Evaluating Student Evaluations

Prior to the pandemic, I was a big believer of conducting student evaluations in every class and during every semester. I wrote a post about this a bunch of years ago and compared the practice to stepping on a scale everyday. I was on a big dieting kick for a while and weighed myself everyday. I read somewhere that the accountability process of stepping on a scale daily can help dieters stay on target with their goals. I felt the same could be applied to the process of conducting regular student evaluations. By getting student feedback every semester, I argued, instructors could better monitor the changes in how students respond to their teaching and could better address them in subsequent semesters.

That was my practice until the pandemic started. When we were teaching remotely, I didn’t opt to do student evaluations. I felt so much of the teaching and learning processes were outside of my control that I wondered what the data could tell me. At least that’s how I convinced myself to stop doing student evaluations for the last two years.

Here we are in Fall 2022 and I’m up for my five-year review this year. As part of my review, I have to conduct student evaluations in all of my fall classes. Like the person who hasn’t stepped on their bathroom scale for a while, I’ve been pretty hesitant to see what the numbers might look like. Since it’s been so long since I’ve collected student evaluations, I worried that the data might show huge areas for growth. I’m not really worried that I’d lose my job or that I’d get a negative review from the administration or anything. More than anything, I worried that the data would communicate that I wasn’t supporting my students as much I should.

Through a technical glitch, I’ve already received the student evaluations for one of the classes. Every semester, I teach a seven-week graduate course that all of the students in one MEd program are required to take. Since the class ended a couple of weeks ago, the evaluation data was emailed to me last week. I held my breath for a second as I opened the attachments and saw the evaluation averages.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember a post I wrote where I discussed in great detail how I emotionally and professionally navigated the low student evaluations I received in Fall 2016. I wrote at the time that “seeing these low scores in print was definitely a bitter pill to swallow.” Unlike those low scores, however, the scores from my class this semester were great. Beyond the positive evaluation scores, the students also left really positive comments. One student commented that I was a “helpful instructor” while another wrote “Ollie is attentive to his students’ needs.”

It’s funny. When I received those low scores a bunch of years ago, it set me into a tailspin. After working through the emotions for twenty-four hours, I got to work on making improvements and addressing the students’ concerns. This semester, I read the student evaluations and comments and dismissed them. Not that they weren’t relevant or that students’ impressions weren’t valuable or anything. I just wasn’t prepared for the positive results and then, I came up with false narratives for why they could be positive or why they could be quickly dismissed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d prefer to get positive student evaluations. I just wish my internal critic could accept the positive results as easily as they accept the negative ones.

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