The psychology of teaching evaluations

It’s well known that academics tend to overemphasize the negative in teaching evaluations. Despite the oft-heard good advice to throw out the outliers, the majority of us seem to fixate on the harsher comments. I’m no exception — I always find teaching evaluations somehow inherently upsetting, even though they’ve always been favorable overall.

Why is this? What is it about teaching evaluations that gets to so many of us? It can’t only be the disproportionate emphasis put on evaluations in many contingent employment situations, though it is surely partly that (or the memory of that) — tenured full professors often feel the same way. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that the only people who don’t feel this way at all are those who have decided to stop paying attention to teaching evaluations altogether.

Any thoughts, readers?

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13 Responses to “The psychology of teaching evaluations”

  1. Brennan Breed Says:

    Anyone who has made it far enough in a PhD program to have their own teaching evaluations has also probably received little in the way of absurdly negative feedback (at least that had to be taken seriously). I knew people who were
    deeply worried over very minor feedback from professors, and of course that criticism was usually fairly well thought out and from a generally respectable source. Reader reports can be similar- even scathing reports are from someone who ostensibly knows what they are doing. So to go from that to having basically uninformed and often unmotivated people (usually the worst comments are from the least motivated students) say nonsensical things Ina crude way- and to have to take this all very seriously, since it affects our chances for emoyment or tenure- it takes a bit to get used to that, at least for me.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I’ve encountered this same tendency when clinical psychology students receive feedback from clinical supervisors. I’ve come to realize that people, for some reason, just assume that positive feedback is somehow “not real” or that the other person is simply being “nice”. People often completely discard all positive feedback and just chalk it up to student apathy or disinterest in giving feedback. Nobody ever considers the fact that negative feedback might be equally bullshit, and that the person giving the feedback might just be constitutionally disgruntled. I also think that people assume that the baseline for evaluations is supposed to positive so this prevents the professor from even feeling good about positive reviews. Perhaps this is a product of a larger cultural phenomenon wherein niceness is celebrated as the utmost virtue. Of course, the problem is that when people are actually being honest with positive feedback, people have difficult believing this feedback to be genuine. Hence, the only thing we can really trust is negative, critical evaluations.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    What Jeremy said is clearly the right answer. I always assume that the positive comments are the students not wanting to hurt my feelings. Though I tend to get very positive comments. Still, I don’t remember those as much as the negative ones, which are far, far fewer.

    Interestingly enough, I have tried to change some of the weaknesses in my teaching, but it’s always been by way of self-criticism. I appreciate getting feedback from students, but it would be like a computer programmer asking me look over a website he did. I could talk about some things that are important, like usability (I suppose this would correlate in some way to “the professor talks quickly”), but other than that it’s really something outside of my understanding. Students, I think, are in the same position. They haven’t necessarily been doing this long enough to know what to suggest to make the class better and if there is a problem they might not even have the vocabulary to identify it well.

    Right now my biggest problem is formulating good discussion questions. I’m not the greatest at questions and, though I’m working on it, this has sometimes held back our discussion time (which is why I often rely on other things to get that going, like a clip or playing Devil’s advocate). But no student has ever recognized this fact on the evaluations, so I imagine they just are not able to.

  4. robotsdancingalone Says:

    We’re fragile creatures, really.

  5. Chris Rodkey Says:

    I’ve experimented with this. If I have a big chunk of the semester grade still up in the air in the last week of class, or lumped into a final that is due after the student eval period is over, students are reacting to uncertainty and anxiety, and also out of anger, on the evals. When most of the grade is wrapped up in the last week of class except for a final that may not be a tremendous difference in the grade, they are kinder and more likely to give feedback that approaches usefulness. I have also found the time of the day of the course has a lot to do with the kind of feedback that I get. Part of the ritual dance of semesters and quarters is completed when students get their grades, and I don’t think it makes sense for them to evaluate until it’s over. We often ask at the worst point of the semester to say, “how’s it going?”

