Thursday, December 27, 2012

Big Thirsty on Evaluations and why we hate them...

In light of a recent post about evaluations, I've been thinking about their usefulness.

One of my colleagues refuses to read her evaluations. She has tenure and no longer needs to respond to them like the rest of us who have to, every few years, when we're up for promotion, pull out the dreaded comments and respond to them in whatever form of torture the Rank & Tenure people have devised. This colleague asks the rest of us to scan her evaluations and let her know if there are any problems she needs to be aware of. I hate reading her evaluations because, by and large, no one complains. She has no reason NOT to read her evaluations.

Another of my colleagues cries. I know she does because she has admitted as much, and her pinched mouth and puffy eyes tell me she's gone into a funk the likes of which would make George Clinton proud, and stays moody for days on end, muttering to herself about student evaluations. When someone says something complimentary, she responds with, "Well, 27% of my class would disagree with you about that..." I know she takes the comments to heart because every quarter, she has them open as she attempts to (1) interpret what they mean; (2) change assignments to incorporate feedback she receives. She asks the rest of us for feedback on how to tweak assignments or change up the order of major projects, all because one student claimed she felt overwhelmed by the order in which essays were due.

The rest of my colleagues fall between the spectrum of those who ignore and those who anxiously await and obsess about their students' feedback.

My evals are rarely helpful enough to change anything. When I first started teaching, I used to obsess about the comments that were just plain mean and unnecessary. Now I don't care. I just puzzle it out for a few minutes, then leave it alone. The ones with profanity make me laugh, and the clearly insane ones (like the student who claimed she heard the voice of God every time the boy sitting behind her said something), well, those are just entertaining. The flattering ones boost my ego and tell me I'm not a lost cause...

...But they're rarely helpful to me: One section will love me, the other will hate me. Four people will claim there are too many presentations because they hated that about the class, and four others will claim there were not enough presentations because they really loved that portion of the class. Someone will always claim there was too much reading assigned (no shit, it's a four-credit READING class), and someone else will complain about how I was rude and unhelpful because I wouldn't let them get away with plagiarism. Several will glow about the fact that they loved whatever text we read that they'd already fallen in love with before taking the class and that's why they took the class, and a few will grumble that the texts were long and boring... and yet, nothing will change in my classes as a result. I can't change the texts; they're assigned to that period in literature. I can't change the number of essays; they're required by WASC and our department. I can't change much else, beyond the color of the scarf I wear occasionally (which one student criticized), and I can't change the desks or the uncomfortable chairs in the classroom.

Q: So I'm curious, fellow Miserians, what do you do with evaluations?

  • Are yours helpful to you? Do you really value them?
  • Do you incorporate feedback into future courses?
  • Do you get into a funk and obsess about comments that make you insane?
  • Do you laugh it off and go get a beer (or bourbon)?
  • Do you ignore them completely because you no longer have to look at them?
  • In essence: what do you do, and how do they affect you?


  1. Tenure and seniority have afforded me the most precious luxury of not having even to read them. I just throw the unopened envelope in a pile behind a desk, with a great satisfying PLUNK! every semester. I look forward to celebrating the day, much like how my colleagues and I go out for drinks on what we call "Statute of Limitations Day," the Friday afternoon of the 4th week of the semester, at 5 p.m. of which students may no longer file grade appeals. Say, come to think of it, I think I'll start calling the other one "PLUNK Day"!

    Indeed, since our junior faculty are required to get above-average scores in order to get tenure and promotion, and since I think our junior faculty are great and deserve all the support we can give them, this means that it's in my department's interest that I get the worst evaluations that I can possibly manage. I am always ready and willing to take one for the team!

    (We've repeatedly attempted to explain to the admininstration that requiring junior faculty to get above-average scores is mathemmatically nonsensical, since it can't help but breed a "Lake Woebegone effect." If this continues long enough, all future junior faculty will need to get perfect scores. It's also unfair, since the inexperienced teachers with heavy research loads are expected to outperform more experienced teachers who often become research inactive. Our admin doesn't understand a word of it.)

