After a long and trying academic year, student evaluations of your teaching will soon be in your inbox. A bit of courage is required to take a first glance at student comments about your course. Given the substantial increase in time and effort this academic year has required, critical comments may feel even more harsh.
When you do look over your student evaluations, take a few minutes to copy or write down some of the positive comments. Believe and appreciate these comments. Students value your knowledge, talents, and hard work. Then, put the evaluations away for a few days. Come back to them when you have time and energy for self-reflection.
The act of teaching is extremely personal, and it is difficult not to take critical comments as a personal attack. To compound these feelings, student evaluations are often central to the reappointment, promotion, and tenure processes. While some institutions have taken proactive measures to mitigate the effect of the pandemic on these processes, uncertainty about how review committees will consider student teaching evaluations from these terms can increase anxiety for educators.
There are other problematic issues with student evaluations. Current tools used to survey student opinions about their learning experiences are flawed. Meta-analysis indicates there is little to no relationship between what students learn and how they evaluate their teachers (1, 2). Common evaluation survey methods also have well-established biases against women and people of color (3). There are clear steps institutions can take to mitigate these issues, including educating students on the important aspects of teaching evaluations (4), adapting evaluation tools to decrease bias (5), and adopting multi-faceted evaluation methods (6).
Addressing these systemic issues around teaching evaluations is critical. However, what can you do now with your current teaching evaluations to help shape and improve your teaching? Here are a few things for you to consider:
- Are they venting? This has been a difficult time for all of us, including your students. Are they using this evaluation to release some of their frustrations? If so, attempt to disconnect the intensity of the complaint from constructive points.
- What are the common themes? What are your students saying? Do you see similar comments across your student evaluations? Are comments focused on specific lectures or activities? Course design? Grading? Communication? Take note of these themes.
- What are the institutional expectations for teaching? What aspects of your teaching are most important to your institution? Conversations with your department chair or other mentors may help you prioritize the actions you take in response to your evaluations. If it is possible to gain access to comparative evaluation data, this will provide further insight into your own evaluations.
- What is the context for this course? What are you trying to accomplish in this course? Are you implementing an evidence-based pedagogy which steers away from lecture? If so, students could be scoring you lower because, even though they are learning more, they don’t perceive this increased learning (7). Are you communicating your expectations for this type of learning, so they know what to expect?
- What incremental changes are you going to make next time you teach the course? Given the student evaluation themes, institutional expectations, the course context, and your strengths, what changes are you going to prioritize? Focus on incremental changes, as it gives you an opportunity to test and assess the impact of these small changes. For example, are you going to be more intentional about explaining to your students why you teach the way you do and what they should expect? Are you going to incorporate more structure or feedback in your assignments? Are you going to decrease content to focus on large concepts? This would also be a great time to bounce ideas around with colleagues and mentors – or check-out different options in the literature.
While reviewing your evaluations and considering your next steps, document the themes you decide to address. Pull a few representative comments from your teaching evaluations and write a paragraph or two about changes you are planning in response to the comments. This documentation will be helpful for the next time you teach the course. This reflection can also inform self-narratives required for the review process or–if you are looking for another job–crafting your teaching statement. This reflection is even more important as you consider what aspects of your teaching were particularly effective during this academic year of pandemic teaching. You may want to keep successful aspects of your course even if we transition back into a more traditional educational setting.
A huge thank you to educators who made it work this year! Your students and colleagues appreciate everything you have done. A special thank you to those who discussed your experiences with teaching evaluations with me, but wished to remain anonymous, in preparation for my symposium presentation at EB2021, hosted by the APS Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee, entitled “Using Teaching Evaluations to Enhance Your Career Trajectory” from which this post was based.
- Uttl B, White CA, Gonzalez DW. Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related. Stud Educ Eval 54: 22–42, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.stueduc.2016.08.007.
- Boring A, Ottoboni K. Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness. ScienceOpen Research, 2016. DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1
- Chávez K, Mitchell KMW. Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity. PS Polit Sci Polit 53: 270–274, 2020. DOI: 10.1017/S1049096519001744.
- Hopper M. Student Evaluation of Teaching – The Next 100 Years [Online]. PECOP Blog: 2019. https://blog.lifescitrc.org/pecop/2019/06/21/student-evaluation-of-teaching-the-next-100-years/ [2 May 2021].
- Peterson DAM, Biederman LA, Andersen D, Ditonto TM, Roe K. Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PLOS ONE 14: e0216241, 2019. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216241.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Recognizing and Evaluating Science Teaching in Higher Education: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief [Online]. The National Academies Press: 12, 2020. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25685/recognizing-and-evaluating-science-teaching-in-higher-education-proceedings-of.
- Deslauriers L, McCarty LS, Miller K, Callaghan K, Kestin G. Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proc Natl Acad Sci 116: 19251–19257, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116.