Evals, Again

I’ve been thinking about student evaluations. Actually, I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts on student evaluations after a colleague in a meeting had crapped all over the concept and then proceeded to lay it on thick over all the people who receive high numbers, accusing them of dumbing down their courses.

Student evaluations of teaching are imperfect: they measure student satisfaction and professor popularity; students are biased against women and immigrants;  they should be supplemented if not supplanted by peer evaluations and other objective evaluations of student learning outcomes (I shudder at admin speak and wonder however this objective evaluation is done that’s not, you know, an exam in the course)… And so on, an so forth.

The thing is, I don’t think evaluations are completely useless because I know that most students, at least where I teach, are in fact invested in their success. They want to learn, they want to get an education for their money, and they definitely share among themselves information on who’s worth taking a class from if you want to learn versus whom you should take if you just want an easy grade.

I always get pissed when I hear my colleagues dismiss summarily student evaluations by saying that all who get good evaluations just make their courses easy. I get very high evaluations because I work my ass off.

I am apparently notorious for how hard and labor-intensive my courses are, and the students who want a challenge and who want to learn will organize their coursework to make sure to take courses with me. I am most definitely NOT a softy—by a long shot—and I am deeply offended by the colleagues who imply otherwise.   I get very high evaluations because I work my ass off.

I have a ton of office hours. Students need contact hours and my office hours are always full.

I often teach my own discussion. That’s more opportunity for contact and in a less formal setting than a lecture hall.

I learn everyone’s names. It’s a lot of work for me when there are 100 people, but it’s worthwhile because it makes for more engaged students (they feel someone cares whether they show up or not) and it’s more fun for me when I know them and they’re not just an amorphous undergrad blob.

I carefully craft homework and tweak it every year to closely follow what we’re doing in class. I have created small programming assignments to accompany each topic and give the students a more projectlike feeling when working at home.

It take a lot of effort to provide the students with the time and attention they need, with carefully selected topics and attention to how those are presented (no PPTs! I talk with them and derive/draw everything on the board so the pace would be appropriate for taking notes). I created quality course material that I feel maximize information transfer. I teach 3x a week instead on 2x because the courses are complicated and I’ve found that shorter, more frequent class meetings are better for the students. We have weekly ungraded quizzes that help the students keep track of their progress. I make sure we have the classrooms that I think work well logistically for the type of material I teach and thus enhances delivery. I know and use my strengths as a communicator.

Most students recognize quality and they know when they are learning. When they give high evaluations, they are not delusional.

I don’t know how it is for the colleagues who teach at very expensive places where I hear students can be obnoxious and entitled. Here, I find that most people do actually want to learn because they are paying good money for this education, and the money is not trivial for them or their families.

I have sat in many classes of my colleagues, doing peer review. I can say that a professor who is engaging, energetic, and knowledgeable always ends up with high student evaluations in classes that are large enough for proper statistics. I have sat in classes of several who are notorious for receiving low scores, and I can’t say that I was surprised as to why. Rule number one of teaching is that you have to be engaging enough for students to come to class and to stay awake during lecture. I am shocked by how many of my colleagues refer to this as ‘entertaining students’, as something dirty or laughable. It’s not entertaining, it’s a basic requirement—you have to have your audience’s attention. I have been in some lectures of my colleagues that made me want to blow my brains out, that’s how boring they were. Speaking in monotone, minimal engagement with students, standing next to the projector the whole time. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

You can’t teach anyone anything if you don’t want to put yourself in their shoes, envision what they know and don’t know, understand what they need from you. Empathy. You gotta have empathy for your students in order to connect with them.

Evaluation haters: please, next time when you want to advocate for supplementing or supplanting student evaluations with something else, I will support you, but please try not to crap all over your colleagues who actually do well in students’ eyes. Maybe their classes are very easy. But maybe they are as rigorous and hard as they can be, just really well taught.


  1. Absolutely. There’s a huge difference between difficult and poorly taught and challenging yet well taught. Students will also rise to the challenge in the harder courses. It’s interesting that student grades can end up being about the same on average in both an “easy” and “difficult” course just because the students knew they had to try a lot harder in the latter (and perhaps got lazy/sloppy on the prior). I think another thing that students care about quite a bit is fairness. Were the questions/assignments hard? Or numerous? Maybe. But were they FAIR? That’s super important.

    I am a research professor, and one of the big reasons I don’t want to teach is because I know JUST HOW MUCH WORK it would be to organize a class at the level that I would expect as a student. Huge kudos to you for continuing to put your heart and soul into it, while juggling the rest of the professor responsibilities.

