All of My Faults Are Stress Related

So you’re a fairly new professor, done with classes for the summer, ready to dive into research. And then you get your course evaluations back. What do you do?

If the course evaluations were excellent, yay! You can walk around feeling good about yourself for a while, and then go back to the research. (Even at a teaching-intensive school, you’ve got to publish something to get tenure.)

If the course evaluations weren’t so good, well…

First, put them aside and do something that makes you feel good. Talk to someone who likes you. Go for a run. Garden. Read your favorite novel. Go to a movie. Pet your cat. Listen to your favorite music. Whatever makes you feel good about yourself – do it. Don’t let the teaching evaluations convince you that you’re a bad person or a bad professor or anything like that.

Ok. Now you can look at them again.

If this is your first year teaching, remember that most schools want to see your teaching improve through time – bad experiences your first year won’t ruin your career*. So look at the teaching evaluations as leaving room to improve.

Second: some of the things that commonly annoy students are fairly small and easy to change. Talking too fast, using too many words on powerpoint slides, not waiting long enough for students to answer questions, not making expectations for assignments clear. Some of those things are likely to go away with experience; some need a little deliberate practice. You don’t need to fret about them now, but maybe keep them in mind next semester.

Third: if the teaching evaluations are really bad, talk to your senior colleagues. It might help to have someone observe a class or two, to give you some kind of feedback, outside the review process. Sometimes they see things that you wouldn’t notice, and give suggestions that are valuable. (I had a colleague visit my Class From Hell, and she suggested a technique that I never would have considered: writing an outline of the lecture on a side of the board. That freed me to go off on tangents and do more active learning stuff without confusing the students about the point of the lecture. I think her suggestion was especially valuable because we’ve got different preferred learning styles, and she was looking for things that I hadn’t considered providing.) Your institution might have some other ways to give junior faculty feedback.

Fourth: if you agree that the class needs serious reworking, check out the course design tutorial at SERC. (I was blogging my way through it last month, and quit because I had to actually teach the class. I’ll be back in June with comments about some new discussion-leading techniques I learned.) It took me about one evening (two hours between the kid’s bedtime and my bedtime) to go through each of the worksheets (a total of eight evenings). (Maybe it would have been shorter if I hadn’t been blogging as well.) Even if you don’t go through the entire tutorial, the beginning parts (defining course goals, recognizing your audience) can be useful to think about. (Confession: I went straight to my syllabus after developing the course plan, in part because I already knew about a lot of the teaching strategies they discussed.) If you want to explore alternatives to traditional lecture, they’ve got a lot of resources and examples of other techniques.

Fifth: it’s possible that the teaching evaluations are unfair to you, especially if you don’t look like the person students picture when they think of a professor in your field. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but websites associated with NSF’s ADVANCE program may have information on various studies that have been done, and suggestions for things you can do to deal with bias from students. (The program is aimed at women in science, but I suspect that there are a lot of other potential biases that students bring to teaching evaluations – maybe knowing about the research on student ratings of women will help you figure out a way to deal with other sorts of biases.) As an example: the University of Washington’s ADVANCE page has lots of links, including this one (which I read): Student ratings of women faculty: data and strategies. (The suggestions seemed more useful than some that I’ve read: for example, “teach female students,” because female students give better evaluations to women than male students do. Because we all have control over which students take our classes. Especially in the sciences.)

Sixth: remember that teaching alone doesn’t get anyone tenure these days. (No, not even at public liberal arts colleges.) So don’t obsess about the teaching evaluations, especially if you’re at a teaching-intensive school where you need to accomplish most of your research and publication in the summers. And know that a lot of people have struggled to become accomplished and well-respected teachers. You aren’t alone.

Good luck.

* Yes, I’ve had experiences contrary to this, but I think that Middlebury is an exception. (I wasn’t the only person to have had trouble there based on first-year teaching evaluations.) So… if you got bad teaching evaluations there, my advice is different. Get your research published, polish your c.v., and apply for every job that’s available next year. Get out of there now. You’re the most marketable to small liberal arts colleges in your first four years of teaching. So leave now, while you’re likely to be a top candidate at another school.


  1. #1 Cam
    May 8, 2009

    Or, better: simply do not read your student evaluations.

  2. #2 Kim Hannula
    May 9, 2009

    Cam – that’s not an option for junior faculty who need to discuss their teaching evaluations every time they go through a pre-tenure (and tenure) review. For tenured faculty, yeah, that’s an option. (Though still not a good one; student evaluations can contain useful information, if you care about teaching effectively. You’ve just got to figure out how to read past the nastiness and figure out what really went wrong.)

    Now, if you were talking about Rate-My-Professor… that I avoid reading.

  3. #3 Robert Grumbine
    May 10, 2009

    Even where positive (or meant as such) the evaluations can shed light on things to work on in your teaching. If the evaluation is well-designed, then it has multiple related questions and you can do some intercomparison between the responses. One pair that showed me I has more to do on my explanations was “Professor knows the subject well”, which got 5/5, versus “Professor explains the subject well”, which was only 4/5.

    Digressing over to your ‘profile’ comment: for a new rheology to adopt, I’ll suggest plastic. Flex elastically and resist minor stresses, but go with the flow under the larger ones.

    Further digression to the walk and look at the pretty mountains. I was at a meeting in Breckinridge some years ago. Bunch of geosci types, of course, this batch being mostly by way of atmospheric modellers except for the many of us who weren’t. I was amazed at the number of physically active folks. One 70+ fellow was talking at breakfast about his hands being cold. Reason being, he’d already been out hiking for 2 hours. In one of the introductions, the introducer noted that he’d met the speaker while the two were in a 50 mile (foot!) race. I saw someone with a half marathon t-shirt on and suggested we go for a run that evening, but she declined as she’d already been up 2 14,000 foot peaks that day. And so it went.

  4. #4 david nystuen
    May 10, 2009

    Maybe you’re not the great educator you think you are. Read them and learn, read them and try to become the great educator. At least if you try, you can become somewhat better than you are or think you are. There are many bad professors in the teaching field, make sure you’re not one of them.

  5. #5 Your career guide
    May 11, 2009

    Interesting and contrasting views…

  6. Great post!

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