Sticks, stones and student evals

It's that time of year: I've received last semester's student evaluations, and, as always, it's a mix. Early in grad school I got both "She's the best!" and "She's the worst!" in a single recitation section (max. 20 students). Fall 2015 appears to be no different. One student wrote "I hope to God she doesn't teach me anymore," and another said "Some students expect spoon-fed answers. I think you teach a fair class."

In anonymous evaluations, students can be downright cruel. I have had evaluations that made me cry. Particularly venomous barbs can sting a long time, and it can be easier to listen to the criticisms than the praise. It doesn't matter how many colleagues say I'm doing a good job, or how glowing their classroom observations are, I still have to fight off a lot of doubt when I read student evaluations.

This newest set of evaluations did not make me cry. To be honest, some made me laugh out loud. (In case it needs to be specified, though I did laugh, I was not laughing at the students. I found some of the responses funny. For example, one student said I should "block out the haters," which cheered me up.) They all want something different from me, and there is no way I can be all things to all people.

I can't please everyone. I am not pizza.  Remix of photo by Jim Corssley (Flickr user: raindog)

I can't please everyone. I am not pizza. Remix of photo by Jim Corssley (Flickr user: raindog)

What is clear to me, though, is that many of my students and I have very different expectations for the course, that we think differently about the roles of instructor and student, and that it's on me to communicate those differences to them.

Below, for your commiseration and consideration, are a sampling of the anonymous comments I received, and the commentary running through my head as I read them.

Was this class intellectually stimulating? Did it stretch your thinking?

  • Yes, but it was really hard understanding the concepts taught and applying the material was even harder.
    • This student is on the edge of an epiphany.
  • I sat here confused and on my phone…I learned more on my phone than I did in class.
    • Is it crazy of me to suggest that you might have learned more chemistry if you had put your phone away??

What aspects of this class detracted from your learning?

  • When she spits out a lot of information all at once it can get a little overwhelming.
    • That "a lot of information" can also be found in the textbook almost nobody read.
  • Spending too much time on [online homework] problems that I didn't know how to do.
    • The point of homework is to make you practice things you don't already know how to do. (That said, I agree that the homework was too long, and I will correct that in future classes.)
  • How she refused to teach
    • Dear sweet student, I'm pretty sure you and I have different definitions of "teaching."

What suggestions do you have for improving the class?

  • Use examples that make more sense
    • Could you give me a specific example that didn't make sense to you? What about it didn't make sense?
  • Be available for more help
    • In addition to three hours of lecture and one hour of recitation each week, I had four weekly office hours (which, after 3 or 4 weeks were mostly empty) and I frequently met with students at other times. Very rarely did I turn someone down when they requested meeting at another time, and even then I offered alternatives. On the very few occasions when I had to cancel office hours, I gave advance notice, and once I offered online office hours instead. I read and answered emails at all hours. My office has a phone and voicemail, which none of you ever called. Short of letting you text my cell phone or inviting you to my home, how can I be more available?
  • I wish the instructor was better at explaining things and wouldn't get annoyed when we had questions.
    • You know which questions annoy me? Just two types: questions that can be answered by reading the syllabus and questions that I have already answered multiple times within a single class period. Any other questions related to class delight me. I want you to ask questions.
  • Give feedback on the course quizzes, so we know what we did wrong.
    • I did give feedback on quizzes, but I didn't realize until nearly the end of the semester that the course website put that feedback in a non-obvious place. Since nobody mentioned it for 10 weeks or more, I had no way to know that you didn't see that feedback.
  • Structure the class better.
    • What about the structure was problematic? What would a better structure look like?
  • The [online] quizzes are phenomenal.
    • Thanks, I think?
  • I would prioritize teaching material
    • So would I. In fact, that's what I thought I was doing. What would you do differently?

Fellow instructors, how do you handle student evaluations and comments? How do you address conflicting expectations about the roles of teachers and learners?