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Teaching Tip: Soothing the Sting of Cruel Student Evaluations

December 12, 2014

prof2Reading students’ comments on end-of-term evaluations, or at sites like RateMyProfessors, can be depressing– even demoralizing. I would always wonder how after teaching 2 virtually identical sections of OM, one class of 35 students thought I was the best thing since sliced bread, while the second section thought I was toast! So I think it is understandable that some of us look only at the quantitative ratings; others skim the written section; and others have vowed to never again read the comments.  Here are a few  suggestions for soothing the sting from even the most hurtful student comments, from Faculty Focus (Dec. 8, 2014).

1. Dwell on the positive ones. Devote as much time to students’ positive comments as their negative ones. Remembering your teaching strengths can motivate you to continue presenting your course in the best way. These positive sentiments, often heart-warming and gratifying, will also help you maintain a positive outlook toward students. Resist the lure of the negative.

2. Read them with a friend. A more objective party can help you make sense of the comments because they’re not as personally invested in them.

3. Analyze the data. First, look for negative view outliers. In research, we would exclude them from our analyses. Categorize remarks to help identify themes will help you determine whether they warrant a response.

4. Let your critics be your gurus. We brood over negative comments because we suspect they may contain an element of truth. Treat them as an opportunity. “It’s easy to feel emotionally attacked,” says a Harvard lecturer, “but that doesn’t mean your critics don’t have a point.”

5. Be proactive, especially if these comments will be data used in P&T decisions. Take the time to provide explanations about any off-the-wall student complaints, so that your reviewers don’t draw their own conclusions.

Ultimately, we should all remember that, important as they are, student evaluations offer only one perspective on teaching. Thorough analysis of teaching effectiveness requires that each of us reflect on our classroom practices, assignments, syllabi, and look closely at what our students can do upon completion of our courses. The proof is in the pudding.

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