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How to Deal With Negative Teaching Evaluations
February 9, 2014 - 9:14pm

Photo of fabric heart with pins stuck into itNatascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena

Let's face it, a bad review is like someone telling you you have an ugly baby. Whether it’s a nasty comment from a single student or a bad review overall, negative evaluations always hurt. Unfortunately, since coping with such comments can be challenging, many TAs stop reading their reviews after their first (and often mediocre) quarter of teaching. But shutting down is not a solution. No matter how awful things get, if you keep on teaching you have to try and improve, both for your own and your students’ sake.

I’ve been there myself; disappointed by my poor performance, angry at my students, utterly depressed and paralyzed at the thought of having to enter another classroom ever again. After my first quarter of teaching I had to make a choice between giving up teaching altogether and working my butt off to become a better teacher and improve those ratings along the way. I opted for the latter, and the second time round I passed the “test” with flying colors.

So what did I do and, more importantly, what can you do to deal with harsh and disheartening student evaluations?

  • First of all, don’t ignore them. Your students are trying to tell you something, even if they’re doing so in a hurtful and demoralizing way that, well, sucks. Look for patterns in students’ comments and for recurring criticism. Did you talk too fast? Did you not explain things well? Did you exclude certain students from the discussion? Did you just read out the lectures? Were you disrespectful of student ideas? Those are all things that you can work at.
  • When you’re ready, consider “studying” the evaluations with someone you trust. This could be a friend with substantial teaching experience or someone qualified at your school’s Office of Instructional Development. They can help you weed out irrelevant content, interpret comments that feel like personal attacks, and advise you on how to put the feedback to good use.
  • Do your homework. My first reflex after receiving those evals was to read every teaching guide I could get my hands on. I soon realized that due to my lack of experience (I was basically thrown into the classroom without any training) I made terrible mistakes I could have easily avoided. The two books I loved and recommend are  Curzan’s “First Day to Final Grade” and Lang’s “On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching.” They’re filled with very specific, practical advice, and they’re conversational and fun on top of it.
  • Talking about inexperience, negative student reviews are frequently a reflection of insufficient teacher training. If you want to or have to stick with teaching, seek out opportunities for further training. If your department doesn’t provide substantial training to prospective or current TAs, contact other related departments or contact your school’s Office of Instructional Development.
  • If the teaching evaluations are really bad, talk to your supervisor. They’ve (probably) observed you throughout the quarter, they are going to see the reviews anyway, and they might in fact have some useful feedback. If the supervisor-talk sounds too intimidating you could approach some other senior colleagues you trust.
  • Next time around, don’t wait for the boat to sink before grabbing the lifejacket. I’ve made a habit of requesting feedback at midterm to get a sense of what’s working and what I need to improve (remember: every class is unique, what worked great last term can be a huge failure this time round). Simply discussing with my students what is good, bad, and ugly and what we can change has made a difference in my evaluations, even when the change they want to see can’t be accommodated.
  • Know the facts. Research shows that student evaluations often are more positive in courses that are smaller rather than larger and elective rather than required. Also, evaluations are usually more positive in courses in which students tend to do well. If you’re teaching a particularly challenging subject, working your students to their full potential or if you’re a harsh (ok, fair) grader, chances are some students won’t be thrilled, no matter how good your teaching skills or how much you care.
  • Eliminate inappropriate comments. Most - if not all - universities have policies for dealing with inappropriate, abusive, or threatening student comments. University staff administering the evaluations will generally remove any comment that contains vulgar, defamatory, racist, pornographic, harassing, threatening, or abusive content before the evaluation reaches the instructor. What’s more, in universities that use an online evaluation system the forms are - in theory (and only in cases of misconduct) - traceable back to students, thus they tend not to make inappropriate comments in the first place. Generally speaking then, you shouldn’t have to deal with truly off remarks. If for any reason such comments do reach you, contact your university’s Office of Educational Assessment immediately. Whether you’re for or against them, evaluations do matter, and it’s important to keep an eye on them.

Finally, no matter what students say, remember that you are not a bad person. Call someone who loves you unconditionally and have them confirm that for you. And know that a lot of people have struggled to become accomplished and well-respected teachers. You aren’t a failure and you aren’t alone.

Have you ever received negative teaching evaluations? How did you deal with them? Do you have any advice for TAs tormented by demoralizing student comments?

[Image by Flickr user Lien C. Lau used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

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