    Of course, I stopped reading my evaluations years ago. All the illiterate lies, and complaints about how I hold students to high standards and don't accept late homework, are just too infuriating. Peter Sacks refutes the practice at book length in "Generation X Goes to College." Can you imagine the effect these things would have on an army, or on a sports team? Anonymous student evaluations of teaching are one of the stupider ideas of the 1960s, right up there with recreational drugs.

    1. OK, I will admit that I get useful information from evals, such as the need to mark the entrance for a lab, at about the 0.1% level. That's 1 in 1000. It's not an effective use of my time to have to wade through an information source with such a low signal-to-noise ratio: any important information will come to me through other channels, anyway. (Yup, it's much like e-mail.)

  2. I skim, laugh, and ignore. Students are not qualified to rate me as an instructor.

    1. At the place where I used to teach, the students were considered experts on how I should run my course. Many came direct from high school and, therefore, "knew" what they needed to know and how it should be taught.

      Then again, if they were so smart and talented, why weren't they conducting the lectures instead of me?

  3. I find that mine have value though not related to real education. If I'm sunny and chatty before class and (intentionally) blow up a few things during the semester, they like that. It's worth +0.5 on my evals. Letting the complete the evaluations after the final exams cost me 1.8 points on year (I forgot to hand them out during class).

    After a few years, I've honed my performance so that I maximize their response so I do pretty good. I don't find this aspect of the evaluation process too terrible. They are not qualified to rate me as a professor but they can rate me as a performer, which is a big part of giving a good lecture.

  4. It depends. If I tried something different (new book, new software), I specifically ask the students to say something about it.

    Otherwise, I might glance at them to see if there is something specific ("handwriting hard to read", etc.)

  5. Some colleagues and I used to hold a contest:

    -10 points for every "arrogant" or "acts like (s)he knows more than the students"(well, um, we DO, that's kind of the POINT!)

    -5 points for every "mean" or "hates students"

    -50 points for gems like, "deliberately uses big words to try and intimidate us" (my all-time favorite!)

    -Special awards for creative nastiness from students - like filling an entire 2000 character text box for what they 'liked' least about the course with, "the professor, the professor, the professor..." (colleagues gave me 100 points for that one)

    -500 points for each truly thoughtful, constructive suggestion

    Winner would buy a round. Once I even won for positive comments.

    1. In the department I used to teach in, evaluations were often used to push someone out the door.

      My last department head, and his lackey assistant head, both wanted to get rid of me. They eagerly awaited the results of my evaluations to use as evidence that I was a lousy instructor, even though those comments were anonymous.

      Sometimes there would be something nasty written about me, but I often found that similar comments were said about some of my colleagues in their respective courses or sections. Did that help? Of course not. The fact that *I* received those comments was enough for those two to wage a campaign of harassment against me.

  6. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure to receive high evaluations. If I did not, I would not get promoted and would not have gotten tenure. It went on for years.

    As such, now I relish the opportunity to not have to read them. I have my wonderful office mate read them for me! Just to let me know if there is anything I need to know in there. I would do the same for her, but she wants to read her own. It is not such a huge burden, because once we went to electric evaluations, if we don't make a huge, very huge, commotion out of them filling them out, they won't do it. My office mate is new; she's under the pressure. She has this thing going that everyone gets 5 extra points added onto the assignment of their choice ONLY if her classes get up to 80% returns. This is all with the administration's blessing: it was their idea.

    I do what someone (sorry, I can't remember who!!) just mentioned here in another thread. I ask them four questions along the lines of: What helped your learning in this class? What did not help? What one thing would you change about the class? What was the most valuable thing about the class? I get useful info out of this. Sometimes I'll change the way an assignment is structured, for example. I changed the way I do group projects because of valuable feedback I got with this evaluation.

    The admin found out that some of us were doing our own evaluations and asked us to stop. Apparently, they feel it makes students less inclined to fill out their evaluations. We have a union here. They stepped in. We can do our own evals, thank you. The admin team can suck it. I still do my own evals, but no one who does not have all their promotions and tenure is brave enough. It's sad.

