Beyond Bias: How to Get More Mileage out of Your Student Evaluations

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts one and two of this series explored discussing SETs’ bias in the classroom; here, in the final installment, I offer three not-so-obvious ways to put your students’ feedback to work.


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Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts one and two of this series explored discussing SETs’ bias in the classroom; here, in the final installment, I offer three not-so-obvious ways to put your students’ feedback to work.

Level up your day one routine

Remember the first-day-of-classes montage from Dead Poets Society? The one where Mr. Keating—that scamp!—tries to convince his new students that dead Welton Academy boys are whispering to them from beyond the grave? Good news: You needn’t resort to such macabre stunts to include the voices of students past. That’s what your evals are for. 

Spotlighting end-of-semester feedback during your start-of-term course introduction is a powerful way to increase student buy-in, reduce anxiety, and build excitement. Start by performing a quick inventory to identify the readings, assessments, and policies that students tend to resist, and focus on those. For example, some students find the idea of my Shakespeare class’s final group project—preparing and performing a scene—so daunting that they consider dropping the class before it even begins. I can try to reassure them (“You’re not graded on your acting!” “We’ll all be comfortable with one another by then!”), but that’s just lip service compared to comments from previous students:

“When DeWall handed out her syllabus, I was terrified about the acting final. But then it turned out to be so much fun that we decided to perform it again outside of class for my water polo teammates.”

“Having to actually speak Shakespeare’s language in the acting project was really intimidating at first, but we got the hang of it. It was so much better than doing another boring exam at the end of the semester.”

Our two-semester composition sequence is often a tough sell, so I like to foreground a stock character, the Reluctant Convert, who often appears in that course’s evals: 

“I was pretty mad when I found out I had to take two composition classes, but now I think my writing is a lot better and will lead to better grades in other classes during college.”

“I got placed in this class by my advisor, and at first I didn’t get why I was there. I do feel like I know how to read a lot better at the end than I did at the beginning.”

Lean in, but don’t belabor, of course. We’re not going for “I will now present a systematic review of 15 years of student evaluation data, taken from my application for full professor” here. Usually, a slight shift in phrasing or small tweak to your opening spiel is all that’s required: “I’ve scheduled our longest reading assignments over weekends” becomes “Students indicated in last semester’s evals that some reading assignments felt overwhelming; as a result, I’ve scheduled our longest readings over weekends”; “Let’s submit weekly assignments by midnight on Fridays” becomes “Former students have mentioned in their course evaluations that maintaining consistent deadlines reduces stress and helps with time management, so let’s submit weekly assignments by midnight on Fridays.” No heavy lifting.

Recruit an SETs buddy

When my son was an infant, I regularly called my brother, a psychologist, to lament my most recent parenting fails. “Be careful, Nick, about the stories you’re telling yourself,” he would say, tenderly. “Your brain will believe them.” 

What stories do you spin when you read your student evaluations? Here are some classics from my brain’s library: The Imposter, Shakespeare Is Irrelevant, and Kids These Days Just Don’t Get It. Turns out, I’m not the most reliable narrator. That’s why I often outsource the task to a trusted colleague—a friend from grad school—who, conveniently, needs an impartial storyteller sometimes too. 

Like many rituals between old friends, our semesterly meetings sprung up serendipitously. Winter break, 2008, just months after we’d both finished our first semesters of full-time teaching: “You have any New Year’s resolutions?” I asked her over the phone. “Yup. To finally read my evals from last semester,” she joked (but in her voice: fear). “You want me to make a first pass through them?” I offered. “Really . . . ?” she asked. Pause. “Wow. That would be amazing.” A tradition was born.

In the early days, our goal for these meetings was simple: to identify which aspects of our student evaluations we needed to address in our annual reviews, so those considerations became our template (“If I were you, here’s what I would write about this time around . . .”). I was her pattern spotter, troubleshooter, and tallier, and she was mine. We curated, distilled, and recalibrated. Together, we attempted to give shape to the “sprawling, amorphous blob of data,” as she called it, that threatened to ooze over the margins of our institutions’ evaluation reports and into our lives.

