I got my student comments from last term’s intro mechanics course yesterday, which is always a stressful moment. As tends to happen, they were all over the map, with some students really liking me and others absolutely hating me.

It struck me while I was reading through the written comments that the experience is a lot like reading Amazon reviews of my book. I think there’s actually a decent analogy between the response of authors to reviews and the response of faculty to student evaluations:

– Really good comments can make you feel great, but the negative ones make you feel worse. I’ve got one of my favorite student-evaluation comments ever quoted over in the left sidebar, but I remember some of the negative remarks just as well (some because they’re unintentionally funny– one student called my comments on his grammar “boarderline [sic] unprofessional” a few years ago).

– Some of them will completely miss the point, and you need to find a way to accept that and move on. I get a fair number of negative comments of the form “This professor sucked because he made us do a lot of work,” which, yeah, nothing to be done about that. Introductory college physics will always involve a ton of work, and some students will always hate that.

– Individual negative responses might cost you a few sales, but you shouldn’t worry too much about them– a few people will read a negative book review and not buy the book as a result; a few students will talk to their friends who hated you class, and not take a course with you as a result. That’s not going to damage anything too major, though– other faculty and deans know that a few negative comments here and there is not a major problem.

– A consistent pattern of negativity could cost you your job. If the reviews of your classes are uniformly negative, you won’t get tenure. If the reviews of your book are uniformly negative, leading to bad sales, nobody will pay you to write a second one.

– Responding directly to them is one of the most efficient ways to end your career. This week has seen yet another instance of the “author discovers people saying Bad Things, and responds poorly” phenomenon, which comes around every couple of months. Hunting up negative reviews and responding with lengthy rants about how the reviewers are idiots will get you a reputation as That Crazy Person from the Internet, and probably make it much harder to get publishers to talk to you.

Similarly, responding at length to specific comments is a great way to to torpedo an academic career. There have been a couple of times when I’m pretty sure I could identify the specific student who wrote something, but I would never even consider saying anything about it. I’m pretty sure that would get even tenured faculty run off in a hurry.

Maddening as some of the comments faculty receive are, we need to approach them with the same Zen detachment authors need when confronting bad reviews on the Internet– read them, take anything useful that you find, and let the rest pass by.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, from either the author or professor side…

Comments

  1. #1 David Owen-Cruise
    March 30, 2011

    I’ve been using your “Professor Orzel should wear more green” as an example of a student comment that is concrete and detailed yet completely useless for some time now. One of my colleagues once got “Nice butt” which was a tad disconcerting for him. Apparently, he spent the next term writing on the board while facing the class, which is an interesting challenge. I’m not sure what the Amazon equivalents would be, something about the author photo?

  2. #2 John Novak
    March 30, 2011

    And of course, the inverse problem from the student viewpoint is, “What on earth do I write to get this guy to stop doing whatever it is that I find infuriating and/or outright harmful?”

    (This doesn’t apply to book reviewers, who have no real motive to help professors; or even to some students, who would bitch if they got hung with a new rope.)

  3. #3 Anonymous Coward
    March 30, 2011

    I’ve recently been teaching an upper-level undergraduate class, and I’ve been getting consistently positive class evaluations. I feel good about this, but I try to not let it go to my head, since I’m pretty sure this class always generates good evaluations.

    Whenever I’ve taught a lower-level undergrad class OR a graduate class, I gotten very polarized reviews. From a single class, I’ve gotten “Definitely the most informative course I have taken in my 3 years of grad school” and “[Anonymous Coward] is NOT competent.”

    I’ve started to take pride in the polarizing reviews, although if ever found that the negative reviews were came from the “good” students and the positive reviews came from the “bad” students, I’d be heartbroken.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    March 30, 2011

    I’ve started to take pride in the polarizing reviews, although if ever found that the negative reviews were came from the “good” students and the positive reviews came from the “bad” students, I’d be heartbroken.

    That’s the really hellish part of the process. I’m fairly certain I know which students last term liked me and which didn’t, but I can’t definitively identify them, and it would be really embarrassing to learn that the “good” students hated me and the “bad” students loved me.

  5. #5 Dennis
    March 31, 2011

    Have you changed the amount of pink you wear since previous semesters?