    Anyway, I tend to take the criticism seriously, if it is given seriously. I never find anything useful about the 16 standard questions the college gives, I think because the data is so conflicting. The same student who gives me the highest number for, say, helpfulness of in class projects will give me the lowest number for "uses time wisely"----and seriously----was "uses time wisely" helpful when we all saw it on our first grade report cards? What does that mean? How is it helpful now?

    But the comment section on the "official" evals sometimes has useful info on it. And if not, entertaining.

    When the comments are especially hurtful, I used to get upset, like your colleague. Well, I would not carry on for months. But I would get upset. I eventually developed a thicker skin, but this is why I won't read The Site That Shall Not Be Named. I just won't. People get too mean there. My husband went on a few weeks ago; he wanted to tell me about nice things people have said there. He works with an intern snowflake from my college who was talking about TSTSNBN. I don't want to hear it----if I allow myself to feel good about the nice things, the mean things hurt me more. It is ridiculous, but it bothers me. I hate that site.

  7. I have tenure, so I don't have to give evaluations to all my classes. When I do, I glance at them quickly, ignore the numbers (which are statistically meaningless, as I have pointed out several times to administrators) and forget about them. I cut and paste a few happy comments into my end-of-year review. That's it.

    But I do give my own evaluations that are much more valuable to me. I give them several times a semester, ask specific questions, and get helpful information about course problems in time for me to fix or address them.

    We get this emails about how to increase our response rate and how to tailor our teaching to increase our evaluations as if that's what we care about. Screw that shit. I care about my field, not about what students think about the way I dress (yes, I've gotten that comment).

  8. Every time I help a student or group of students in lab, or every time I cut a class some slack (changing the date of an exam, dropping an assignment, etc. -- which I don't do often, but occasionally I feel merciful), I loudly announce, with an insincere grin on my face, that "When you fill out the course evaluations, I expect to see everyone write things like 'He deserves a very large raise!' and 'Absolutely God-like intelligence!'"

    Whether they do or not, I don't know, because I am, like, *so* totally over reading my evals. . . but well, if only a few do, maybe it'll help, if the faculty ever get raises again. (I ain't holdin' my breath.)

    I once had a class that went really well, where I had a good rapport with most of the students, and I considered telling all of them to write "He gives all his lectures while wearing a furry bunny costume" somewhere in my evals, just to see if anyone in the administration noticed. They would have done it, too. In the end, I decided that I didn't need that kind of trouble -- the humor would probably have been too subtle and refined for the dean we had at the time.

    1. Yeah, that's a dangerous one. I once had a great class with a good rapport, and one wag wrote "don't make jokes about people who are funnier than you are" which was an in-joke reference to our discussions on the use of humour in writing, but OMG did I have 10 minutes with the Chair over that one. "Are you making jokes about students? Isn't that disrespectful?" GAH.

  9. I usually read the comments. There will occasionally be something useful there, but generally not. Usually I get very polarized comments--some students absolutely love me and/or the way I run the class and they will say so. More often, comments are from students who really, really hate me and my class and have no problem getting very personal and rude saying so.

    For instance, I am apparently a giant whore who wears stripper boots and mini-skirts to teach in (a pair of very low heeled boots with a knee length skirt, but it doesn't really matter what I wear because to the engineering boys, a young-ish, very femme woman teaching intro physics is always inappropriate). My class is too hard, I expect students to learn physics (the horror) and demonstrate that learning. I'm mean because I won't accept late work or do their homework for them during office hours. Nothing on exams is anything that we've done during class (exams are almost word for word old homework or example problems), and so on. The absolute best one was that I have an annoying voice and shouldn't actually ever speak again because listening to me is like fingernails on a chalkboard. I even had one kid complain that he didn't pay $1500 that semester to get a B in physics. That one made me laugh out loud.

    However, I am a lecturer and tenure is not anywhere in my future at this particular university, so it is in my interests to at least have decent evaluations every semester. And my numbers, meaningless as they are, are almost always stellar--it is just the students that really disliked me or the class that mostly feel moved to actually write comments. I'm lucky in that my department chairs for the last several years have been pretty supportive and I've been around the department long enough, first as a grad student, then as adjunct, before I got the lecturer position that I know more or less how far I can go with most things.

