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Teaching Students to Evaluate Us Better

Advice for soliciting constructive feedback from your students.

October 1, 2015

Madeleine Elfenbein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She tweets @maddy_e.


I’ll admit it: I like my students, and I want them to like me, too. Such is the humiliating plight of just about every grad instructor, adjunct, and professor I know. Our professional pride -- and, for many, our professional survival -- now hinges in part on what our students have to say about us at the end of the term. The reason they get asked, and the reason we listen, is that they know something we don’t. As the chief witnesses to our teaching, our students are often better equipped than anyone else, including ourselves, to know how we’re doing and what we can do better.

Alas, when the vessels of this precious knowledge sit down to fill out their end-of-course surveys, far too few of them realize they are performing a sacrament of university life. Based on the evaluations I’ve read (of other instructors, naturally), students are shockingly cavalier in the opinions they express, and the results don’t amount to much. On the whole, student evaluations are a notoriously poor gauge of "teaching effectiveness," and they reflect some of the ugliest parts of university culture. Study after study finds that women, non-white instructors, and non-native English speakers have a harder time getting respect from students in these surveys. On top of all that, student evaluations show a depressing pattern of actually punishing instructors for their commitment to student learning and academic integrity. (Check it out here and here, and let the chills run down your spine.)

All this has led some to call student evaluations hopelessly biased, utterly useless, and even a dangerous “folly” that ought to be legally barred from use in hiring and promotion decisions. The practice of anonymous student surveys also has its thoughtful defenders, who offer some arguments I find compelling. Chief among them is the claim that while these surveys are deeply flawed instruments, they’re still one of the best tools we’ve got for improving our teaching.

Great, you say. But when much of the “feedback” we’re getting is petty, arbitrary, and downright unhelpful, how are we supposed to use it to refine our techniques? More thoughtful survey design would be a nice start. But another, more immediate fix is to train our students to do a better job of filling those forms out.  The sooner we can teach our students to write course evaluations that are fair and constructive, the sooner we can stop worrying about evals and start using them to help us teach our subjects.

Given the high stakes, it’s remarkable we don’t do this already. Perhaps we’re afraid that coaching students’ survey answers is like grade-grubbing. But we’re not asking to be flattered; we’re asking for feedback we can use. The fact is that we (mostly) hold ourselves to very high standards when it comes to providing fair and constructive feedback on our students’ work, and it’s time we asked our students to do the same for us. To that end, here’s what I plan to tell my students when eval season comes around:

  1. Student evaluations matter. They form a part of my permanent record as a university teacher. They will be read by other students and instructors, department heads, and hiring committees. They will be used to shape the curriculum at your university. Believe it or not, there’s a good chance that your replies to the prompts in course assessment surveys will be among the most widely read and influential prose of your college career.

  2. I use your evaluations to improve my teaching. Not only do I read every comment I get; I save them, sort them, and actually revise my teaching practices based on the lessons I draw from them.

  3. The most helpful feedback you can give me is specific and relevant to my teaching practices. Think about how it felt to be in the classroom with me, what you learned, and how I helped you learn it. I spent a lot of time on the design of this course; did I do a good job? Take a look at the goals we set out at the start and the degree of progress we made toward them. Were we too ambitious, or not ambitious enough? What can I do differently next time?

  4. Gendered praise doesn’t do me any favors. If I’m a man, don’t say I’m “the man.” If I’m a woman, do not call me “nice.” Your blandly gendered words of praise aren’t going to help me become a better teacher; nor are they going to help me get hired or promoted. If you liked my style, focus more on what I do than on who I am: praise my command of the subject, my enthusiasm, or whatever I did to make class worthwhile. If you didn’t like my style, give half a second’s thought to why. What specifically turned you off, how did it pose an obstacle to your learning, and how can I change my ‘tude to become a more effective teacher?

  5. Evaluate me the same way you want to be evaluated. When you sit down to write your impressions of me as a teacher, think about what merits inclusion and what’s better left out. Of course, when you think of me, you can’t help thinking of my entire person: my ethnicity, my bearing, my clothes and accent, my political sympathies, my whole backstory. These are things that follow me into every room I enter, and I know they must shape your encounter with me. But would you want me to weigh these things in my evaluations of your performance in this class? As you write your evaluation, bring your sense of fairness into play: even if you thought I wasn’t fair to you, see if you can find the fairest way to tell me that, and it will go a long way toward making me fairer.

  6. Writing evaluations is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s not the hardest thing you’ll do in college, but it’s not exactly easy, either. Doing it well requires a bit of forethought, a bit of careful reflection, and ten or twenty minutes of your focused attention. But know that if you do it well, you’ll be rendering a service to a whole lot of people: not just to me, but to the thousands of students who will sit through my classes in years to come. It might not be too grandiose to say that a fair and thoughtful course evaluation is a service rendered to the integrity of American university life as a whole. I certainly think that way when I sit down to assign your grade for this course. I’ll admit that, too.

How do you talk to your students about evaluations?

[Photo: “Surveys to Compile,” courtesy of Flickr user The Bees. Used under Creative Commons license BY-NC 2.0.]


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