Saturday, November 20, 2010

10 Ways to Boost your Student Evaluations

I notice evaluations are on people's minds again, and so I thought I would provide some helpful tips. You are, of course, invited to contribute your own ideas in the comments, dear Reader.

Let's be honest, we all know the best and easiest way to improve student evaluations: give everyone an A. But some of us have standards we are unwilling to compromise, and so we want to improve our evaluations without throwing out the baby of academic integrity with the bathwater of pandering to snowflakes.

I know, many of you think this is impossible, but I am here to tell you that in the past 10 years, I have discovered that it is indeed possible to - well, manipulate is a harsh word, so let's say
boost, or maybe improve - improve student evaluations without sacrificing teaching standards.

"How can this be?" I hear you cry. Let me lay it on you.
  1. Chocolate. This is a scientific fact.
  2. Be more physically attractive. Also science. Okay, I realize this one may be difficult for some of you, but you can probably take the edge off the fugly. Comb your hair, trim your beard (especially important for female profs), buy some clothes manufactured after 1979; you get the picture. If you can get a chili pepper on you know where, you are golden.
  3. Never, ever, ever, ever lose your shit. Don't yell at the whole class about anything, no matter how annoyed you are at them. That guy from Florida who is on video yelling at his class for cheating? ALL his students hate that guy.
  4. Praise the whole class generously. (You may need anti-nausea meds, but do what it takes.) Even if they all suck and you want to yell at them, say stuff like "I was really pleased with the level of writing in the vast majority of your assignments". This means that the students who sucked think it is about THEM, not about you being mean and hating everyone.
  5. Never give work back immediately before evaluation day. Unless you gave everyone an A, but if you did, you don't need this advice. If you are late giving back work and really have to give it back on evaluation day, make them come to your office after they do the evaluation. Say "I marked them, but I have to put your grades in my gradebook" or something.
  6. Making students come to your office makes them see you as a human, especially if you have pictures of your kids (if cute) or your pets on your wall. If you don't have kids or pets, stick up some random pictures of cute kids.
  7. Don't overshare. Students don't want to know about your ingrown toenail, or your sexual orientation. Remember, snowflakes don't think other people have feelings, and trying to force them to feel empathy makes them uncomfortable.
  8. Lie and tell them you know they are working hard. Snowflakes all think effort is the same as product when it comes to grades, and this also means they think if you say "I know you are working hard" it means the same as "you are doing well".
  9. Do something fun in the class before the evaluation. Students have memories like goldfish, so you need to give them a positive memory close to evaluation time. You can even do this on evaluation day, if you aren't TOO obvious in your pandering.
  10. Combine 8 & 9. Say "I know you have been working hard, so I am going to end class 15 minutes early just this once." I once got an awesome evaluation by giving my students a 15 minute coffee break before the evaluation.
I know that looking at my list you will notice that a lot of my suggestions involve lying, and maybe you see that as a paradox: how can you reconcile your concept of professional ethics with systematic dishonesty? It's a bastard, I admit.


  1. I have never wanted to smack someone more than right at this moment.

    Why are you assuming these tactics are not attempted every semester by your colleagues?

    Now, if you'll exscuse me, I apparently have to go start scraping the fugly off for Monday.

  2. I suppose I could comb my hair occasionally. I was rather fond of the Einstein look. As are all of us in here in the Humanities, in the grip of physics envy as we are.

  3. My students tell me they love my beard.

  4. @Brook, so you're saying the humour is too subtle?

  5. Re: Brook
    You gotsa calm down. Sure, it's a bit condescending, but there's no reason to smack people.

    Re Evals.
    You're looking for votes; act like a politician.

  6. Is it better to give out the evals right after they turn in a major project, or the week before? They will be relieved when they turn in the project but may be angry at not getting enough "guidance" or something else.

  7. @Ladder, are you implying mine was as well?