  10. Oh gee lords, I would never cry. Please people, do not cry about evaluations. When you cry, the terrorists win.

    As for my own evaluations "process" ... I check my electronic evaluations on the day they come out. Then I forget about them. Then, some weeks later, I get the envelope of "qualitative" comments in my mailbox. I skim these. (Most, surprisingly, are good, and they usually have absolutely no connection to whatever numbers I've received.)

    Most of my evaluations are solid but not glowing. This doesn't surprise me. I do my job. I know my subject. I'm told I give decent feedback. I get high marks for organization. However, I do not pass out cookies. I do not show fun movies. I do not compliment students on the clothes they wear, and I don't pander to their interests by assigning books like "The Hunger Games" or "Harry Potter" (other TAs do all these things--their numbers are sky-high and their qualitative evaluations are written like panegyrics).

    I still, of course, get evaluations that whine and caterwaul about late-work or attendance policies, grades, and the subject-matter of the class (a bunch of "bad reading" about centuries long, long ago). And I occasionally get students who out-and-out lie about things--saying that I missed class even when I didn't, or that I never returned work, or that I was always late to class.

    About these evaluations I have revenge fantasies. I imagine visiting these students at whatever Subway they work at and then filling out an anonymous evaluation that mentions them by name and says that they provide shitty service. "Employee Joe didn't wash his hands before making my sandwich. Had a bad attitude. Was unpleasant at the cash register. Gave me a stale cookie. He should be fired."

    1. Absolutely brilliant.

      I think the thing that bothers me the most is that we are completely unable to address the shitty remarks we get, and we can only hope and pray that TPTB are smart enough to realize when students have an ax to grind.

      I show films in my class (two documentaries) and I had a student complain about it on the anonymous non-official survey I asked them to do. Somehow he failed to understand that they were course material, in spite of the fact that the first formal paper was ON the documentary shown in class. He just thought I didn't want to teach those days. Ugh.

    2. The TPTB weren't that smart at the institution I used to teach at. They took student evaluations for face value and relished the anonymous comments because, paraphrasing my last department head, the students/customer/learners/whatever felt "freer" to say what they liked. In other words, they could make any sort of comment which, if presented in the public media, could result in lawsuits for defamation and character assassination, and get away with it.

  11. "However, I do not pass out cookies. I do not show fun movies."

    Indeed. I have found that this pandering bullshit is counterproductive. Doing things like passing out cookies and showing fun movies can prompt some of the good students to complain about you wasting class time.

    You can't win. And if you ARE winning, then maybe, just maybe, you are part of the reason why higher-ed is so fucked up.

    1. Yep. See my comment above. Though the films I show aren't what I would call "fun"...

    2. My students don't seem sophisticated enough to see through pandering and bribery. Perhaps some of them are, but they seem to be a silent minority. No, at the end of each semester, the grad student lounge explodes with leftover cookies and pizzas and bagels and candies, all of them bought on grad student stipends. And then certain online sites explode with reviews about how TA Ashley gave us chocolate, and TA John had a movie-and-pizza night. Chili peppers all around. (I know I'm not supposed to check that site, but seriously.)

      One time, a student asked me in front of the class, "Where are our cookies?"

      I said, "I know! I was wondering the same thing. Where are the cookies? Why didn't you bring any?"


      I said, "After all my hard work as your lowly TA, I thought you would have brought me cookies. You know, to show your appreciation. Ah well, I guess there's always next semester ..."

      One of my students took my sarcasm rather literally. I held conferences on the last day, and he brought me a fudge brownie.

    3. Sometimes students can tell when something's gone off the rails.

      I recall one of my profs during my senior undergrad year who I found particularly irritating. He lectured for half the allotted time and then told stories about people he knew or a famous researcher on the subject for the remainder. I would rather have had that time devoted to working out examples as I found the course to be quite difficult. It came as no surprise that I got a lousy grade in the course and, in this case, I don't think it was entirely my fault.