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    March 31, 2011

    I find reading student evaluations incredibly painful. I have had some of the experiences listed above– teach an upper division elective, and you get a broad spectrum of positive feedback. Teach a large intro class, and get just a broad spectrum… including some who claim that I nearly drove them to suicide, some who simply can’t understand how it is that I am allowed to single-handedly ruin their education.

    The sad thing is that there are two negativity-amplifying effects at work. The first is that those who are unhappy are more likely to write a lot (read: rant) than those who are happy. The very happy and the very unhappy, yes, both write, at least sometimes. But the mildly happy just circle numbers and make brief comments, while the mildly unhappy get very snippy. The second effect is that one bad comment outweighs ten positive comments in its effect on you. (Well, at least on me.) That’s the one I remember, that’s the one I obsess about, that’s the one that I just can’t get out of my head.

    It’s to the point that I suspect it might be *better* if I didn’t read student evaluations. Sometimes, yes, there is some useful feedback in there. But, often, the bad stuff is just either whining or griping that’s off base, but that leaves me thinking I must be a terrible teacher. Does it help? Or does the negative effects on my morale end up harming more than whatever benefit the constructive feedback may have had? I’m not sure it’s obvious. As such, it’s not clear to me it really is worthwhile to read student evaluations at all. Might as well save myself the pain.

    (Students who’ve heard that I don’t read them, or at least delay reading them for months, get kind of mad at me for this. “We take the time to try to give you valuable feedback!” they say. But what they don’t realize is that all the negative sniping and unreasonable demands simply isn’t constructive, and that just a little of that can weigh on one far more than a healthy does of positive feedback coupled with true constructive feedback. Also, what some students think is constructive feedback isn’t: “you should run the class ” very frequently isn’t constructive feedback, it’s a whine that the class wasn’t like disguised, perhaps even to the writer, as constructive feedback. Or, it’s a quick dashed-off idea from somebody who hasn’t thought seriously about teaching a class like this, nor would know how to, who then thinks you’re supposed to give the idea as much weight as your own ideas about things. All of that being said, I *have* had some constructive feedback in evaluations that I did take into account. However, it’s uncommon (but not unknown) to receive that feedback when I hadn’t already figured out that something wasn’t working.)

  7. #7 Jeff S
    March 31, 2011

    I wish I could for the life of me remember what exactly I put on your review for E&M. I’m sure I rated you favorably, but since my 5 year is coming up this spring, I can’t exactly recall what I said. I guess I was neither a particularly “good” or “bad” student, as I think I ended up with a B. Then again, there was that incident where I nearly vomited in class (made it just out the door!), so maybe I was closer to the bad end of the spectrum. Point is, I certainly tried to keep my final grade in a class, which could be due to many factors (most of which were likely on my end of things) from influencing my evaluation of the professor. I always tried to evaluate them on their effectiveness as a teacher, and how they made the classroom environment either positive or negative.

  8. #8 Clam
    March 31, 2011

    The other way round, I remember my Biology teacher commenting on a report about me Trying -very, which I found sufficiently cutting at the time.

  9. #9 Arend
    March 31, 2011

    My frustration with reviews was that they always came after the fact. They’re of no help to the student who writes them and they’re no help to me in the sense of allowing me to adjust my teaching.

    I’ve always wondered if it wouldn’t be more effective to have the evaluations at two points in the term.

  10. #10 NJ
    March 31, 2011

    Arend @ 9:

    I’ve always wondered if it wouldn’t be more effective to have the evaluations at two points in the term.

    Not necessarily. If in the mid-term feedback, a student makes an outlandish and/or impossible to implement suggestion, they can then hammer you at the end for not doing what they said, as if “student suggestion = faculty requirement”.

    Speaking from experience, here.

  11. #11 JM
    March 31, 2011

    It would be interesting to see student feedback about the student feedback.

    Book reviews are public. Are student evaluations published, obviously without the students’ names attached?

    If the ratings and written evaluations were published, it might be helpful to have the same students comment on how much the aggregate seems representative or true to their experience.

  12. #12 GMP
    March 31, 2011

    Arend @ 9: You can always administer unofficial mid-semester evaluations. Just write up your own questionnaires that ask what you are most interested in hearing, have students fill them out anonymously in class and return them directly to you. I do this every semester and I think the students appreciate being heard while there’s still a chance to make modifications.

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