Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 1

The spring semester is over! After months of heavy teaching and service, with a large helping of grant writing, I am now happily heading into 3.5 months of summer, which means a) frantically writing up and sending off several papers for publication, which had been sitting on my desk for longer than I care to admit; b) spending as much time as needed with some stuck graduate students, so they’d get unstuck and be able to move on with their projects; c) several complicated trips to conferences (no, it’s actually not glamorous or exciting), each with a jam-packed schedule of giving 2-3 talks at different meetings over the course of a week in order to maximize exposure per travel dollar.

This past spring, taught a large undergraduate class (of order 1 hecto-student) that is required for two majors; the people in one major appreciate it more than those in the other (who often consider it to be a cruel and unusual punishment). I hadn’t taught the course before, as the faculty who do research in a different area usually teach it, but I am perfectly competent to teach it and I found it fun and enjoyable for the most part. However, I had essentially no TA support, so I taught both the lecture and the discussion, and I graded all the exams myself, not to mention created all the course materials (including extensive solutions to weekly homework assignments).

This semester I also did an experiment. Since this is a core course, it is important to make sure everyone who passes it actually has not just sort-of an understanding of the material, but actual working knowledge that they would take into follow-on courses. I decided to teach and grade how I felt this course should be taught and graded, in order to actually teach them the material so that the vast majority of them are actually competent at the end.

This (bean-devouring leprechaun) means that many of the students, perhaps for the first time since starting college, got exposed the fact that they may not be quite as awesome as they always thought they were. People do not like being faced with this realization (which is, in fact, an inherent part of growing up).

If anyone thinks there is no grade inflation in K-12, I invite them to teach any large enrollment required course at a reasonably-to-highly selective institution. The GPAs required for enrollment are getting higher and higher (as are the GPAs required for the majors related to this particular course). Therefore, based on the GPA alone these are all spectacular students, smart and with great study habits. In reality, while I do believe that most of them are smart enough, many have exaggerated views of their abilities, and the vast majority are inadequately prepared in math (like algebra or pre-calculus) and actually have atrocious study habits, because high school was too easy. They were coddled and never properly challenged pre-college. Now, when faced with a really challenging class, they are bewildered, and in some cases (especially when a woman with a funny accent they can’t quite place shells out the challenge) they can become downright hostile. There was a kid this semester who spent the whole semester in seething rage, looking at me with flaming-hot hatred from somewhere in the back of the classroom; one really starts to worry about the ease with which people get access to guns.

No, people don’t like it when you show them that they are perhaps not as awesome as they always thought they were.

While all the exams had averages 70-80% and I had a nice distribution of grades, many felt the exams were too hard. Why? Because they all expect to get 90+% (being that they all had high grades in high school) and it’s my fault that the tests are not tailored to their individual level of preparation, rather than assuming responsibility for their own performance and pushing themselves to meet the requirements. The tests are designed precisely as they should be, and the fact that the students are not getting the grades they envision (because they all envision A’s without much sweat) means they do not actually have the understanding and proficiency that is required for that score, and they need to work more and come to office hours and discussion.

After the first test, many did get a wake-up call and started studying much more methodically, starting early on their assignments on their own, and attending office hours and discussions. They quickly realized that it’s certainly not impossible to get a good grade in my class, but you have to study and be smart about it. I am very proud of them and have told them as much; the material was hard, but they rose to the challenge.

The evaluations are back (a few years ago we went electronic) and while they are still plenty high (well above the department average and well above 4/5), there are a handful of kids who hate my guts. People say it can’t be avoided, bu it always bothers me a lot.

You know, when most kids say you are in the top 20% or next 20% of all teachers they’ve ever had, and one kid says you are in the bottom 20%.
Or when most kids “agree” or “strongly agree” that you are well prepared for class or that you are knowledgeable about the material, and then one kid “strongly disagrees”.
I wonder what the heck is wrong with these young haters. Do they grow up to expect the world to accommodate them and their preferences, and therefore spend the whole life disgruntled when that doesn’t happen?

I know I am supposed to focus on all the students whom I helped (there were many very good evaluations, and people saying they were inspired, and some wanting to specialize in this field, and students recognizing I cared about their success). However, as bad is apparently always stronger than good, what stays in my mind, at least short term, are the bad and especially nasty comments. If the student’s goal is to spoil my day, they are successful.