      If there had been student evaluations back then (the mid- to late 1970s, I probably would have trashed him. Looking back over the years, I think he was trying to provide us with an education beyond the course material, but I still would have preferred that he had told fewer stories, even though that course grade didn't prevent me from earning 2 master's degrees and a Ph. D.

  12. I sometimes find comments in evaluations "helpful". As in, they give me insight into the mind of the snowflake. Like the time the student wrote "when we give a wrong answer in class, she doesn't say 'thanks for trying'". That one was an absolute revelation.

  13. I love my evals. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how each class learns, and I spend my last lecture giving them advice on how to avoid pissing off their next profs. I give them "secrets" to being good students. Two things tell me whether I've been successful: whether students follow my email etiquette directions at least 80% of the time, and how they fill out my evals.

    I tell them how I use these evals. I make a joke about the crap that is commenting on my haircut or clothes. I ask them to help me be a better teacher by giving me genuine feedback on how they learned best. And I've found that comments on my physical appearance have gone away.

    Their comments are totally worthless, usually, but the fact that they listen to my instructions about not commenting on superfluous things makes me feel like a success. So, in general, evals are a good thing in my life.

    1. I didn't need evaluations to figure out how my students learned.

      The quizzes and exams in my courses required that they have to do something, either preparing a drawing or diagram, or writing out the solution to a problem they were presented with. I didn't just grade them on getting the correct answer, I also examined how they arrived at it and the logic behind it.

      If they got it wrong, they were penalized for it, just like they would be out in the real world.

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  15. I ask my wife to look at them first, just in case. Then I read the compliments for a quick ego-boost. Then I look at the suggestions to make the class better. Most are junk. However, I have made a few small adjustments because of some complaints I felt were justified. Evals from classes where I felt the class "clicked" and went well are more valuable to me than evals from one of those classes where the students seemed to be semi-sentient beings from planet snowflake.

  16. In essence: what do you do, and how do they affect you?

    I read them because other people do. You should always know what other people know about you, if possible. That way, if there is something shocking in there, you're prepared.

    But as a full professor with tenure, so long as there isn't anything outlandish in there, I don't much care. My evaluations are consistently good but not great. There are no "SHE'S THE PROF THAT CHANGED MY LIFE" kinds of things going on in there. They are not worshipful. I am not a cult of personality as some profs are. So as long as I keep seeing the same sorts of comments I won't worry too much. Apparently about a fifth of the students that complete evals think I'm boring and arrogant. I can live with that.

    If there were some disturbing criticisms I'd have to first think as to whether or not the perception was correct. Then, I'd have to think about doing something about it.

    But I haven't hit that yet.

  17. My spouse and I are both proffies, God help us. We tend to fixate on the few nasty comments, and then we have to talk each other out of the funk.

    I truly did find student evaluations useful at the start of my career and up to as recently as about five years ago. I got good feedback on what I was doing well and concrete, constructive suggestions that helped me improve assignments. I'll admit to being thin-skinned enough to be hurt by some of the deeply personal comments that were ugly, but I could endure them to get at the gold buried elsewhere in the data.

    I think the turning point came for me the year my brother died. I was blogging here at the time, so those of you who were reading then know the mysterious circumstances and unexpected nature of that event. I was able to take only one week off work. I knew I was not the best instructor that term, but I did the best I could and expected to get average marks as I did complete the job competently if not at my usual level of enthusiasm. The comments I got back that term were so hateful and negative from some students that they made me question human nature itself. One student had the audacity to compare 11th hour tech problems (which happen when one waits until the 11th hour to complete a project) to my brother's death in terms of gravity and accused me of having a double standard. Another, who read the calendar and the assignment sheet and the to-do list wrong, completely missing a major assignment (and didn't even realize it till three classes later), did the same.

    Over the years I've seen more and more of this kind of thinking. The teacher and the student are equals. The proffie should have the assignment back when I want it back with the grade I want. Because the proffie doesn't take late work or give extra credit (but gives everyone one emergency out at term), that means she must perform to the snowflakes' exact specifications or else it's unfair.

