The Agony and the Ecstasy: Reading Your Student Evaluations

04.03_agony-and-ecstasy-of-reading-student-evaluations

A junior colleague asked me whether teaching for many years made me thicker skinned. They wondered whether reading student evaluations gets easier with time.

I was reminded of an essay by Stephen Marche (2023) on writers and the reviews they receive. Marche recounts the author Philip Roth’s response to the question of time making one immune to criticism. Roth’s answer was contrary to expectations. His take? The more books you write, the thinner your skin gets. “It’ll get thinner and thinner until they can hold you up to the light and see through.”

That’s disturbing. And I don’t think it’s true for teaching.


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A junior colleague asked me whether teaching for many years made me thicker skinned. They wondered whether reading student evaluations gets easier with time.

I was reminded of an essay by Stephen Marche (2023) on writers and the reviews they receive. Marche recounts the author Philip Roth’s response to the question of time making one immune to criticism. Roth’s answer was contrary to expectations. His take? The more books you write, the thinner your skin gets. “It’ll get thinner and thinner until they can hold you up to the light and see through.”

That’s disturbing. And I don’t think it’s true for teaching.

Take solace in this

Most teachers experience emotional reactions to their student evaluations. Many of those reactions are negative.

There are few realms of life where criticism does not rankle or at least minorly irritate. Nearly every hard-working teacher I know experiences a smidgeon of dread when it comes time to open student evaluations. Part of the problem is that at too many colleges and universities, just about everything rides on that one number. The evaluation of a semester’s effort—condensed down to one average. One number with a range of written comments from those either thrilled or ticked-off enough with you to take the effort to write something or complete the survey in the first place.

Even if you work at a sensible college that uses a variety of materials to measure effective teaching (self-reflection, number of students hitting student learning outcomes, peer observation and evaluation), that one number and the comments associated with it have the power to change your day (or week or career).

So remember this: while student evaluations are the most common strategy of evaluation, they are not sufficient to provide a complete evaluation of teaching by themselves. Even numerical measures of teaching vary in validity and reliability. The written comments that accompany such measures are also likely to be influenced by a number of factors, such as student grades. For a great summary of the problem with evaluations and how to interpret them, see Boysen (2016). For an even broader view of evaluating teaching, see Gurung (2022). 

Taking it personally

It is hard not to take student evaluations personally. It does not matter that students may not know what good teaching is. It does not matter that we rarely talk to students about how to do evaluations, what to reflect on, and how to separate the instructor from the content, the course design, and other key components of the teaching-learning collaboration. It is human to take the negative comments at face value.

Very often student comments can be bold and abrasive. Even if a comment is civil, lacking offensive language and name calling (I’ve heard it happen), it can still cut to the core. I remember one evaluation I received after many years of teaching. It was brief. It was brutal. “Gurung is nice and easy and I learned nothing.”

That smarted. Nice is nice. I would rather be challenging than easy. But “learned nothing”? Yes, I felt bad for a while. Even reading the many positive comments barely helped. Many teachers cannot help but focus on the one negative comment, even if it is the only one in a sea of praise. You can be the best and worst teacher ever in the same set of evaluations. I think that can be adaptive if it motivates you to look for places to change. It can be devastating if you let it eat at you over time.

In most cases, the experience of reading student evaluations of teaching does get easier over time. You get used to patterns and student response styles. In many ways the experience stays the same: the good comments make you smile; the negative comments make you grimace. In some cases, another slew of negative comments, even after many years, will still make you want to just give up. But don’t let them win.

Some notes on timing

Time and timing have many roles to play in reading evaluations. There are good times and bad times for confronting them. Do not read evaluations if you have had a hard day, if you have been stressed, if you are sick, or if you are not well rested. I always read evaluations first thing in the morning. Yes, it could mean I am distracted by some comments for the rest of the day, but it also means I am rested enough to cognitively cope better. You need bandwidth to consider a comment’s different possible meanings. Find a time and place that works best for you.

I suggest reading your evaluations as soon as you can. Only when you read your evaluations for a class are you truly done with it. Proximity to the end of the class not only will help you better contextualize written comments relating to specific elements of the class (Did I really rush the last week?) but may also help you to make needed modifications to the course for the next time you teach it. As much as you may want and need to take a big break from the rigors and fatigue that often accompany the semester’s end, the sooner you make any changes suggested by on-point comments, the less likely you are to forget and encounter the same comment again.

Time also factors into how long you feel the effects of reading evaluations. It is wonderful to bask in the glow of positive comments for weeks. It is normal to feel bad for a day or a few days. The longer one teaches, the quicker the negative feelings dissipate, but there is still some pain. It has little to do with your self-esteem. Research done on those with high self-esteem shows that even high self-esteem individuals feel down in response to perceived failure. Have faith in your strengths as a teacher. All teachers have strengths, and we just need to recognize them and should always work on building them.

Alleviating the stress

Psychological research on coping with stress shows there are active coping styles, where you approach the stressor, and avoidant coping styles, where you work to escape your emotions. Avoiding pain sounds good but is often only useful in the short run. Consider my colleague who dealt with evaluations by dumping them in the recycling bin, unopened. He might’ve spared himself stress, but he missed out on a key opportunity to hear what he did well and know what he could work on. Here are ways to make the process easier:

Take heart

Offering counsel for fellow writers, James Baldwin’s wrote (in Marche, 2023; I changed write and writer to teach and teacher):

Teach. Find a way to keep alive and teach. If you are going to be a teacher there is nothing I can say to stop you. If you’re not going to be a teacher there is nothing I can say that will help you. Discipline, love, luck, but, most of all endurance.

Reference

Marche, S. (2023, February 26). The better you write, the more you will fail. The New York Times Book Review, 23.


Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.