Why do I read the evaluations anyway? It’s not like I don’t have tenure, and plenty of faculty stop reading them sooner or later. I read them because I like reading the positive comments, I like to read the thoughtful and useful specific remarks about something that may be done differently; however, I so dislike reading the negative comments or seeing even an outlier negative vote, that perhaps I really should not read them at all.

More than anything, reading negative evaluations makes me wish I hadn’t spent quite as much time and effort on this course, trying to be available to as many and as often as I could. Many of my colleagues avoid teaching large-enrollment courses, have the bare minimum of exams (1 midterm, which I really think is not enough for undergrads), hold very few office hours, and generally attempt to get by with minimal effort. Instead, they focus their time and energy on research. And I feel stupid for basically sacrificing much of my semester to this very demanding class and then have some nastiness come out in the evaluations. Why the hell do I bother, I think?

I wish there were a way to extract how much of the negative is something I cannot fix — they dislike the fact that I am a woman and/or a foreigner, or whatever it is that I have that irritates some people as soon as I start speaking (being uppity for a woman/foreigner, perhaps). Although I am not sure that would make me feel better anyway.

But if this comment at nicoleandmaggie’s is any indication, my guess is that they mostly they don’t like being faced with their own inability to follow the class, their own poor preparation, and tough requirements, and they take it out on me.

Still. Knowing where the negativity comes from makes the evaluations no less infuriating in the short term, no matter how glowing the positive ones are.
(It probably doesn’t help that academic research, the other major part of my job, comes with a constant stream of criticism and rejection.)

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about teaching evaluations?


  1. Usually i have my dh go through the comments and give me the good ones and repackage the negative ones into something constructive (or throw them out if they’re not). This year I made the mistake of clicking on the comments myself (procrastination + clearing out my email + DH being busy at work). I have scores higher than I think I’ve ever gotten– something like 4.9/5 with a large class… and lots of comments saying they wished they’d had me earlier in their careers because I make math understandable… and one nasty comment saying (very impolitely) that I mock people for asking questions. Which, of course I don’t. Ironically, last year I got comments saying I was too nice about not shutting people’s stupid questions up (last year I had a woman who I think had a learning disability that caused her to ask the same question that had just been addressed at length, as if the answer to the question caused her to come up with the original question on her own… or she didn’t listen much… but it drove some of the other students crazy).

    Of course it’s the one nasty comment that gets a person.

  2. I think you have to ignore these negative comments evaluations. You got over 4/5 – so most people love you! There are always mean comments. In fact I wonder if maybe you should hold fewer office hours and see if the evals go up next time.

    I found myself in this situation this term – working much harder, developing all sorts of materials for them, lots of office hours, etc. — and really in the end, no change from previous years (same evaluation number) and the negative comments became more hostile since they didn’t like the challenges I put forward for them (even though they did so much better on the final than previously).

    Anyway, even though I am still figuring it out myself, I think you can still have high standards for the students without working yourself down so hard.

  3. dafs, I agree. There is definitely a sweet spot in terms of work put in versus evaluations. Past a certain level of availability, the students don’t appreciate more and may actually penalize in evaluations (there is such a thing as being too available, i.e., someone whose time is not very valuable). I actually did the experiments a few years ago, in another course, with reducing availability and seeing evaluations actually go up. I guess I didn’t follow my own best practices this time!

  4. I read them the first time I ever got them, realized that they are completely meaningless, and haven’t read them since. Students themselves are in absolutely zero position to formulate a meaningful opinion on whether one of their teachers is effective or not. Anyway, if you do read your evaluations, one of my colleagues follows the rule that if you have a bimodal distribution of evaluations–some outstanding and some that hate you–then you are doing exactly what you should be. If they are consistent, but mediocre, then you should worry.

  5. A very timely post 🙂 I wish I could ignore my teaching evaluations, but it never happens. Some thoughts/experiences:

    1) Even if the overall evaluations are very good, all the good comments seem to pale in front of that one little negative comment. The day I get over this would be a nontrivial personal victory!

    2) Whenever I have taught a course two or more times, I have noticed that evaluations improve significantly the second time.

    3) As a student and postdoc, I was mostly assigned service calculus-type courses for large classes. The evaluations were the best for those courses for which I either prescribed a cheap textbook or handed out my own notes (I guess students felt very happy at not having to buy overpriced calculus textbooks).