My immediate takeaway from these conversations? Man, was my perception distorted. For someone who spends much of her life encouraging students to read carefully, I was doing a lousy job of it myself. One-off negative comments about class trips to the theater eclipsed the many positive ones. Constructive feedback about a lesson on Shakespeare’s sonnets had me vowing to discard it all together rather than refine it accordingly. Even my students’ complaints about the inhumanity of 8:00 a.m. classes felt strangely personal. I’d been at my new institution just long enough to know that student evaluations mattered. And during those anxiety-fueled early days of teaching, my exhausted brain just wouldn’t allow me to see clearly. The stakes felt way too high.

So, my colleague and I became each other’s gentle critics, champions, and comrades. When her scores on “This instructor provides timely feedback” dipped slightly, I urged her to practice self-compassion: “Your father was in hospice, and you had two toddlers at home. Be gentle with yourself.” When students resisted the just-in-time teaching approach I’d implemented in my upper-level courses, she encouraged me to stay the course: “Students often resist a shift to more active learning strategies. Maybe you could be more explicit about why you think this strategy is worth it? Let’s brainstorm.” When I became indignant about how many students mentioned my pregnancies (“Ugh! Why does everyone think pregnant bodies are fair game?”), she talked me down: “You’re right, it’s probably inappropriate. But look closely at the nature of these comments. Notice how encouraging and supportive they are? One even suggested a few baby names for you to consider! Let’s focus on that.”

We also laughed. A lot. We held contests for best humble brag (“What bugged me most was how the course was specifically designed so that you couldn’t get an A without doing the readings”) and most absurd comment (“The girl in front of me always played with her hair during class, and it was gross”). We mourned the students we’d failed to reach and celebrated the small victories that kept us going. An unexpected bonus of reviewing my colleague’s evaluations? They confirmed that she was, indeed, the teacher I’d always imagined she was: kind, dedicated, and wickedly funny. Compassionate and rigorous. The real deal.

Could I have figured all this out on my own? Of course. We have no shortage of how-to guides that offer methodical systems for processing student evaluations, systems that aim to neutralize their charge, sand down their sharp edges, cool their heat. I often find these guides incredibly useful. 

But not always. “C’mon. Be a grown-up. It’s just data, after all,” some seem to whisper. Those of us who struggle must be hacks, as though our reluctance to read anonymous feedback from students is an indictment of our professionalism rather than of our employers’ overreliance on a flawed instrument. The mixed messages alone are disorienting: “Exude passion in your teaching! (But approach evaluations of your teaching dispassionately!)”; “Make personal connections with your students! (But don’t take your students’ feedback personally!)”; “Never let explicit or implicit bias go unchecked in your classroom! (But ignore both in your SETs!).” To double business bound. These guides strive to make crisp, orderly Mozart sonatinas out of an experience that feels more like Schoenberg’s symphonies: dissonant, jarring, and usually infuriating.

Which is why a little help from a friend never hurts. These days, our once-a-semester meetings—now on Zoom, of course!—look markedly different. We’re both settled into the middle stretches of our teaching careers and review each other’s SETs only upon request. With time, we’ve gained perspective. Wisdom, even. Last semester, we discussed teaching for a little while before moving on to family vacation reports and updates on our newest hobbies (cycling for her, guitar for me). And we continued to laugh. A lot. 

Express gratitude

If you’ve received course-related funding from your institution, cherry-pick some comments from your evals to include in your thank-you email. Here’s a model:

Dear Provost Smith,

Thank you for funding my Shakespeare class’s trip to the St. Louis Rep’s production of Hamlet earlier this semester. These entries from my end-of-term evaluations illustrate what a high-impact experience this outing was for our students: 

“Reading Shakespeare in class is fun, but actually seeing it performed on a stage really made it come to life. I think I might go to another Shakespeare play on my own some day.”

“As a theater student, this trip into St. Louis really made my whole semester. I benefited from seeing all aspects of this professional production, from lighting to blocking to the curtain call. I really loved the acting and the sets.”

Again, we really appreciated the opportunity to attend this production. 

With gratitude,

Nichole

Refer to this email next time you request funding (“As you remember from my students’ comments about Hamlet last semester, these outings to the St. Louis Repertory Theatre are so beneficial for my Shakespeare students”). 

By the way, if your students have written positive things about, say, your colleague’s guest lecture or your research librarian’s assistance, feel free to cut and paste some of those comments into an email and send them off. Like my mom used to say, “Don’t keep your thanks in the bank. Spend it.” Your message might be just the boost your fellow academics need after a long semester.


Nichole DeWall, PhD, is a professor of English at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, where she teaches Shakespeare, medieval and early modern literature, drama, and composition courses.