• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

On Reading Student Course Evaluations

“They’re so mean!”

I recall as if it were yesterday the look of agonized shock on the face of a colleague just after he had finished reading his first round of course evaluations in his new job at an American Christian college. He was very well qualified: Ph.D. from a top-rank U.S. history department and four years of teaching at fine universities. That education and experience, however, had not prepared him for the blunt, even vindictive, comments he got from the students he and I were teaching in a small history department now twenty-five years ago.

Last week, I checked in with a colleague here at Regent College. It is indeed twenty-five years later. This is a graduate school, not a college. Students here generally are highly motivated, self-funded, spiritually serious, and intellectually capable. We have a few exceptions, however, and while they generally keep quiet in class, they also seem to find their voices on anonymous course evaluations. My colleague, relatively new to teaching but with a world-class doctorate and substantial experience in related fields, looked back at me in astonishment: “I had no idea any of our students would write such horrible things!”

This past weekend, I went over my own course evaluations for last term. My first impression, too, was dismay, and the pain of disappointing and, worse, actually failing my students hung with me like a deep muscle ache for two days until I could take the time to go over them again. Then I felt much better. Why?

Here are Professor Stackhouse’s Top 10 Rules for reading course evaluations, based on reading course evaluations now for more than two dozen years and literally a couple of hundred courses. Follow these rules and you’ll avoid much emotional trauma while actually benefiting from (most of) your students’ remarks.

1. Read evaluations when you have time to read them slowly. Don’t read them when you can only skim them. If you just blast through them, you’ll tend to hear the odd or otherwise salient phrases more than they deserve and you’ll too quickly pass over the less dramatic phrases that nonetheless are students’ equally sincere efforts to communicate. Essentially, you’ll process the data badly if you read too fast. Course evaluations need to be read and re-read with care. Schedule the time to do it right.

2. Read them when you’re in a good mood. We all tend to give much more attention to negatives than positives, so don’t begin what will likely be a challenging process already in a less-than-optimal frame of mind. You are reading these things to learn, so be in an appropriate learning mode, and “tired and grumpy” ain’t it, especially not when what you might be learning is that you didn’t do what you ought to have done—and can’t actually fix it now that the course is over. You’d better be feeling earnest, attentive, and resilient if you’re going to profit from what you’ll read.

3. Read them with a nice snack nearby. Keep a steady supply of goodness running through your system: fresh fruit, nuts, smoothies, chocolate, milkshakes, cabernet sauvignon (only California or Bordeaux will do), single malt whisky…be sure to coddle yourself a bit so as to maximize your receptivity. And “maximizing your receptivity” entails, of course, avoiding insulin shock or intoxication, even as I acknowledge that intentional biochemical imbalance will sometimes seem like an excellent alternative to facing the implications of the evaluations….

4. Read them analytically. I was annoyed this time ’round by a powerful phrase that stuck out: One student decided that he (it might have been a “she,” but I’m guessing “he” is male) didn’t like the number of stories I told to illustrate the various points of epistemology I was teaching to an introductory class last term. So on the evaluations he claimed that he actually timed them one evening, triumphantly claiming that I had spent fully half my time on illustrations—as if that were ipso facto an indictment of my teaching method. Well, it does sound pretty bad, doesn’t it? Some self-indulgent middle-aged prof just wheeling around the classroom, telling stories instead of making important points and wasting his dedicated student’s valuable time. Or maybe this particular student is a twit who can’t comprehend why finer points of philosophy might just require an abundance of illustrative material when offered to an evening course of tired students trying hard to take in a lot of new ideas after a long work day. So this vivid image of a student timing my stories bugged me more than it should—and receded back into proper perspective when it emerged that he was one of precisely two students who felt this way about the course. And behold! Precisely two students consistently marked the course and the instructor lower than everyone else in the class. Okay, then.

5. Read them humbly. Upon further reading and reflection, perhaps that student was at least partly right. I probably did overdo the stories. I assessed this class early on as being less well prepared than usual for Regent students. I have pretty good intuitions by now, and in fact the course grades bore me out: the median grade for this particular class was a “B” while almost every other class I’ve taught at Regent (over 14 years) scored a “B+.” So I compensated by working things out perhaps more slowly, with more illustrations, than I normally would. And I have to watch that sort of thing, because my other course last term, populated by a more experienced group of students working at a higher level, had fully a half-dozen students in it that felt I should have provided denser material and spent less time on illustrations.

