A Guide to Teaching Evaluations

Regardless of where you work, one of the most nerve-wracking experiences can be your performance evaluations. Why is this nerve-wracking? Because no matter how talented and capable you are, and regardless of how good of a job you actually do, there are factors that you have absolutely no control over that can affect your evaluations. This can be a boss who wants to eliminate your job, a colleague who has a personality conflict with you, or a student who doesn't like the subject you teach.

Well, one of the nice things about being a teacher is that all of the students you teach get the opportunity to evaluate you anonymously. I just got mine for the past semester, and more than half of them gave me the highest possible score on the three questions that reflect the instructor's competence:

  1. The instructor maintained an environment that helped me learn.
  2. The instructor effectively communicated the subject matter.
  3. The instructor demonstrated respect for the students.

Now, I've been teaching for a few years, have consistently gotten excellent evaluations, and even won a teaching award back in the 2006-2007 academic year. (Go, Badgers!) But there are always people who don't like you and don't appreciate the job you do.

Don't let it get to you, especially if you find some unjustifiably critical comments. (If you're lucky, you will get constructive ones as well.) To help you through this, I have provided some anonymous (and derisive) student comments on my teaching, but I have also accompanied them with a translation and my response.

The labs were too long. The professor should've made them shorter.

Translation: I don't want the three-hour lab I registered for to take three hours.

Response: You have unrealistic expectations, and clearly did not read the course description before signing up for the course, or the syllabus that I gave you once you had signed up for the course. Try getting your work done instead of goofing off with your lab partners.

Quizzes were too often!

Translation: I don't have sufficient coping skills to handle one quiz a week every single week.

Response: Seriously? Quizzes and homeworks were how I determined your grade in the course. It kept you honest about doing your work, and this is further proof that you wouldn't have done it if I didn't quiz you on it. Grow up.

The point system is unfair!

Translation: I didn't get enough points to get an A and I need an A or I won't get into medical school and become the doctor I need to become or my parents will be disappointed in me!

Response: You're going to be an awful doctor.

It would help to not have this [class] at all, three hours of wasted time I could have used to study for other classes.

Translation: I didn't want to be in this course at all.

Response: You shouldn't have been in this course at all. All our lives would have been better for it.

Some of the quizzes were hard.

Translation: Some of the quizzes were hard.

Response: Some things are harder than others? Really? There isn't a "duh" big enough for this one.

Some of the things we did were very elementary.

Translation: Some of the things we did were very elementary.

Response: If I collide you with the person above you, will you annihilate one another in a giant matter-antimatter explosion?

Fire the instructor. Also -- most of us chose a small school for professor taught courses. I shouldn't have to deal w/ a TA regarding quizes.

Translation: I have a huge, unrealistic sense of entitlement that should offset my inability to even use proper spelling and grammar.

Response: They won't fire me because A.) I'm good at my job and B.) you appear to be an idiot. You did have your course taught by a professor, and your "TA" is my "grader." That's what graders do, and we have them so that I can spend more time on teaching your course.

He wanted to be a friend more than a professor. I feel he let personal feelings guide how he interacted with students.

Translation: I don't think the professor liked me, and it showed.

Response: I tried very hard to hide it, but yes, I can't stand you.

Overall, that's eight negative comments out of all of my evaluations. Only one of them -- the one about some quizzes being hard -- appeared on more than one evaluation. The lesson to learn from this? Evaluations can tell you at least as much about the people evaluating you as they do about you. Plus, they provide a fantastic outlet for passive-aggressive responses!


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I got some really bad ones over the years. When I was a TA at Caltech, in an interesting Physics 1 course where the main exposition of the course was in sections, I had a group of students mostly who liked me. So, on evaluations, they didn't say a whole lot -- it was "fine", whatever. Except for the two who wrote page-long essays about how I completely ruined the course for them. Tests, quizzes, book, homework, all fine, but I ruined it for them by teaching it at too elementary a level not worthy of Caltech students.

At Vanderbilt, I once had a student claim in a teaching evaluation that I drove him near to the brink of suicide. High drama. I won't write my passive-aggressive response, as it wasn't very tasteful... :)

i had a memorable comment when i was a physics TA:

"if my parents were to die i would want Rob to adopt me."

I can relate to some of these, especially the one about labs being "too long". Granted, in my case at least, it just seemed that way because most of the courses which had lab time were those in areas outside my interest or knowledge, and I spent a lot of the time feeling lost. That's the downside of going to a liberal arts college. It's also, y'know, the point of going to a liberal arts college, so there ya go.

These were actually pretty mild compared to what I have heard from my sister who teaches at a second tier state university and at a community college.

She has had students fail to come to any classes or quizzes or exams and then blame the professor for doing a bad job.

She had students complain to not having enough time to take notes when taking an online course.

Students want to know why they got a bad grade on handing in a two page history class report when it was weeks late and required an eight page report.

What is wrong with my paper? I copied it right from Wikipedia!

