What to Do about Those Negative Comments on Course Evaluations

negative course evaluations
If there’s a downside to another academic year coming to a successful close, it’s reading course evaluations. This post explores how we respond to those one or two low evaluations and the occasional negative comments found in answers to the open-ended questions. Do we have a tendency to over-react? I know I did.

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If there’s a downside to another academic year coming to a successful close, it’s reading course evaluations. This post explores how we respond to those one or two low evaluations and the occasional negative comments found in answers to the open-ended questions. Do we tend to overreact? I know I did. Teaching Professor Blog I remember one of the last times I taught my graduate course on college teaching. It was a great class from beginning to end. I was at my best and the students were fantastic. We had these amazing discussions. I looked forward to reading their papers. Oh, it was so good, and I just knew the evaluations would reflect my brilliance. Sure enough, the first couple I looked at were straight 7s, the walks-on-water rating. The next couple were mostly 7s and a few 6s. I was right! What a class! Then a few more into the stack, there’s a bubble sheet with straight 1s, the no-redeeming-social-value rating. What? I couldn’t believe it! How could anyone be that unhappy with the course? Who was it? On the way home, I ran through the roster trying to imagine which student would dish out those paltry ratings. I discussed it at length during dinner. I laid awake in bed, still mystified, dismayed, and just a bit angry. If the student was that upset, why did I have to find out about it this way? These were graduate students, surely they knew they could come to me. It was not until the next morning that the irony dawned on me. Two weeks earlier, in response to a colleague who was upset about a student’s comment, I had written a piece for The Teaching Professor newsletter admonishing faculty for overreacting to negative feedback. And there I was, obsessing over one negative comment in a sea of positive ones. How do you know if you are overreacting? You’re fixated on the negative comments. There may be only three stinkers. Never mind there are 34 positive comments; it’s those three negative ones that run around in your mind on a seemingly endless track. And your thinking is colored with emotion. Feelings bubble up and around as you consider and reconsider the comments. There’s hurt, frustration, anger, confusion, dismay, doubt—not the kind of emotions that fill you with hope and joy. After a while, the rationalizations start. You’re pretty sure you know who made the comments and this is not a student who put one bit of effort into the course. Then there are these open-ended questions that essentially give students license so say whatever they will. How fair is that? What would happen if you noted on a paper that it “sucked”? And with the forms now filled out online, half the class isn’t providing feedback and those that do are likely the ones with the axes to grind. And you know how much time and thought students put into filling out the evaluations—they run through them as quickly as possible and mark the task completed. Most of us know when we’re overreacting, the more challenging question is how do we stop? It requires concerted effort and the application of some self-discipline. Be welcome to add your suggestions to these. And if you’d like to read something really helpful, here’s classic: Hodges, L. C., and Stanton, K. (2007). Translating comments on student evaluations into the language of learning. Innovative Higher Education, 31, 279–286.

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