6. Read them with intent to improve. I’ve always gotten good course evaluations. I’ve also won a teaching award. And no one can please all the people all the time. Yet one can decide to nudge one’s teaching more in one direction than another, and while I work very hard to make sure no one misunderstands what I’m teaching, since I’m teaching awfully important subjects (like, say, the doctrine of God or how to read the Bible), I also don’t want to disappoint excellent students who long for greater richness of detail and subtlety of conceptualization. So I’m going to stay more alert this term as I teach for how much time I do spend on illustrations and check also to see if I can beef up the content at least a little more. Why not? I care about each of these students, and some of them are telling me how they would like to be cared for better. I’m game to keep trying.

7. Read all the data. Every place I have taught has used a combination of ranking questions (from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree” or the like) plus opportunities for comments. Don’t look at the average scores in the former questions without also looking at the particular scores. I seem invariably to have one, two, or three people who really, really don’t like me or the course I teach. This has been my lot in perhaps 90 per cent of the courses I have taught—everywhere, even as a guest lecturer. And those few very unhappy people pull the averages down, especially if, like Regent, the scores are generally quite high. (Regent has the highest average scores across the faculty of any school I’ve ever encountered. Anything less than a 4.0 on a scale of 5.0 is remarkable around here, while universities with which I am familiar don’t blink an eye at anything above a 3.) So don’t worry overmuch about the one, two, or three disaffected. Notice instead when half a dozen show up in the middle column or below. And in my theology class last term, there were about that many who were irritated with me, for not going as deeply into theology as they would have liked (good for them!) or for being upset because I was away for more than I ought to have been (I’m glad they missed me–and I normally miss one at the max, so I don’t blame them) or for, yes, telling more stories and taking more questions than they would prefer. Yep, got it. Again, I can add some detail here and shorten some illustrations there and not miss more than one session. But there’s nothing I can do about the one or two people who just find me obnoxious. I wish everyone loved me; not everyone does; the end; moving on.

8. Read them with a colleague. A colleague shares your values but doesn’t share your responsibility in this course, so she can hear better than you can what’s being said about it, and you, particularly if it is something negative. She can help you blow off the overheated attempts at revenge and take seriously what are genuine warning lights on the dashboard. She can also tell you how wonderful you are and point out the many comments (and there likely are many) that say so, which, in your grief and rage over the nasty ones, you have downplayed.

9. Get colleagues to sit in on your classes and critique you rigorously. You’ve got to really want this, and you’ve got to pick the colleagues carefully, of course. But there is nothing like peer review to make you self-conscious, and self-consciousness is good especially for veteran professors as we are inclined to get too comfortable in our classes. Such peer review can also foster self-confidence in rookie instructors who, in the eyes of a veteran, might be doing quite a bit better at this early stage than students might appreciate. Either way, it’s better to have a skilled, experienced colleague tell you things while you can still alter the course than anonymous student evaluations after it’s over: the colleague can likely articulate concerns and commendations better; he can perhaps suggest constructive changes; and you have a variety of ways to ruin his career if he overdoes the criticism. It’s all good!

10. Pray over the evaluations. God is the Master Teacher. What does he want you to learn from them? What does he want you to learn from the experience of reading them—which is not, of course, the same thing? What does he want you to work on now, and what properly must be deferred to a less stressful time of your life or to a situation in which you have access to better resources to work on it? Take it to the Lord in prayer, and let Rabbi Jesus, the world’s best instructor, mentor you. And how will he do that? Well, partly through what I’ve suggested in #1 through #9, but also directly in the Spirit’s drawing your attention to this while letting you release your troubled grip on that.

I love teaching students and I want only to teach them better. Course evaluations are not infallible guides to teaching performance, but they seem to be much more accurate than a lot of professors like to think they are, and they can give us useful information if we will heed them carefully, temperately, collegially, and prayerfully.

—Which reminds me of four or five stories I’d like to tell you now…

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