Many of us are about to get our student evaluations back from the fall semester. This will be my fourth time to getting evaluations. I dread it every time. It’s not that I’ve gotten anything especially devastating, and in fact they tend to be blandly positive. It’s that I’ve never been able to make much use of what I get back. For every comment asking to please slow the lectures down, I get another asking if I could please move a little faster. For every comment asking for more time spent on in class assignments, I get another asking for less. Some students want more slides, some want fewer slides, some want more group assignments, and some want none. The only unambiguously helpful comment I got told me that I was often hard to hear in the back row of the classroom. Certainly good to know, if very frustrating that they didn’t mention that the entire semester.
Another point of frustration for me is that the comments meant to be complimentary do not strike me the way I believe the students intended. Each semester I get a student telling me that I’m “sweet,” which always temporarily makes me wish I had been tyrannical and arbitrary. Plenty of researchers have covered the topic of race and gender bias in student course evaluations so I won’t try to address that here. If I could banish that word from my responses, I absolutely would.
I also struggle with the usefulness of the questions asked on the evaluations and what the students may be thinking about when they answer. Did I use class time effectively? That’s a good question, but a number on a scale from 1-7 doesn’t tell me much. Which parts did they find effective or ineffective? If the open-ended questions are any indication, the parts some students found ineffective were the parts that other students would call the most useful time spent in the class. I get a lot of comments on the class meeting time and location, even though that’s one aspect of the course that’s entirely out of my control. Given the option, I would certainly side with the students in saying no to an 8:30am class held in the basement. Is that part of what they’re thinking of when evaluating use of class time? I also wonder about the part where they rate the instructor’s fairness in grading. Am I cynical, or should we just ask them if they got a high grade? The responses I get seem to track neatly along the curve I use for the course. Perhaps the responses would fall into a bell curve anyway.
The sense I get from reading my evaluations every year is that each question is really asking the students the same thing over and over in different ways: how did you feel? How did you feel during class time? How did you feel doing the assignments? How did you feel getting your grades back? I do want feedback from my students, and I do want to know how they feel about the course. I’ve struggled to use student evaluations to be a better professor. This year I made an anonymous survey about the course and gave it to students at around halfway through the semester. Since I wrote it, I was able to ask very specific questions about aspects of the course. It was my first set of responses where no one called me sweet, and my first with useful feedback. I’ll be doing it again, and I recommend it to anyone like me who doesn’t usually know how to make student feedback into something useful.