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.