards, blah, blah, blah. In fact, if we are getting poor student evaluations, we need to take a look at what is happening and work to improve — if it is anything within our control (e.g., organization of the material, timeliness of grading, explanation of concepts, structure of assignments, use of class time). Don’t get sucked in by colleagues who don’t value teaching and don’t value improvement of our teaching skills — which will show up on your evaluations.
One final note about teaching evaluations — after you have read your evaluations for the quarter/semester/term — get rid of the ones that are mean-spirited and unnecessarily personal. Sadly, it only takes one reading of those to get them logged in our heads. I know this from personal experience.
I could have 45 students who thought the course was outstanding and experienced my teaching as caring and excellent — and the three students’ comments about why I should never be in front of a classroom again or who commented in a way that was intended to be hurtful (and was) were the comments I remembered. Over the many years I’ve taught (and I mean MANY), I have finally gotten much less sensitive to such comments and can even laugh them off.
For example, maybe a year or so ago, someone who was in one of my workshops, hosted by his academic unit, wrote a scathing evaluation. I don’t remember the specifics but when I read it, my immediate thought was “What an ass” and then I thought, “What kind of a supervisor is this person?” and “What must their lives be like at work.” It was clear that his assessment of me and my workshop was written with a practiced “hand” in expressing unwarranted, hurtful comments and I’m quite sure, the people he worked around were the recipients of these kinds of comments constantly. But my point is this, he didn’t hurt my feelings or give me any thought about needing to improve. Nothing would have changed his thoughts about my teaching (or me). I deleted his “evaluation” and I knew from experience that his comments were about him and not about me.
Early in my years as a professor, I didn’t yet have the perspective or experience to know that mean-spirited and scathing comments were never about me, but were about the students writing them. I hope you can learn that lesson faster than I did and decide what you want to pay attention to and what you want to ignore. Read the positive comments and keep moving more and more toward those. Build on your strengths.
To access a free resource — my gift to you — I highly recommend If You Do Nothing Else This Semester. With the strategies presented here, you will get the strategies you need not only to have a successful semester, but a successful year.