Consider Kinder Evaluations

Too often, employee evaluations coddle or reflect grudges; done well, they should activate potential and reduce deficits, writes Maria Shine Stewart.

June 13, 2014

Take out your deflector shield, those about to be evaluated. Go right for the jugular, raters everywhere. Just kidding, of course.

And yet: When you hear the word “evaluation,” do you think: “contention”? Or “this could be good for all involved”?

There is little that is funny about evaluations; they can be stressful, with promotions, GPAs and careers on the line. If you have been on the receiving end of unfair evaluation, you may still feel aftershocks. If your assessment acumen has been challenged, you may likewise be reeling. Most agree we should avoid extremes of grade inflation (cupcakes for everyone!) and grade inflammation (intimidating others into better performance or forcing them out).

If evaluation can help nudge growth, activate potential and genuinely reduce deficits, it can be kinder and more effective. Conversely, if assessment is an outlet for grudges or vague impressions (or a lovefest, for that matter), it isn’t helpful.

  1. Use a sound instrument.

Pretty fundamental is the rating instrument. Yet I have heard students and faculty alike lament that they did not understand criteria for evaluation. It’s not “rigging the game” to have this information. And if an instrument has changed – let’s say for end-of-course evaluations – it’s good to know early. Testing and measurement principles stress that validity and reliability are essential. Is the tool measuring what it is purported to measure? And consistently?

At one school where I taught, a nationally normed instrument was adopted, and – wisely – the department offered sessions to explain how it differed from the former tool. That helped.

  1. Know your rater/ratee.

I believe there is truth to the “judger” and “perceiver” types of the Myers-Briggs continuum.  Some people, both evaluating and being evaluated, gravitate to process first, then find their way to an end point. Think: Inductive process. Others in either role “keep their eyes on the prize” while paving a path there, more of a deductive approach Furthermore, some people are deeply discouraged by low ratings, whereas others may find them motivating.

Other factors: “So-and-so doesn’t like us to put in too-high scores” or: “I don’t believe in giving all 1s (highest rating).”

Make sure the instrument is not only sound (well-tuned, to use a metaphor); stay attuned to all humans involved.

  1. Evaluation duet – it’s mutual.

Effective evaluation can be a prelude to a better work life, not the finale. In an alt-ac position, I appreciated two-part evaluation forms that allowed me to reflect in tandem with my supervisor. In face-to-face meetings, I valued any common ground. Differences can pave the way for fruitful discussion if both parties reduce defensiveness. I remember one supervisor saying, “it’s not that you can’t do that; it’s that I’m having trouble letting go of it.”  

So much in academia depends on collaboration. Evaluators might observe (even ask) if the assessment itself is a beneficial, motivating process.

  1. Evaluate at an opportune time.

Have you been at the mercy of an evaluator who deferred performance review? (Supervisors: Make time.) Were you observed at a stuck point? (Admit this.) Were you evaluated too late to change? (Speak up.) There will never be a perfect time, even after 10,000 hours invested in mastering your field. Waiting too long is as distressing as American Idol-style instant feedback. Results should be delivered promptly.

Teachers mired in or putting off grading might acknowledge the possibility of raters’ block. What holds you back? Own the struggle; self-evaluate; move forward.

  1. Acknowledge ambiguity.

I taught an intensive two-week course meant to accelerate English placement. A dedicated student (always present and attentive) performed worse on the post-test than her initial, pre-course score, and her portfolio was not approved by raters. The student lacked software at home for catching errors and seemed overwhelmed as the course concluded. She helped me see, once again, the important role of pacing in learning. “Trying very hard” is a legitimate feeling but can’t guarantee a passing grade – in a course, job, relationship or life. A learning curve is unique no matter how the task is designed; if possible, allow for individual differences, especially in a remediation plan.

  1. Consider personal history.

Does your past haunt you? Early on, I decided it was not good to get a “B.” Such perfectionism did not come from my parents – rather, an inner demon. (I likewise tore up my childhood drawings—while drawing.) By college, I almost talked myself down from the ledge of perfectionism, which can be self-destructive. Yet, when one of my undergraduate professors wrote B+ on an essay, I did have to restrain myself from questioning it. I thought I was over that – even accepting a “D” the first day of driver’s ed. “Progress, not perfection,” an AA adage.

  1. Avoid worst practices.

With something high-stakes, things can go wrong. Consider the fallout of not cooling down when disappointed. It is agonizing to deal with shouting, tears or venom. A devastated colleague wanted to quit teaching after seeing harsh comments. She hit “pause,” not “stop,” on reflection.

Pursuing ulterior motives. If evaluating is skewed to “justify” layoffs, that is bad practice.  

Lack of prioritizing. Everything can’t be brilliant or terrible. Specificity counts, so avoid broad-brush feedback. Balance helps, too.

  1. Project goodwill.

We take advice better from people we trust and respect. “Oh, he always finds fault,” I heard, then flashed back to terror at showing the first draft of my master’s essay to my adviser, due to rumors. Yet his stance was encouraging, giving me room to drive myself.

Evaluations need not elicit elation or disappointment. If a dialogue has begun, it can deepen. Helping others understand what is on the table can bridge communication; goodwill is not coddling and at best is mutual.

  1. Acknowledge creativity.

A librarian suggested we create a symbol for initiative or creativity. For example, a “B” essay with vivid insights could be “B” with a squiggle or asterisk . “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” Emily Dickinson wrote. For me, stellar performance defies even similes. One student voluntarily handed in two papers, “an extra one I just felt like writing …” Inspiration deserves sincere acknowledgement, on campus or off.


Maria Shine Stewart is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct lecturer in writing.


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