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In my opinion

What to expect from your first teaching assessments

From glowing reviews to devastating cruelty, your first teaching assessments can provide useful advice if you know where to look.

BY DAVID SMITH | JAN 23 2013

There’s a large dusty envelope in my parents’ attic labeled BIOL-2030, and crammed inside there are about seventy five teaching evaluations—my first teaching evaluations—from when I ran a genetics tutorial at Dalhousie University, during my PhD. I cringe when thinking about the contents of that envelope. The check-marked boxes labeled “Poor,” “Average” or “Excellent.” The circled numbers from 1 to 10, rating my punctuality, clarity, organization and subject knowledge. The filled-in comments sections, running onto the backs of the pages—essay-length appraisals of my successes and failures as a teacher. And the summary sheet at the bottom of the pile, like the end of a long election broadcast, letting me know how the majority voted, whether I’m a pedagogical winner or loser.

I still remember collecting that envelope from my graduate student mailbox at the end of the fall semester. I was naively optimistic. I thought I’d done a great job at teaching the hour-long tutorial, which ran three times a week. In class, most students had looked happy and engaged and appeared to understand the lectures and questions. So when I sat down with a coffee and skimmed through the first evaluation, I wasn’t surprised to see “Excellent,” “10 out of 10,” and the comment: “Very enjoyable and entertaining lectures.” But then I dug deeper.

I quickly discovered that many students were irritated and disappointed with my teaching. “Scatterbrained and talked too fast,” wrote one pupil. Another checked off “Poor” all the way down the evaluation sheet and finished with the remark, “I would not recommend this tutorial.” One person was particularly impressed with my “wonderful ability of taking a topic that is inherently interesting and making it incredibly boring.” I grew more and more self-conscious as I made my way through the pile. The worst part was that certain students went beyond criticizing my instructional style, some going as far as to suggest that I should modernize my taste in clothes.

When I traveled home for the Christmas break, I told my father, a retired Chemistry professor from Laurentian University, about my less than stellar teaching reviews and asked him how he had dealt with student feedback. “Don’t take it personally,” he said. “Be objective and focus on the constructive comments, while trying to ignore those that are ridiculous or cruel.” He then asked if he could see my assessments. After reading them closely—and a few loud chuckles—he set aside about twenty evaluations and said, “These are the ones you should concentrate on. And remember, it’s not about getting the students to like you, it’s about getting them to learn.”

I studied the forms he’d picked out. They all contained balanced and useful feedback. And when I thought about it, they were accurate reflections of my teaching: I sometimes did speak with my back to the class; my dexterity with chalk and blackboard was atrocious; and even my close friends had noted my bad habit of talking too fast.

Before starting the winter section of my tutorial, I reread the evaluations for motivation, hoping that they would improve my teaching abilities. During the tutorials I would often recall key criticisms and if I caught myself making the same mistakes I would autocorrect. As the semester progressed, I sensed that my instructional skills were getting better. But I still had to wait for the evaluations to get the final verdict.

There it was, waiting for me at the end of term: the big brown envelope jammed inside my mailbox. This time I wasn’t so eager to tear it open. I waited until I got home to read the assessments, making sure there was a large glass of wine at my side. I followed my father’s advice. I carefully and coolly went through each form and put aside those with useful and practical comments. I’d done much better the second time around. My average scores, although far from perfect, were higher than those from the previous semester, and many students had left kind and positive remarks. That said, there were still a handful of punishing comments, but I didn’t let them get to me, and actually laughed at a few. The evaluations ultimately helped advance my teaching. It all comes down to the students being able to give constructive advice. Then it’s up to the instructor to listen to and implement that advice.

The real proof came a few months later when a young man wearing cutoff jean shorts and a tank top stopped me in the hall and said, “Hey, man! I was in your 2030 genetics tutorial.” “Great stuff,” I said. “The fall or winter session?” “Winter,” he replied. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that I really dug your teaching style.”