    The comment of @ComradePhyssioproffe: “if you have a bimodal distribution of evaluations–some outstanding and some that hate you–then you are doing exactly what you should be” totally made my day 🙂

  6. This sounded very familiar to me as it likely did to most of us who take teaching seriously. A young colleague came to me the other day, upset about the relatively small number of negative comments about her class. I stopped reading my own evaluations early in my career, as I had the same reaction. However, recently, prompted by some folks in my Department who are reforming our approaches to teaching our intro and core courses, i have begun experimenting with my own mid-course evaluation, which asks for much more detailed information about things they like and don’t like. It’s still hard not to focus on a few negative comments (my most common–Dr. X is intimidating) but it does provide some useful data about how your different approaches are viewed and what might be improved. it also gives you a chance to address somethings directly with the class, explaining the reasoning behind some of your approaches.

  7. Mark, this is a great point about midsemester evaluations. I have done them since I started teaching. They solicit more free-form feedback than the end-of-semester formal ones, and I have always found them very illuminating. I also make a point in discussing general trends with the class afterwards.

  8. Thanks for this great and timely post. One way in which I deal with this is that I do not think of what students say in their feedback as “evaluation”. Rather, I see the comments as a customer satisfaction survey, or if you do not like the term, simply as “feedback”. A teaching evaluation that is worthy the name is what a 3rd party would provide after making their own observations, asking the students and you for their opinions. So, when students say bad or uninformed things, it just reflects how they see their experience – and nothing more. You do say so essentially in your post when you reflect from what kind of motivations are behind such reactions. In a way, you are thus providing (one important part of) an evaluation of your teaching. Sounds like you did a great job in challenging your students!

  9. “I found myself in this situation this term – working much harder, developing all sorts of materials for them, lots of office hours, etc. – and really in the end, no change from previous years (same evaluation number)….”

    Wait, so now profs are deciding what to do or not to do in their courses based on what makes the student evaluations go up?! This is … crazy! I realize that it sucks to get negative comments, even just a few. But when you start trying to tune what you’re doing just to up your stats, then you’ve really lost it, in my opinion. Student evaluations were never meant to be used in that way. They are a very blunt instrument with which to identify truly outstanding or truly horrible teaching. Beyond that, they are worthless, for the reason CPP states. If you are truly interested in feedback from your students, do your own evaluations — preferably mid-semester.

  10. They are a very blunt instrument with which to identify truly outstanding or truly horrible teaching.

    anon, while you are right about how they should be used in principle, I am afraid that, in practice, they are used much more quantitatively as a means to evaluate faculty, and they have real repercussions on tenure, promotions, and raises.

    Less than great evaluations while on the tenure track can shake your tenure case and will end up sending you to teaching workshops, subjecting you to additional evaluation and oversight by colleagues, and whatnot. Teaching evaluations are dissected with a scalpel during tenure evaluation at every level (department, university), especially their trends over time. After tenure, evaluations are part of each faculty member’s annual report which is used in assigning merit-based raises.

    I think most faculty genuinely want to teach well, and many go above and beyond the necessary minimum in how much energy and time they spend on this part of the job. But, considering that student evaluations (regardless of how meaningful or meaningless we could make the case they are) affect the teacher’s career, especially for junior professors, I don’t think it’s surprising that people try to optimize the course so as to get the best possible evaluations per unit time/effort invested (especially at R1 universities, where it sometimes feels you are supposed to be a stellar teacher and department citizen while still spending 100% of your time on research).

  11. Anon, I never said I adjusted my teaching for the evaluations. I simply observed that I made a bunch of changes to be a more effective instructor (as evidenced by the students’ success on a final exam) … and there was no change in the final evaluation number and the comments became more hostile.

    But I probably should teach with the aim of increasing the evals for exactly the reasons above!!

  12. This is the other half of N&M. Never, EVER read student evals after putting in your tenure application. That is, unless you’d really like to read some sexist and degrading comments on your personal appearance, with a side of homophobia and a dash of self-entitled rage.

  13. Thank you for this post. Since I am post-tenure this year, I also pushed my class to truly think about the material without the usual coddling they are used to (they are 4th years). I received my teaching evals and 2/3 of the class said it was the best class they ever took, and a few said I was the worst teacher they ever had. The “worst” evals gave specific examples of situations in which I made them think for themselves, such as graphing data to see if it makes sense. I suppose I achieved my desired outcome, so why do I let these bad evals bother me so? Realistically, I never expected these students to jump for joy that they couldn’t just pull a few equations off a sheet and plug in the numbers.

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