Faculty visits to a teaching center, like the one where I work, fall into a predictable pattern: before the semester starts, some faculty members will need a refresher or first lesson on how to navigate the institution’s learning management system. By midsemester, faculty members will reach out to talk about subjects like assessment design, engagement and giving students feedback. As finals approach, they often contact us to discuss their end-of-semester assessments and grading. And once the semester concludes, one topic always comes across my desk: evaluations.
Without fail, I will have at least four or five conversations, if not more, about these assessments. Sometimes the faculty member wants to have someone else look at the raw data and summarize the findings. Other times they may have questions about the results and want a colleague in a nonevaluative space with whom they can talk them over.
Often, however, faculty members will come into my office when the evaluation comments or data have not aligned with their expectations, or when the comments are aggressive or unkind. Teaching is a passionate field, and we as educators care not just about our subject matter but also about the human beings in front of us whom we are educating. It can be challenging, if not heartbreaking, to process negative feedback about a semester’s worth of work that we have put our time, energy and heart into.
I’ve seen this be true whether the unexpected feedback comes from a single student or from an entire class. Sometimes an instructor can receive positive evaluation from most of their students, but the comments of just one can be devastating. Those comments keep us awake at night, making us wonder what we could have done differently or how a student could have written something that comes across as being mean-spirited rather than constructive.
From my own personal experience as an educator, I know such statements can be debilitating and discouraging. When I first started teaching, I felt the insecurity and anxiety around evaluations even more, as I worried about whether this kind of feedback would result in me losing my position as a contingent, adjunct faculty member. A student telling me that they wish they had never taken my class made me wonder how I had failed so badly at doing my job for that person.
We know, too, that bias exists in teaching evaluations. That bias tends to affect minority faculty members and women especially, who, in many cases, are also having students challenge their authority in their classrooms. It makes us wonder, then, what is the goal of using teaching evaluations. Is it reflection upon the learning that has occurred in the classroom, or is it the perception of the faculty member’s character or personality by their students?
In a recent article, Len Gutkin references the initial purpose of student evaluations and notes that they were intended for faculty members’ self-reflection and “pedagogical improvement” rather than as a measure used for personnel decisions. He’s not alone in this questioning of the usage of evaluations with known flaws. Many faculty members with whom I’ve worked have struggled with whether and how to implement them in their classes.
But whatever your feelings about student evaluations may be, many of you will find those forms waiting in your mailbox within the next few days or weeks. You can just ignore them, or you can take some positive steps to ensure that they will push you forward in your teaching.
When faculty come to talk to me about their evaluations, they almost always focus on the negative comments they have received. But what about the other comments—the ones that are insightful or supportive? Often, if those comments are specific enough, we might revise aspects of our courses, given the time and space to do so. During the gap between fall and spring semesters, however, that can be especially challenging, as we usually have barely enough time to catch up on sleep and responsibilities both in and outside the workplace.
That’s where our work shifts from being student centered to being, as Lindsay Masland would call it, being unapologetically teacher centered. For us to be our best for our students, Masland argues that we need to first put ourselves at the center of the work we’re doing, for only then will we be fully able to put students at the center of our teaching. That philosophy goes along with the concept of radical grace that Candice Price and Milos Savic describe in their book of the same name, only with the focal point being on faculty first and then on students. As they write, “Sometimes grace looks like care … [and] sometimes grace looks like the opportunity to share who you are as a whole person.”
The real question then is, what are ways that we can both care about ourselves as educators and receive the benefits of the reflection that might be inspired by our teaching evaluations? Here are a few answers.
- Lean into your values. Recently I attended a session that Masland co-presented with Jordan Troisi at the Professional and Organizational Developers Network called “Cultivating an Ethos of Care in Your Center.” The session was geared toward faculty and educational developers, as many folks who work in teaching centers also hold a teaching role. Masland and Troisi asked us to reflect upon our values as educators that we hope to bring into our classrooms. For example, if kindness is one of our values, we would probably review our course documents, such as our syllabi, to ensure that the language we are using in our course reflects a pedagogy of kindness.
You can use the same approach of comparing your values to the information that you receive from your evaluations. Reflect upon how student feedback from this past semester connects with your courses or how that connection might be strengthened. Do your values match with what students are saying about your classes, or do you need to do some adjusting? In yoga, we might attempt a position but need to make physical adjustments to get that position just right. The same goes for teaching—sometimes we need to pivot slightly for the value to stick to the teaching mat.
One example could be group work in our classes. Perhaps students say in your evaluation that they don’t see the point of completing work in groups and don’t enjoy working with the same group for the entire semester. To adjust, you could explain to students at the beginning of the course why you value group work and, taking their feedback into consideration, vary the groups they work with throughout the semester.
- Keep a jar of affirmations. Last year was one of jars for me. I gifted our Center for Teaching Excellence with a sorry jar, meant to highlight the unnecessary usage of that term. If a colleague apologizes for not responding to an email right away or for arriving one minute late to a meeting—in short, apologizes needlessly—they must donate to the jar. And that donation needn’t be monetary. In fact, I encourage folks to donate positive comments about their colleagues or themselves to the jar instead.
On the same note, when was the last time that you’ve captured the moments that brought you joy or inspired you? I know that, until writing this article, I never had. I’m guilty of focusing on the anxiety-inducing parts of my job and not acknowledging all the moments when I have positively impacted others.
Let’s not take those moments for granted in 2024. Let’s gather them, write them down or copy and paste them and keep them handy in paper form. Let’s get a clear mason jar and continue to stuff it throughout the year. And let’s take time to pull and read from it as necessary, too. That will inspire us for the start of our next semester and provide support for those times when we need reminding of how valued we are.
- Don’t walk—instead, run to your teaching center. Teaching centers are central places of support for faculty to process their evaluations. Your teaching center will help you contextualize your student evaluations and can also let you know about any trends that they are seeing campuswide. They can help you reframe the negative and reflect upon the positive.
Often, I will hear faculty members express relief upon discovering that they are not the only ones experiencing lower student evaluation scores or similar types of feedback. As we are a nonevaluative space on campus, many of our faculty members feel more comfortable talking about their evaluation worries with us, so we are accustomed to working through these kinds of conversations. Thus, we tend to have a pulse on what the trends are across campus, which is information that the average faculty member probably doesn’t have.
In conclusion, as you approach the start of another new semester, think about ways that you can change your reflection routine. Rather than just focusing on the negative, contemplate how to concentrate on and identify what should be included in your own teaching jar for 2024. Make a resolution in the new year not only to make improvements to your teaching but also to recognize the positive teaching qualities that you already have—and that others recognize, too.