David Smith is a Killam Research Scholar in the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, where he studies genome evolution of algae.

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  1. Reuben Kaufman / January 23, 2013 at 14:21

    Yes, unless you get a disturbing percentage of the written comments to be negative, look for the balance. I don’t say “ignore the negative ones”, of course; just evaluate whether or not they seem well thought out before taking them personally. (“Sorry that you don’t like the waistcoats and bowties that I wear, but I’ve scoured the charity shops throughout the land for them, and am proud of my catch!”)

    Two things that I find unfortunate are: students’ unwillingness to give feedback during the course (why wait to the very end of a 13-week course to let us know that something is awry?), and their reluctance to seek individual help (even when you try hard to encourage it and when it could actually help them!).

    I don’t know whether or not I, an old retired prof, should recommend this, but on the first day of class I would display some of the common negative comments from previous years and show them how to avoid being disappointed in the end. For most of the negative comments I comment something like, why not let me know when I am being less effective than I should be? Why not help me to make it easier for you? Why not tell me about issues sooner rather than later? In many cases, I can justify why I do X, Y or Z, but if this doesn’t suit your style, here’s your chance to bail out at the beginning. The latter usually relates to an initially daunting aspect that most of their course marks come from a very demanding end-of-term essay (50%; but I interact with them a great deal throughout the term to help them succeed) and an oral presentation (15%). I would scratch my head in disbelief when I saw comments at the end like, “If I had known that so much emphasis would be placed on an essay, I wouldn’t have taken the course.” …. Hello …. The course syllabus says that loud and clear (and justifies why I do that), and on the first day I emphasize that in class. How could you “not know”??

    At the end of that first session, I do tell them that I get many more positive than negative comments (which was true!) and that I’m not trying to drive them all away to reduce class size! But take full advantage of me, and consult with me when you perceive the need, because my job just begins in the lecture room.

    I wish I could say that that the latter works, and perhaps it did in most cases, but alas, you won’t be able to reach, or satisfy, everyone. And if it’s any consolation, the folks who evaluate the results of the student opinion surveys (at least in my faculty at the U of A) have a pretty good idea as to how serious the negative sentiment should be before a red flag is raised.

  2. Bruce Ravelli / January 23, 2013 at 12:17

    Thank you David.

    I share many of your experiences with student evaluations. I also appreciate the role your father played in helping you see the evaluations from a different perspective – as a potential source for growth. While, like you, I try to disregard the truly bizarre comments from students, I do find great value in their insights. Over my career (+25 years) I have found that student comments that sometimes “sting” usually have a grain of truth in them.

    Thanks David.

  3. Christopher / January 30, 2013 at 11:05

    My experience with evaluations is quite similar to those noted in this piece. I also have seen -though I can’t find the source right now- studies that show that evaluations for courses being taught for the first time are generally lower then course that an instructor has taught more than once. My concern is that the nature of sessional and part-time teaching will result in lower evaluations that may not accurately reflect the competency of the instructor, especially given the number of one off contracts we’re forced to accept. With the competitiveness of the current full-time market, I fear my effectiveness as a teacher can not be accurately measured when judge against those who have had the opportunity to teach a course more than once.

  4. Mark Brigham / October 29, 2014 at 10:00

    David:
    Thank you for the most thoughtful piece on teaching evaluations. I agree with your father that there are those who need to be paid more attention than others, but at the same time, they all likely contain at least a grain of truth.

    Your article did bring a big smile to my face as it made me recall the most influential comment I ever received, which happened to be on my first evalution (in a class of about 20). I was told bluntly that I was a horrid instructor due to my penchant for wearing beige. Twenty four years later I have 24 Hawaiian style shirts in my closet. My wife makes me a new one for each birthday. I have become known for my “wild” shirts. While it definitely gives me a persona on campus, I quickly grew to feel very comfortable in them which I think helped my teaching in some tangible ways. Except for the odd comment about the “glare”, evaluations may no no mention of my appearance anymore (but I still talk too fast!).