She has had an unlisted telephone number even years before a student tracked down and shot an instructor outside her own home 20 miles from campus.

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

You're going to be an awful doctor.

Ouch! I know some pretty good doctors who struggled with physics.

Mind you, I know alot of awful doctors who could do with some additional physics education. On second thought, they sound alot like this student.

yes, I know the feeling. one student recently didn't like the grade they got so their evaluation of me was that I was "rude and abrasive".

Me? I wonder why? After they challenged my grading all the way to the Dean.

Two things I try hard not to read:

1. YouTube comments.
2. Student evaluations.

I'm not involved in academia, but the student comments reminded me of some customer comments that I've seen. I guess there are a lot of people out there who never research what they're getting themselves into. They don't ask the right questions, or don't even know what questions they should ask. Then they complain when they get what they said they wanted in the first place.

From my memory of being a student, student evaluation forms are a joke. The interval between when they are handed out and when they are collected is so short that any student who prefers to actually think before writing anything will not - absolutely WILL NOT - have time to write anything.

Of course, there's always the option of writing, "Please give us more time to fill out evaluation forms."

My mom was a college professor for 20 years, and also an insomniac; the result of the two was I would wake up at 4am to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water, and she would be awake at the kitchen table grading papers. She ALWAYS had papers graded and returned to her students by the next class session, invariably.

Regardless, every session of student evals had at least one student commenting, "It would be nice to get our homework back sooner."

She alternated between hilarity and incredulity whenever she saw these.

My mom was a college professor for 20 years, and also an insomniac; the result of the two was I would wake up at 4am to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water, and she would be awake at the kitchen table grading papers. She ALWAYS had papers graded and returned to her students by the next class session, invariably.

Regardless, every session of student evals had at least one student commenting, "It would be nice to get our homework back sooner."

She alternated between hilarity and incredulity whenever she saw these.

I'm going to be a TA for the first time ever in the fall. The class is a 400-level class (senior/grad level) and introduces students to numerical methods used in aerospace. It starts out with the basics: numerical integration (quadrature rules), differentiation, and ODE solving. It then moves on to solving PDEs using finite difference methods and at the end gives a brief introduction to the finite element method.

What worries me is that the class is pretty heavy on the programming (as far as core AE courses go) which most students aren't very familiar with and typically don't like. Additionally, the course is required to graduate, which means I'm guaranteed to get students who don't want to be there. On top of that, the professor who will be teaching it is known for being one of the more difficult professor's in the department. I share his view that the classes shouldn't be easy (these people will be responsible for designing your airplanes, don't you want them to be good?), but that's going to make it hard on me. As a TA I'll be responsible for providing a lot of programming help (unfortunately it'll mostly be in MATLAB, which I abhor). I think I'll have fun until the evaluations come or someone shoots me.

By aeroeng314 (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

Students who think the physics labs are too long never too organic chemistry.

Then there is real life. Sitting in a lab for months on end...with a spacecraft locked in a thermal vacuum chamber... trying to divine the cause of some minor glitch and some experiment that might shed some light on the problem... and your grade is the size of your next raise, or whether you get a promotion next year...

Physics labs should have the second agenda of letting the student find out whether he or she has a passion for the subject or not. It's an opportunity for a life lesson. They should learn either to love it or to hate it.

(I love it!)

I do hope that you keep your witty sarcasm to yourself and don't pester your students with it. It is a given that they will give naiive comments at this stage especially in the midst of the frustrations of their academic education. I believe it's important for professors to set the example of maturity and patiently respond to students with respect. It is important to teach subject matter with skill, but an essential aspect to this is being sensitive to the fact that students are involved in the emotional and defining struggle of determining their value to the world. All comments including and especially the stupid ones stem from such difficulties common to us all and this should be kept in mind when dealing with students.

I once had a student write, "Dr. Z is a strange being from a distant planet. You should send him back there." Another said, "He needs to be reminded that not everyone is a super-math-genius like he thinks he is." Ouch! My favorite, though, is the student who filed a grievance because I was "unfair" to her. "He won't give me credit for my answers if he doesn't like my work." When the dean asked her if I had singled her out for that treatment, she said, "No! He does it to everybody!" Little Miss Whiny needed to look up the definition of "unfair."

Teaching would be great were it not for the students. My official evaluations were of two types: best class I ever took OR worst class I ever took. Nothing between. Worse are the RateMyProfessor.com comments. My students were adult, return-to-school graduate students, not kids. And yet one felt she needed to comment on my appearance. Not in a flattering way. Another complained that I insisted on correcting his grammer (sic) but this wasn't an English class. When is this country going to wake up, stop the grade inflation (a student just complained about a B-), and hold students accountable? The program director told me "just give them the grades they deserve." I'd be failing 1/3 of the class.

By Wasting Time (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

He wanted to be a friend more than a professor. I feel he let personal feelings guide how he interacted with students.

in high school i had a history teacher who spent more time talking about football than history. it was a bummer.