    I wish I could ignore the comments, but neither my state nor my institution allows that. The state has mandatory public evals. My college makes us include them in our self-eval and use them as part of our goal setting for the next evaluation period. I don't know how my new chair will use the evals because my period wasn't up last year, so my first sit-down with him will be at the end of the spring term. However, my previous chair would scrutinize the eval numbers and comments, asking asinine questions like, "Why do you suppose your average is only 3.8 on this question?" or "Student X says you were unfair. What do you have to say about that?"

    1. The comments I got back that term were so hateful and negative from some students that they made me question human nature itself. One student had the audacity to compare 11th hour tech problems (which happen when one waits until the 11th hour to complete a project) to my brother's death in terms of gravity and accused me of having a double standard.

      They're unbelievable.

      Something similar happened to me, and I was shocked by how nasty some students were about it, and how they lacked any compassion. Some even openly mocked the incident in evals, writing, "I'm glad her brother was in a car accident." This was one or two students at most, but it seriously made me almost pack up my shit and leave this place.

    2. I received my share of insults and vitriol in my student evaluations as well, though not as vicious as yours.

      When I was close to finishing my second master's degree, I happened to mention it to one class in a service course I taught. In the evaluation I conducted for that group, someone made a nasty comment about it. Apparently, people with 2 graduate degrees may think they're smart but, really, they're not, or so someone wrote. Nice, isn't it?

      One student made me wonder just how dumb one had to be to have their application rejected by that institution. He thought I was teaching way over his head and I should "simplify" things, apparently just for him. If I'd made my presentations any simpler, instead of talking, I'd have been using grunts and sign language.

      And, yes, there were the usual hopes that I'd be fired as soon as possible.

      I think, by comparison, lion-taming would have been a piece of cake.

  18. I don't read the comments, and in fact I ask the secretary not to send them to me. My chair has to read the comments (admin rule), and will tell me if an unusual number of them has a particular complaint. I know I should look at the numbers, which I do have to include with my annual report, but generally I don't bother;I just staple the sheet to my report with my eyes shut. So far nobody has commented on this. I comment on what went well and what didn't in my teaching from my perspective, and as far as I can tell that must be answering the comments/numbers from the evaluations, because no chair has ever told me "but you didn't address concern X".

    Sometimes I remember to put up a mid-term survey, which is not anonymous, asking if students have comments or concerns or things they'd like me to cover. I get a lot of useful comments out of those. But anonymous comments are no use at all.

  19. I hate evaluations. I like to be a hard teacher. I remember the good that hard teachers did in my life and I want to provide my students with the same. I've had students come up to me and tell me that they feel that no one really cared about their education before they came into my class. It warms my heart. However, I've also had students wish that I would vomit blood and die. It's a mixed bag, really. I'm not tenure track, but I guess if I want to be I'll have to become an easier professor.

    1. I received my share of nastiness in my evaluations.

      During my second year of teaching, someone wrote that if I was ever teaching a course to a certain group of students, the whole class would walk out. That rattled me and I brought it to the attention of the department head at the time. He asked me how many left in protest and I answered that none had. He told me not to worry about it.

      However, I'm sure that his successor would have hauled me into his office had I received a comment like that while he was in charge. I would have been questioned as to why I wasn't weeping and gnashing my teeth and dressing in sackcloth and ashes because of it.

      The difference in the attitudes of those two department heads was one reason I questioned the validity of student evaluations.

  20. As department chair, I take student evals with a grain of salt. I discount the comments damning the proffie to eternal torment and those that claim the proffie walks in water. Then I look for trends. If students in one class complain about something, it doesn't generally raise a red flag. If students in several classes complain, I'll check in with the proffie to see how I can help. If it continues to show up after that, we'll have more regular conversations about it to formulate a formal approach.

  21. FWIW, I'm teaching two new courses this year because our chair actually took student comments seriously on a course eval for a colleague and 'took those courses away' from him.

    1. I should add that I do take them seriously--but believe the truth is often in between the highest praise and the deepest damnation.