Highlights and Lowlights from Student Evaluations
One of the more difficult things about teaching is knowing whether you’ve done a good job or not. When you teach a college course, you have students in your orbit for 15 or 16 weeks. You can tell, on a given day, whether things went well or not. You can tell, when they turn in work, whether they “got” what you were trying to get them to get, and you can usually tell whether they did a good job or not. You can even usually get a sense, depending on the kinds of questions you asked, whether they learned anything or not.
What it’s very difficult to do, on the other hand, is get good feedback. I have a debrief day at the end of each semester, but I rarely get more than the most tepid negative feedback because, I presume, students still quiver under the grading hammer. Which leaves me with the anonymous student evaluation.
Obviously, the student evaluation can be a useful tool. But it can also be difficult to gauge. Like Amazon reviews, we know little about the motives of the students doing the evaluating. Our system asks about the work they put into the class, but that depends on them answering honestly.
Every time I teach it, I find our First Year Seminar class incredibly difficult. It’s generally aimed at introducing the purpose of a liberal arts curriculum to students studying the arts. I find it also demands the most buy in or curiosity from students. I usually teach it as a course exploring self, community, and activism through ethics. I challenge students with ethical conundrums and ask them to engage with them. The conversations get heated, but I strongly feel that it’s important to be able to discuss challenging ideas with people who fundamentally disagree with you.
Anyhow, I always baffles me to find evaluations with this wide variety of responses from the very same course:
I inherently focus on the negative comments, as we all would do, but when I step back (considering that 5 of 7 students who replied (out of 15 who could have) put the satisfaction numbers in the Strongly Agree or Agree categories) I console myself by remembering that these comments reflect a small portion of the class as a whole — but I can’t help but wonder what I could have done differently. So goes the teaching life.