    I remember as a student, I had a Professor — he was German and had a strong (read: kind of scary) personality. He was a good teacher and I enjoyed his class. One of his final exams was uncharacteristically easy (this was my second class with him, and I had come to expect more out of him). I almost felt cheated, since I had studied really hard, and felt like it was almost a joke (I was pretty keen as a student). I wrote this on the evaluations. I still gave him a good “grade” numerically, but I always made the effort to provide detailed and useful feedback on courses I took. I always signed my name. He approached me a few days later in the hallway, stood really close to me, and said “so you thought my exam was too easy??” I don’t remember what happened after that, but this memory is burned into my brain because it was pretty terrifying, although I think he was ultimately just messing with me.

  2. Yep. People seem to vacillate between “Evals mean nothing” and “Evals” mean everything. There’s no option for “Evals can be useful if put in context with other info.” In your case you work your ass off on the fundamentals of good teaching and the evals show that the students are responding. That’s good. Evals alone wouldn’t have told us that, but looking at the other info without evals wouldn’t have told us of students were responding.

    At my institution we have something of the opposite problem: People dismiss eval scores not because they figure the scores mean you are too easy, but because they are immersed in the other critiques of evals and conclude they are everywhere and always unfair. There’s apparently no middle ground here.

  3. I think it depends a lot on whether you are teaching a general ed course. My observation is that scores for general ed are pretty crappy regardless of how well you teach the students if they don’t like you, particularly if it is a math-involved class. They don’t want to be there and hence are not usually motivated to work hard at learning. My friends who teach in social science and humanities get a lot of nasty feedback if they have students who politically differ from them (particularly in gender studies)…so I’ve cooled a lot on them.

  4. I agree with you, and I don’t think it’s hypocritical to say both that (1) teaching evaluations are biased and should be supplanted by something else, and (2) consistently high scores are reflective of the fact that you’re doing something right as a teacher. These are both beliefs that I personally hold as well.

    Like you, I work hard at teaching, do a lot of things right, engage the students, and these efforts are really clearly and consistently commented on by my students (and I have really high teaching evals compared with other faculty in my department and division). But when my young female colleagues of color or first-gen female colleagues get eaten alive by the premeds in the gigantic intro physics classes no matter how engaging they are or how high their learning gain values are (and we have someone doing physics education who has tracked the learning gains) and they STILL get crap evaluations, even lower than the crummy old white men who spend the semester confusing all the students just to be told that it’s because they’re brilliant on their end-of-semester evals, then I think evals are a big problem that need to be addressed.

  5. mareserenitatis, my beef is not that evals are great but underappreciated. I don’t think they’re great; they are flawed in many ways.
    My beef is that some people will now go as far as calling their colleagues who do have good evals bad teachers (e.g., for making things too easy). I take offense at that because I work my ass off at teaching and my courses are far from easy. That doesn’t mean that others who also work their asses off at teaching don’t sometimes, maybe often, get low evals. But I do hate it when people take “evals have problems” to the extreme and imply anticorrelation between the quality of teaching and evals (good teaching–>bad evals; bad teaching–>good evals). It’s simply not true and is offensive to many students and teachers.

  6. Most of the people in my department are highly motivated to teach well (undergrad institution) and so standards are really high for teaching evals. My scores are OK but I’m somewhat intimidated by my colleagues’ very good student evaluation scores – at least those in the younger generations.

    BTW I get a lot of negative comments on student evals for using marker/whiteboard (along with slides with figures that I explain) and basically for not having ppt slides which are text bullet points (students call such slides “notes” around here). Given you don’t use ppt, do you get that criticism? How do you deal with it?

  7. jojo, I give them handwritten notes (a packet) at the start of the semester — printed as well as electronic. They can do what they want with those. But maybe it’s the difference in the material. What I teach has a lot of math; things have to be sketched in real space, denoted carefully, and derived, and the students need to learn to do those things on their own, so I think it’s really much better for them to see how I do it in real time, so they can take their own notes. I have always hated PPTs (terrible narcolepsy if I am even a little bored, which I am if I don’t take notes) so I can’t envision myself ever using PPTs. My classes are me on the board drawing and writing so a lecture is never the same twice. I have never had anyone complain that they would want PPTs. It might be different field norms, type of content, or simply undergrad expectations. Our undergrads tend to go with the flow: we have professors who are PPT-ers, chalk-and-talkers, classroom flippers and blenders… I think it’s a really bad idea to force a good teacher to do things in a way that’s uncomfortable for them for the sake of uniformity. Variety is good.

