We received our fall semester course evaluations on the first day of the spring semester. The timing seems akin to going to therapy with your ex-boyfriend immediately before setting out on a blind date with a potential new one. A strange analogy, but you get my point.
One of the things I love most about academic life is the promise of a fresh start. I spend a lot of time tweaking and analyzing my courses, but once they’re over, I relish the blank slate of each new semester. Teaching is much like the film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character repeats the same day over and over until he gets it right and wins the girl. But how do teachers know if we’ve gotten it right?
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article, it’s almost impossible to predict who will be an excellent teacher (he compares this to guessing which college quarterbacks will become great NFL players.) Yet it’s also difficult to discern who is an excellent teacher. One of the only ways that college teachers receive feedback on their teaching is through end-of-the-semester course evaluations.
Of course, the validity of student evaluations is hotly debated, with some faculty arguing that students are not qualified to judge faculty performance—and/or that professors who give high grades receive higher evaluations—while others claim that only students are uniquely qualified to judge the daily success of the class. There is research to support both sides of these debates. I’m inclined to agree with those who argue that student evaluations are one important way of judging teaching, but that they need to be used along with other methods. However, since evaluations are the most quantifiable method, they are overused as a form of assessment.
Nobody talks much about the experience of reading one’s student evaluations; we’re supposed to be indifferent to them. After all, we grade them, not vice versa. In full disclosure, I usually receive high student evaluations. Nevertheless, I find the experience of reading 150 anonymous comments about how well I do my job creepy and unsettling. What other professionals are evaluated (anonymously) by every person they encounter? As much as I uphold boundaries in the classroom, I am also very much myself—assigning texts I love, using my own humor and life experiences as examples. It’s frightening to be oneself in front of strangers, let alone be critiqued and have that feedback become part of one’s professional record.
Yet I find evaluations ultimately reassuring. My students are much more generous in judging my teaching than I am. What I remember about last semester are the times I wasn’t 100% focused, the essays I could have read more carefully, and the students I failed to engage. And yet I’ve rarely had students remember or comment on the things that I perceive as failures.
At best, student evaluations highlight an important reality of teaching: what the teacher experiences in the classroom is not what students experience. Students come to our courses with pre-existing theories and often our courses fail to overturn these ideas, an idea that is brilliantly captured in the video, A Private Universe. Students bring their own expectations, fears, and preoccupations to the class.
For example, I discovered that my stonily unresponsive morning literature class thought very highly of my teaching, even though their faces never showed it. And the class that bubbled over with energy and enthusiasm griped about my hard grading.
After 15 years of teaching college I’ve learned that my student evaluations do not necessarily correlate to the amount of preparation I do, or the topics I teach, or to the grades I give out. Which is not to suggest that these things do not matter or that I don’t put much effort into planning the perfect course. But student satisfaction seems to equate to what the educational researchers in Gladwell’s article defined (unhelpfully) as “withitness”: "a teacher's communicating to the [students] by her actual behavior (rather than by verbally announcing: 'I know what's going on').” I call this being profoundly present in the class.
So as I work to establish a relationship to these new strangers in my current courses, I try to remember that it’s less important that I do everything right than it is that I come to each class with my full attention, open to every possibility and willing to be surprised.