From the Other Side of the Desk: student evaluations and annual reviews

April 6, 2011 § 14 Comments

I have really hesitated to write this post because I fully intend to criticize that most sacred of qualitative measure: the student evaluations.

If you are unfamiliar with student evaluations, allow me to educate you. A student evaluation is a form typically consisting of two parts. The first portion is commonly a Scantron sheet where students will rate elements of the classroom experience: the professor’s knowledge base, the clarity of the professor’s voice, the level of preparation required for this course. The second portion is ofttimes optional and can come in the form of a short-answer questionnaire where the students will “honestly” respond to questions specifically directed to that course. (For instance, there is a questionnaire for the composition classes as well as for the literature classes.) Students complete these forms on the last day of class meeting, and they typically take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to complete. While the students evaluate their professor and overall classroom experience, the professor is proctoring someone else’s evaluations–no professor remains in his or her own classroom during this time. It is less intimidating to the students this way and encourages them to be more honest in their responses.

The evaluations are sent off to a school somewhere else in the country (ours are sent somewhere to the West…I think) where the Scantrons are scored and averages on a scale of 0-5 are mathematically figured. The reports return to the home university and are submitted to the appropriate professors typically around mid-semester of the following term. Sure, it’s too late now to really implement any changes or recommendations stated within the evaluations, but at least the students’ responses are kept anonymous, grades for that class have already been reported, and the professor likely won’t remember a specific student’s handwriting any more.

Although many professors wish this is where the evaluations might end, on their own desks to be used at their own discretion, this is typically not the evaluations’ final resting place. In many instances, particularly when it comes to junior colleagues and graduate students, student evaluations are normally requested to appear in a teaching portfolio for an annual review. (I believe this is also true for many jobs on the academic market. Potential employers would like to see the evaluations from previous students in order to glean an idea of the caliber teacher they might hire.) And this, my friends, is where I struggle with the usefulness of student evaluations.

Take calendar year 2010, for instance. I had three back-to-back-to-back tricky semesters. I had students who were highly combative, accusatory, and presumptive. I often felt nervous, panicked, and unconfident. I spent office hours dreading the footsteps echoing down the hallway, silently willing those footsteps not to be for me. This came to a head last semester when my office hours were after dark and a couple of my more combative students had spent the majority of the course shooting daggers at me. What had I done? Well, given them a quiz on a day they hadn’t read, of course. Or returned a paper with a lower grade than the student believed s/he deserved. Certainly worthy of a threatening glare. Because it’s entirely my fault a student did not achieve to his or her ability. Absolutely. Bad Mrs. H.

Because 2010 was so terrible, I refused to read my evaluations. Normally, I read my evaluations once the following semester has ended. Because we receive our evaluations in the middle of a semester, I never find it appropriate to read horrible comments and destroy my otherwise unwitting confidence. Normally, I read evaluations from Spring after Summer semester had ended. This way, I don’t waste my time midway through a semester with languishing energy and enthusiasm. 2010 was so truly awful that there has been little reason for me to read the evaluations from that year. And last Monday, during my annual review, my assumptions were confirmed. My students claimed that I was enthusiastic (a comment I always receive on evaluations), but they were unhappy with the blogs and quizzes. They believed the blogs were a waste of time and did not actually help their grade in the first place. So, students had little incentive to complete the blogs. This was a large portion of my annual review–and I just sat there, frozen into stunned silence, unable or unwilling to defend myself. I realize now what I should have said, but what’s the point?

Student evaluations have been infused with this sort of ethos that implies immediate expertise. Because Student A took Mrs. H’s World Lit. II class, Student A is an expert and is capable of evaluating his teacher.

