Reading Student Evaluations

Wow, These are Brutal…

Dealing with Student Evaluations of Teaching: Opportunities and Challenges

By Danielle Clevenger

Reading your teaching evaluations can be a painful experience, even for veteran professors.

The truth is that students are not well positioned to give the kind of feedback that can help you improve your teaching. Additionally, the shield of anonymity generally allows people to say things without repercussion or responsibility. Sometimes this is great. It helps bring out the truth and protects people for saying things that, despite being hard to hear, are very important. However, it also allows people to say biased, hurtful things as well.

Here are some tips on how to read and make sense of your student teaching evaluations

Reading student evaluations is like cleaning out your fridge. Keep the good stuff and throw out the spoiled stuff.

You have to weed through them and determine what is worth keeping, and what is something you should let go. With contradictory suggestions and vague comments, determining what to keep is challenging. We also tend to fixate on the most negative comments, even when they are vastly outnumbered by positive comments.

Some Known Issues with Student Evaluations

Unfortunately, we know that students are biased in ways that mirror societal oppression, and this shows in their ratings and comments.

There is good evidence that establishes student evaluations are prejudiced. There are clear correlations between an instructor’s gender, age, race, sexuality (among other dimensions) and teaching evaluation scores. Check out these papers for a deeper look on the role of bias in teaching evaluations: “Why and How You Should Read Student Evaluations of Teaching” and “How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations Without Improving Your Teaching”. Additionally, students are not reliable reporters about what, and how much, they have learned. This is not a knock on students. We know from studies on metacognition that people in general aren’t good at recognizing their own learning (See “The Reliability of Students’ Ratings of Faculty Teaching Effectiveness“). Student evaluations can also lead you to focus on the wrong things in the classroom. After your first round of negative comments, it is tempting to try and please every student. The trouble is, what students students want isn’t always what is best for their learning.

However, let's be clear here, you should definitely read your student evaluations.

You might be thinking: What!? Didn’t you just say that these evaluations are deeply flawed!? If that’s true, why should I read them at all? Despite these flaws, students can also be very insightful, and they are the ones actually experiencing the course. Many student comments offer valuable information and perspective that should not be overlooked.

Tips for Reading Your Student Evaluations

1. Have a Support System in Place

It can be helpful to read your evaluations with other instructors (and a beverage of your choosing). We can be our own worst enemies and sometimes, your peers, friends, or partners can help comfort and remind you that that one negative or hurtful comment is surrounded by ten positive ones. Even though it can be easy, don’t dwell on the hurtful ones.

2. Read Once and then Come Back Later

Reading comments can be a stressful, hurtful experience. It can also be an uplifting experience. Normally, it’s a mix of both. Unfortunately, the hurtful comments seem to stick—they’re hard to shake. Reading your evaluations once and then setting them down is a healthy way to not let them eat you from the inside out. After at least a week has passed you can come back and look at them with a bit of distance and fresh eyes.

3. Look for Common Themes

Like any survey, your comments are likely to be contradictory at least some of the time. What one student loves, another might hate. The key to navigating these contradictions is to look for common themes. Some students will love you, some… not so much. Look for elements that are repeated and have common denominators. This is where you want to focus your attention.

4. Search for Actionable Items

Comments that can be translated into action are those that will ultimately help improve your teaching. Once you identify your themes, look for comments that give you action items. ”It was really helpful when…” “Keep doing…” Alternatively, comments that tell you to stop doing something or that something had negative effects are also actionable. Make a list of actions items to use going forward. Then give yourself permission to let the hurtful comments go and look forward to trying again!