What I Learned from My Crappy Student Evaluations

My teaching evaluations for this past winter (what everyone else calls spring) semester came in, and man, they were pretty bad, some of the worst (maybe the worst?) of my career. At least the worst I can remember. Jeez.

It’s probably a bad idea for me to reflect too much on them this shortly after getting them, but it does prompt me to write a couple of things about these evaluations in particular and evaluations in general. Maybe for next time I get these kinds of evaluations, maybe for others out there who are looking through some student evaluations themselves.

 

Let me say at the outset that there are two reasons why I’m willing to write publicly about my bad student evaluations. First, they weren’t all bad and my overall evaluations over the years have been pretty decent. I’m no super-teacher and I’m not likely to win any awards anytime soon.  I have students who think I’m fantastic and students who think I’m evil, but mostly, I think my evaluations average out somewhere in the “B+/B” territory, depending a lot on the courses (100-level courses tend to yield lower evaluations than 500-level courses; courses I’ve taught a lot tend to yield better evaluations, etc.). It’s just that this time, they were more like in the C+ range. Second, student evaluations don’t figure much into a “performance evaluation” for me and they never have, even when I wasn’t tenured. It’s not that teaching evaluations don’t matter; it’s just that what matters more are classroom visits/observations from others and the teaching materials you put together to share with the personnel committee. No one in my department is going to get fired over bad student evaluations (well, unless they were really really and consistently bad, I suppose), and no one is going to get a raise based on really good student evaluations. I realize that makes me luckier than some at other universities and also luckier than a lot (most?) non-tenure-track faculty.

This last winter, I taught two classes, an undergraduate course called “Writing in the Professional World” and a graduate-level class on writing/creating new-media/multimedia. Both of these classes were sort of new for me, or at least had several new elements to them. I had only taught the undergrad class a couple of times before and last winter was the first time I taught it entirely online. I had only taught the graduate course once before– a couple of years ago– I taught it as a hybrid class (that is, one that basically met every other week), and when it comes to the video and audio tools we used, I too am a student and dabbler. The point is both classes involved a lot of moving parts and a lot of things that were new for me.

Broadly speaking, I think the feedback from student evaluations break down into three categories: accurate, debatable, and “wrong.” With these two classes, some of the more relevant and accurate complaints seem to me to be the result of trying (and failing at) too many different things.  For the undergrad class, moving it online for the first time meant a lot of adjusting with the schedule as we went, and that’s something students never like and they really never like it in online classes. For the graduate class, I was trying out a lot of readings that didn’t quite fit with the goals of the course and a lot of technologies– particularly Audacity and WeVideo– just didn’t work the way that I had thought or hoped they might. I think the other complicating factor that term was I didn’t give my teaching the priority I should have given it because I was busy with quasi-administrative stuff, scholarship stuff, and travel stuff. I tried to take advantage of my teaching being online much of the semester and I think I spread it too thin.

So I think the criticism that I wasn’t well-planned and/or well-organized for my classes is pretty accurate. The solution? First off, don’t travel as much/get as distracted by other things as much– or, if it is going to happen again (and, because teaching is only one third of the job and often not even the most important part of the job to me or the colleagues I work with and for, it probably will happen again), realize students might let you know about your shortcomings in teaching evaluations. Second, remember that you can basically get away with one completely new/”I don’t quite know how this is going to work out” thing per class, and that’s about it. Trying five or six of those kinds of things is going to get you in trouble. This is why it’s so much harder to teach a class for the first time, right?

Two big things that I’ll mention in the “debatable” category.

From the get-go, I told my grad students in the multimedia course that a lot of this was going to be an experiment– new readings, new technologies, things we’d all be experiencing at the same time– and a work in progress. Not all the feedback was negative on this, but a number of students really hated the way this experiment played out. On the one hand, I perhaps pushed things a little too far and there is something to be said to the idea of the teacher being an expert and not simply a co-conspirator/co-learner.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s my job to just stand and deliver knowledge, particularly in a graduate course. And the very nature of writing new media is always going to push the boundaries of what constitutes “writing” and it’s always going to necessitate working with new and unfamiliar tools. Part of my job is doing better at explaining/convincing students that a graduate course in professional writing needs to be about larger and more theoretical and rhetorical issues, something quite a bit beyond how to write the right kind of report. Perhaps I need to convey the importance of my students’ role in the learning experience a bit more carefully.

In the undergraduate class, one of the debatable points was a collaborative project I do at the end of the course– I put students in groups to work on a large formal proposal and presentation assignment. On the one hand, I think the collaborative experience is important in any writing class, particularly one that is supposed to mimic/analyze “professional” writing scenarios. I don’t think I’m suggesting anything too radical here in saying that my assumption is a lot of writing that happens in the “real world” is done in groups. On the other hand, a lot of students really do not like group work at all and they really really don’t like doing group work online.

I’ll have to mull this one over (and soon because I’m getting ready to teach this same class in the upcoming fall term), but I’m thinking of just throwing in the towel. I still think I’m right, but the amount of work it takes to facilitate collaboration in an online class and the amount of pushback and complaining I get from students during the term and in evaluations make me think that maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe.

Then there’s stuff students write in evaluations that is just wrong.  For example, some of the complaints in the undergraduate class had to do with my requirements to participate in online discussions throughout the week– that is, my online courses are not a “just do it whenever and turn it in” experience and never have been– or that there’s too much reading for a 300-level course. And I had a few malcontents that had complaints about everything, much of which I chalk up to simple personality clashes and/or sometimes students can be jerks, too. Oh, as a slight tangent here: while I generally like teaching online, one of the problems with it is the teaching evaluations are always weaker than they are for the face to face classes I teach.

Anyway, wrong is just wrong.

I will say this though about contemplating crappy student evaluations: there’s something for me to learn and think about here. I can’t say the same thing about good student evaluations, frankly. While it is always great to get student evaluations that read like fan letters (“Krause’s class was awesome! He’s great! He shouldn’t change a thing!”), they don’t exactly help me in thinking differently about my teaching.

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