It seems to me that in other professions where evaluations are considered during annual reviews, those evaluations are conducted by other professional peers/colleagues or (even better yet) by administrators. To be evaluated by someone who has absolutely no training in this field and little consideration for the relevance of the course, is laughable. Absurd. Of course my students didn’t want to do extra work. They would prefer to do no work. They would prefer to watch movies based on the books we’re reading. They would prefer not to have to read these books. They would prefer not to come to class at all. (I realize I’m generalizing–there are a few literature students out there who see the value in these courses, but rest assured that those students are few and far between. And their voices do not get heard nearly as well as the others’.) Judging from the recommendations of my annual review (and, mind, I still have not read the evaluations–why would I? my semester is going really well so far), I would guess that my students had absolutely no understanding for the concept of teaching and writing pedagogies as they apply to a literature classroom. When I discuss my methods with others, entirely devoid of student evaluations, I am met with encouragement and often words of support. When I discussed my methods with my reviewer, I was met with phrases like “I’m not sure this accomplishes your pedagogy as well as you think it does.” Really? Did my students who wrote the evaluations read every single student’s paper like I did? How could they properly assess just how well these methods have worked in my classroom? From my perspective, they were a stroke of genius (one likely never to be repeated–I have a feeling we’re all given one stroke of genius in our lifetimes…well, the normal people…the geniuses of course are granted more). But what do my untrained, 20-year-old students know about my methods? Those who care to ask me know a great deal more than those who do not care.

And, from my perspective at least, the number of students who do not care far outweigh the students who do. Yet both categories are encouraged to evaluate and assess me. I find it stunning that their assessments are taken seriously in the first place.

My conclusion is this: student evaluations should be kept to the absolute most basic of functions, and that should be to evaluate the course curriculum. Let the teaching professionals evaluate their junior colleagues. Leave the real evaluations and assessments to the professionals.

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§ 14 Responses to From the Other Side of the Desk: student evaluations and annual reviews

  • Jeri Keenan says:

    You know, every time you post about the crazy stress of dissertating, problems w/ students, the ring jumping of acadamia…..the better I feel about my decision to leave.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Lol, well, I can assure you Jeri that it did not mysteriously get better behind your back. Nope…Academia’s still up to its old tricks! Lol.

  • Lisa says:

    Go Amanda! Speak the truth! It is probably horrible for me to admit this, but I don’t pay much attention to student evaluations anymore. I know what works. I know when I’ve failed. The evaluations rarely surprise me. I know when I have made a connection with a student, it will be glowing. I know the students who will never like me, and will therefore criticize everything I do. And of course I tend to dwell on the negative statements, which makes me struggle to believe in myself.I strive to grow as a teacher every semester, and I am my own worst critic.I’m sure the student evaluations from this semester will be awful, because the classes (in particular one class) have been awful. I’ve tried and failed, but many of them failed as students. My evaluation of them would be just as bad as theirs will be of me.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Exactly! I think what bothers me the most about student evaluations is that their personal vendettas tend to inform their opinions. So, if they hated that I refused to allow them to listen to their iPod during class or text on their phone, then I’m very likely to get a comment about how I’m a horrible teacher. I’ve even seen comments from students that recommend I be fired and never allowed to teach again. That’s kind. And relevant.

      I think you make a great point–you are your own worst critic. Because you know what your course objectives are and you know your own pedagogies better than anyone (as well as how they work with your teaching philosophy), you are the best person to evaluate your course’s productivity. I’m sure that at the end of this semester you will probably sit back and consider what worked, what didn’t; why something worked, why something else didn’t. (Certainly, a great deal has to do with the students’ collective personality–and it sounds like you had a general bull-headed, assumptive, and willfully ignorant dominating personality this semester, at least in one class.)

      I do think student evaluations have a purpose and a place, but I’m not convinced that that place should be an annual review or a teaching portfolio.

  • Dana says:

    I realize that student evaluations are meant to bring a somewhat objective measure into an otherwise completely subjective relationship between teacher and student. However, like stupid personality inventories, they cannot (and will never) be an “accurate” reflection of anything except the evaluator’s own issues. Good for you for not reading them– I think it would only be fair for you to evaluate your students on the same scantron/questionnaire in return! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Haha, can you imagine? My mom reminds me during these moments that all jobs have some form of evaluation and review process, but…it seems like a single employee wouldn’t be evaluated by 120 clients/customers/patients. (I chose that number since that’s the grand total number of students I had last year whose evaluations went into my review.) At the very least, it can be utterly demoralizing to read 100 times over, “I hate literature” and “this class is completely worthless to my major.” Blech.