    *goes back to scraping*

  8. I hate evals, the only students I have answer them are the ones that got a smack down for cheating or failed the course because they fought my attempts to help them improve their academic skills at every turn kicking and screaming. Heaven forbid they should apply themselves. My eval of these little beasts usually consists of "she's too hard on my writing and she's too strict with guidelines". If this is your idea of "too hard" good luck in the real world you little mouth breathers.

  9. Yep, we all hate evals.

    Any other tips on how to push them up during the last week or two? Do students see the candy and cookies, when given out on the same day as the evals? (The study cited got around that by having someone else give it out.)

  10. I always wrote gibberish in the evaluations and voted the prof highly; I thought it was a load of nightsoil until a professor used what I wrote in a bizarre grievance hearing at Northeastern Ghetto Tech (I was arrested on orders of this man because I attended his final.)

  11. Economist Daniel Hamermesh had done a lot of fascinating work on the (positive) association between professors' looks and gender and evaluations. Makes for fascinating and depressing reading. A colleague once emailed me a Hamermesh, commenting that the University should provide a plastic surgery fund for faculty to improve teaching.

  12. My institution allows us to not include comments in our files. However we have to let the little darlings have a sheet to write comments ON, or they will scribble all over the scantron sheet and then the computer can't read it. This looked to me like the ideal solution, but the administrators disagreed.

    So the solution is, so far as I can tell, let them have a page to write comments on, but then discard them unread.

  13. Online evals open for 10 days before finals begin. Students are told that if they participate, they can see their grades early (read: the day after they are entered). If they don't participate, they don't get their grades until the next quarter.

    So they participate. But without someone there to read the instructions to them, they get confused (give low scores with enthusiastic comments).

  14. At my previous job there was a signature space at the bottom of the eval form. If the student wanted the evaluation to become part of the faculty member's file, then he or she had to sign it.

    It worked like a charm. The real ad hominem comments disappeared, and the students took the whole process much more seriously.

    I've been trying to get my current employer to follow this sage example for several years now, but so far no luck.

  15. Just before you pass out the evaluation forms, recite the following to your students, with a straight face and complete sincerity: "I am a very effective instructor. This is an excellent course. These are not the droids you're looking for. Move along."

    It helps if you're not lying.

  16. I've been told that doing an informal, for-your-information-only midterm evaluation helps raise the final scores, since it offers students the opportunity to vent their frustrations, and the instructor the chance to address them in some way (perhaps more symbolic than anything). I've got a colleague who swears by this approach. I have to admit that, while I've had good intentions several semesters, I've never carried it out. It always seems that the middle of the term is impossibly busy, and I'm behind on grading, and I know I'm behind on grading, and I know they'll gripe (with some justice) about that. Of course, that's probably all the more reason to let them gripe, especially since I know that, the way my syllabi work, I'm pretty good at getting caught up as the semester winds down as long as there are no unexpected disasters (e.g. illness, weather emergencies). But I guess I worry a bit about unhappiness snowballing instead of dissipating, and, besides, the last thing I need to do at that point is put together an evaluation instrument. I do still have good intentions about trying this at some point, though.

    And, as Lexie points out, the landscape is changing for a lot of us. Our online and hybrid classes now have online evals, which take place over a c. 2 week period, rendering many of the strategies above meaningless (and raising a bit of concern, for some of us, about students doing them when they're pissed -- in either or both senses of the word -- or in groups late at night, or something along those lines. The good news is that they don't really seem to think of us in the middle of the night when they're drunk.) At least in our system, this approach also detaches the numerical ratings from the comments -- one can't easily tell if the person who gave you straight 0s or 1s is also the one who wrote the diatribe about "unfair grading," or even if all the 0s or 1s came from one person -- and reduces instructor control over the comments (we, too, had the choice of whether to share them or not after we received the hard copies back; now they're available to us -- and possibly to others; it's not quite clear -- via the web. Of course, it was never entirely clear who might be reading, and possibly copying, them before we got them back in the old system, though I never worried too much about that. On the whole, the written comments generally seem clearer to me -- sometimes in substantive ways, sometimes in ways that make it clear that the writer is venting spleen rather than making considered judgments -- than the numerical ones).

