Several years ago, my doctor sat me down and gave me some harsh news. With my family history of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and strokes, he explained that it was likely I was heading down the same medical road that my parents and grandparents had. Each of those family members navigated difficult ailments before dying young. My doctor explained that to change the course of my family history I needed to eat better, get more active and lose weight. He challenged me to lose thirty pounds over the next year and to develop habits that could help me keep the weight off.
After meeting with my doctor, I started exercising regularly and eating better. I didn’t own a bathroom scale so, in order to chart my progress, I ordered one online. When the scale arrived and I unpacked it, a short pamphlet was included among the scale’s direction. It read something like, “Do you want one simple way to meet your weight loss goals? Weigh yourself everyday.” As I read the pamphlet, I thought maybe it was just a clever way to sell bathroom scales. Being a little skeptical of this “one simple way,” I did some online searches and found research to back its claims. So I adopted the habit. Three years later, I’m happy to report that I still weigh myself daily. More importantly, I lost more than thirty pounds and have been able to successfully keep it off.
I was reminded of this simple strategy recently in a discussion with a few junior faculty. One had recently received word that he had obtained tenure and commented that he was excited about never being forced to do student evaluations again. On our campus, student evaluations are optional for tenured faculty. Some tenured faculty choose to still have their students complete evaluations, but many do not. Most faculty recognize evaluations as being imperfect measures of their teaching and would choose to avoid them if they could. While I’ve written about the challenges with student evaluations in the past, I offered different advice to this soon-to-be-tenured colleague. Still do student evaluations. Every semester.
Since I received tenure five years ago, I’ve had my students complete evaluations on my teaching every single semester. Some are difficult to stomach (like the ones I wrote about last January). Overall, however, the evaluations help me stay focused on being student-centered and being accessible and responsive to student needs. The evaluations also provide a degree of self-accountability where I must open the envelope, stare at the numbers and make sense of them. In a lot of ways, it’s like standing on a bathroom scale.
When I stand on a bathroom scale each morning, I sometimes see numbers I don’t like. Maybe I had an extra piece of pizza (or two) while watching that football game. Or maybe I had cake and ice cream after dinner to celebrate my daughter’s birthday. Or maybe I skipped a few days at the gym and am seeing the return on my lack of investment. Seeing those numbers, however, motivates me to do better. They also help me focus on short-term goals and successes. String those together and they can lead to longer term ones.
And that’s what regularly completing students evaluations can do. Student evaluations can motivate us to stay focused on the short-term impacts of our work and remind us of our roles with students. Sure, sometimes we’ll receive evaluation numbers that we don’t like or agree with. But we can commit to doing better. Just like the bathroom scale, the evaluation data only mean things in context. They’re just one piece of data to examine. But they off a simple way to stay focused on our growth as teachers, both in the short term and the long term.