  8. The top scored teacher in our dept used to be a woman who was hardcore and made students work. We could always tell who had her sections in later classes. But then we hired an affable extroverted white guy who does no work, no lecturing, no grading (class is student lectures and students doing what would be homework in other classes that is graded for completion instead of substance during class time). For four years nobody in his classes has received lower than an A. Literally nobody. For four years he has won all the teaching awards. Students are starting to complain about how they get low grades in other classes because they don’t realize he’s only grading them on completion for work they do in class and not substance. What’s wrong with the other professors, they ask.

    So… can go either way.

  9. I think the lesson from nicoleandmaggie is that while there are no guarantees, it helps to really be bought into whatever you’re doing. Wanna push them hard? Then be hardcore and show no apology or hesitation. Wanna be a softy? Then own it and be everybody’s friend all the way.

    If you push them but you aren’t comfortable with it, or you’re soft but insecure about it, they’ll eat you alive.

    Maybe evaluations are (in part) a confidence filter.

  10. I should clarify that the two types described by nicoleandmaggie are totally people I’ve met. I’ve met extroverted guys who just love being everyone’s friend, love shitting all over standards while being beloved. They own it. They eat it up. This is their thing from now until the end of time.

    And I’ve met tough women who demand a lot. Who show no insecurity, who are no-nonsense. I can’t imagine criticizing them (partly because I also share the tough educational philosophy and partly because they scare me).

    I can see either of those types winning praise. What I can’t see winning praise is anyone (male or female) who’s all “Um, what should I do? Oh, no, I don’t know what to do!”

  11. @jojo, I use chalkboard or whiteboard for all my lectures, with occasional projection for live demos of software. All my lectures are improv performances, often guided entirely by student questions, so lecture slides cannot be prepared in advance.

    I avoided the “give me the notes” problem by writing a textbook for the course, where everything is laid out in more detail than anyone’s PPT slides. I give the students coupons for free PDF copies of the textbook.

    Several times during the quarter I explain that the lectures are not to replace the reading, but to supplement it—to explain the things that they were having trouble understanding. I remind them often that I can’t really know what they are having trouble with unless they ask me questions. This year, I’ve been getting a lot of questions and fairly good ones that get at the heart of common student misunderstandings.

  12. You sound like an awesome teacher! That whole “lazy = easy grader = high evals” equation is in itself lazy–and troublesome. I get high evals (b/c hard work!), but it irritates me that my colleagues, not notably metrics-centered in other respects, use them as an absolute and sole measure of people’s teaching, tossing numbers around as if the metrics are incontrovertible and they are scientists. (Hint: They are NOT scientists and I doubt if they’d behave this way if they were.) I push back against the evals as a sole measure, because I’m tenured and can do so, on behalf of my untenured colleagues.

  13. It’s that time of year, and my head of department decided this year to give ACTUAL PRIZES (coffee shop gift cards, or something) to the colleagues with the best mean scores on evals because this PROVED they were excellent teachers. Now, I do have problems with his attitude to prizes anyway – he likes to pick out a few people and give them small prizes every semester, and it just p*sses me off because we are professional adults and standards are pretty high around here, and he always picks things that are not 100% in our control to give prizes over.

    I think looked at in context evals have some value. The bias people find is mostly studied WITHIN a module rather than between them or over many academics, and there are ALWAYS exceptions to these things. We all KNOW about these biases – we’re academics – and I don’t know about you, but a small part of me knows that for EVERY measure I, as a relatively dour middle aged fat woman lacking in major grant success, have to try harder than a male equivalent, so I DO try hard – not to dumb down, but to teach at the top of my game, to think of the students, in a way that many of my equally successfully evaluated male colleagues will at least never admit to in conversation. We also all know about those popular teachers who are cool and hip and funny, and one of the reasons we often dislike them is because they remind us of how we felt about Popular Kids earlier in life (although I like to think that the main reason I grumble internally about their good evals is that I know that when I teach students who loved that class in later years, I usually find they are lacking in knowledge of the dull aspects of the subject like how to actually do the sums or interpret the graphs, even if they can still repeat the funny stories the lecturer told when they covered that topic).

  14. I think this totally avoids the fact that in many places
    these evaluations are requirements for promotion and tenure, and it is easy to dumb down a course X which is a requirement for a course Y, leaving the teacher of Y at a disadvantage, as she has to compensate for gaps in knowledge of X while teaching Y.

    And if Y depends not on just X, but on equally dumbed down U and V, then teaching Y becomes an impossible task. Getting high evaluations for an impossible task is left as an exercise (in futility).

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