    Finally, there's a major problem with response rate, both for in-class and online comments (I teach classes with a final paper that serves as a final exam, so doing them during the exam review session isn't an option). As has been said here before, they're still treated as if they actually convey significant information -- an assumption anyone with a rudimentary understanding of statistics could demolish. I wish they'd employ a statistician to examine the numbers, and only let the administrators see his/her interpretation, except that both parties would get really tired of writing and reading statements along the lines of "this evaluation produced no meaningful data."

  17. P.S. I also really like the idea of making them not (or less) anonymous. We don't grade students anonymously; why should they get to do something they see as "grading" us that way? They already have the assurance -- absolutely true in my experience -- that we won't see the evaluations until final grades are in.

  18. previously, I was nearly eviscerated for suggesting the same.

    Patty, I think the statue of limitations has run out on this. You've made mention of your victimization so many times, that I've lost track of what actually happened, and in what century.

    Surely you note that there is some blowback here and there, and I can't imagine that anyone doesn't know how hard it hit you.

    I've noticed that people try not to invoke your name or ideas in comments because we're all walking on tiptoes around you, lest we have to go through another series of comments that mention how you've been picked on.

    You offer a sound and interesting point of view on the blog that I don't think anyone else specifically can. So let us enjoy that.

  19. At one point a faculty member in my department noted that it looked like I had lost weight. I smiled and said "Yep, evaluations are coming up."

    He expressed confusion.

    "Well," I continued, "there's a fair bit of science suggesting that the kiddos rate us fatties lower than you skinnies, so I gotta try and even out the playing field."

    Actually, my students complain because I'm disorganized, no one has ever mentioned my fat. Maybe if I actually ate in front of them...

  20. Regarding the effect of attractiveness: I'm slim, in my 30s, and did some very low-level catalog modeling at one point. (No, I'm not Heidi Klum, but I'm attractive.) My midterm evaluations still sucked.

  21. I do swear by the informal midterm evaluation -- private, on index cards or plain paper you hand out, with followup changing something and explaining some other things. I've had yet to have it not work. I've gotten fatter and uglier over the years, I've never used chocolate, I don't do collective praise or mandate office hour visits, and I don't do fun things unless they happen to be about the material, but my evals are still good. Since I am aware of all the ways I may suck as a teacher, I think it's the midterm evals that are saving me.

  22. @Cassandra: I have taken to doing a midterm eval, just a really simple one with 3 questions which I call "Stop/Go/Change". The "change" part is something students have to say about THEMSELVES, while stop and go are anything they don't like and like about the class, including me, the curriculum and their fellow students.

    I find it useful because it lets me redirect if things are going wrong, or tweak - one class wanted more group work, which I had kind of dropped in favour of whole class discussions by mid-semester.

    I find the "change" element is really useful in reminding students that not everything in the class is about me. I don't know if it really HELPED, but my evals are pretty solidly "good" according to our institutional measure which says an average of 4/5 is "acceptable".

    And yes, that is ridonkulous, and a subject for another post, another day.

  23. Eh, whatever, Reg W. My comment went over easy, so perhaps I am too hesitant. Part of my issue with CM is that people post stuff like this but are sometimes soliciting advice that they don't really want, or the other commenters don't want. I believe that if you ask, "do I look fat in this dress?" you must be prepared for the answer to be Yes, no matter how much you'd prefer it otherwise. The best way not to receive an answer you don't want is to not ask the question to begin with, but when it's someone else's question to which you object, it's all a bit mystifying.

    Perhaps the solution is never to post a comment with which other people are sure to disagree so I don't have to include these disclaimers. Restraint takes practice, though.


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