  • Kirsten says:

    I once had a review that simply read “This class sucks.” Oh, it was also underlined several times, for emphasis. After crying (and, ok, drinking) for several hours I finally realized that I’ll never be able to make everyone happy. It’s a tough pill to swallow, for sure (especially when you’re getting grilled at ye ole annual review), but keeping that in mind has helped me a lot.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Wow, Kirsten. See, it’s stories like these that make it difficult for me to understand the value of these evaluations. I’ve even heard of tenured faculty taking them out of their mailboxes and chunking them in the recycle bin. Obviously, the method doesn’t matter to some people…and if the administration really wants a qualitative measure of their instructors, they should require more in-class observations from senior faculty members.

  • Tonia says:

    I agree with all of these comments. One student once told me in order to improve I need to “learn how to teach.” Corey was told “reading is for loosers [sic].” Clearly, it is.

    It takes two or three loud-spoken students to poison a class. When that happens there is not much you can do to turn things around.

    Corey’s school recently put together a committee to deal with some of the sexist and racist comments professors get in their evals. Women I’m friends with have been told that students enjoyed the class “because the professor was so hot”, that they were only hired “because they are women and therefore fill a quota,” and that they need to be more assertive in class but that “that would be really hard since they are women, and students don’t tend to respect women as much as men.”

    I’ve also had international friends be told that they are communists, hard to understand, and unfit to teach American students. These things go into permanent files. I find it deeply troubling.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      See, that’s what disturbs me, too, Tonia. After a while, these evaluations are just sitting around in a file or portfolio, utterly devoid of context. So that if someone were to pick up the pile and read “don’t hire her because she really needs to learn how to teach!” there might be some cause for concern (what did she do during class that wasn’t considered “instruction”? Did they just sit around watching movies all the time instead of having class discussions or lectures? Did she cancel class routinely?). I’m only speculating here, since I’ve never gone on the market, but it seems that if a potential employer read a few really snarky evaluations from my former classes, they might shake their heads and understand that kids are kids OR maybe they’d ask me to explain myself and want to know what “really” happened. However many years later.

      The fact that they’re anonymous and conducted on the final day of class (and not even read until the next semester) can be a detriment in times when a student seems to threaten the teacher or make wild, ungrounded and unfair claims.

  • Is there not a way for evaluations to be both anonymous and linked with the grade the student received in the class? I think our evaluations at least asked students to indicate the grade they expected to get in the course. But linking the actual grade to a specific evaluation would speak volumes about the value of individual evaluators. Does this make sense?

    Don’t let yourself stress about the damn things! Easy to say, I know, but in the great scheme of things these evaluations are less than nothing! I KNOW you are are an AMAZING and THOUGHTFUL teacher. I can tell from the comments you leave on my blog!

    Your evaluation of the evaluations is powerful–needs to appear in a departmental newsletter or something.


    • Mrs. H. says:

      Oh yes, our evaluations ask them to indicate the grade they expect to get in the course, as well. But you would be surprised how many students interpret that as “the grade you WANT to get in the course” rather than “the grade you’ll PROBABLY get in the course based on your grades.” I’ve had a class that ended up almost all getting B’s and C’s in the overall course put on the evaluations that they expected to get A’s. Really? By what miracle of math do you expect to get an A in the class? Did you read the syllabus? The final exam isn’t worth 90% of the grade or anything.

      Haha, you know how I manage to put into practice not giving the evaluations much importance? By not reading them. Sure, I risked having my reviewer interpret the results for me and being utterly clueless (was he referring to 120 complaints or 4?), but what the hell? He’d already written up his recommendations and report, so it’s not like I was going to be able to change anything.

  • Lisa says:

    Evaluations like these mean more to me than any end of the semester evaluations. I changed my Facebook status to read: “Scheduled her day to include time for creating, but now is completely blocked. I don’t know where to begin. Sigh.” A former student of mine (about 7 years ago) responded with this “You always taught us that creating and art are process driven, not product driven. Sometimes time to heal your mind is part of the process, even though there may not be visible product. These are your words :)” That’s a sign that I taught well, not all the other stuff. I’m sure you have students who will do that for you someday.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      That’s amazing, Lisa! Good for you!! Seven years ago you said something that really stuck in this student’s mind…and not only that, but they were able to apply it and offer it as advice to someone else. That is truly inspiring! ๐Ÿ™‚

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