  6. Malcolm Harris Says:

    No one likes to be graded, especially when it’s always arbitrary and significantly affects your job or life chances.

    As a student I always loved volunteering extra enthusiastically to take the evaluations to the office, that would freak em out every time.

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    I very much agree w/ what Brennan says. It certainly sounds like my experience. A significant portion of one’s time as a doctoral student is spent in isolation from the opinions & interests of others. You are inside your own head, as they say; up one’s own ass, others might add. You ask of others, “How is your dissertation coming along,” or “What are you writing on?” — but you don’t actually care; nor do you truly believe anybody else cares when they ask it of you. When teaching, though, either as an assistant or in the services of a real job with benefits, you’re faced suddenly with a confined array of personalities who suddenly do take a kind of interest of what’s inside your head, and who expect you to have some interest in what is going on inside theirs. It’s all quite terrifying, though I should expect it passes with time.

  8. Craig McFarlane Says:

    I delight in all the comments I receive–they’re usually hilarious and, quite often, have no basis in reality. “Best professor ever!” Doubtful. “Worst professor ever!” Equally doubtful. I made an offhand comment once in class that they were all, by definition, average. A student tried to disprove this claim on the evaluations by writing “1, 1, 1, 1, 5″. He then told me that the mean was 1.8, which clearly demonstrated that no one in the sample was average. For whatever reason, he failed to calculate the standard deviation.

  9. ben Says:

    The standard deviation is 1.78885.

  10. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    While not exactly on the topic of evaluations, I want to share one thing that I started doing two years ago and has definitely worked for me. On the first day of class, I give the students a very detailed syllabus that includes even minutia for the course, down to how to format homework and title attachments if sending something electronically. It gives all of the questions assigned for every homework and the topics for every essay. Basically, the students are given all of the “housekeeping” on the first day. After working through the syllabus, I ask if anyone wants to discuss making amendments to the syllabus. As democratically as possible, try to form a syllabus that works for everyone. Honestly, this seems to go quite well for me.

    About a month into the course, I ask the students how things are going: do we need to add more lecture time, more discussion time, use more video clips, cut back on homework, and all sorts of other things? I do this again in the last third of the course too.

    Then, two weeks before the end of the course, I ask students to have a discussion on what worked/didn’t work for the course. Students get to play off each other’s ideas and also my own. We discuss the texts used in the class, the format of the class, and the format of the assignments. My students have tended to be very open about their thoughts, which has helped me tailor my classes to benefit future students. It also provides me another chance to explain why we did the course the way we did and/or correct any misunderstandings.

    This whole process, I think, gives the students a sense of ownership in education, theirs and that of future students. It also still treats them as human beings rather than objectifying them as the standardized evualations do. [They still do the evaluations as well, but these are handled electronically between the admin and the students.]

  11. christopher Says:

    I am already expecting harsh feedback from my current set of students. I think at least part of it is because it is a for-profit university, and another part is that the students are unaware what merits ‘good’ grades. For example, in my first lecture, most of the students stated that they want the subject to be ‘relevant’ to their life today. A second statement of theirs was that the tests focused on material learnt in the course (I’m not sure what else can be on a test). Thirdly, more than a few of the students said flat out that they expect A’s in the course. One student was so bold as to email me explaining how the previous instructor ran the course and ‘suggesting’ I follow her (e.g. allow students to correct tests before final grade, tests were verbatim from questions she asked in class, tests are open book). I’ve discovered the ‘expected’ course syllabus provided by ‘Corporate HQ’ says the tests must be open book. I wish I was joking, but it looks like students see themselves as consumers who learn material by osmosis. I can’t wait to give them A’s on tests then curve the grade lower (not really but it’s a thought). More on topic, as the other Chris mentioned, instructors seem to be keen on the most minute pieces of negative evaluations because they have, just like the students, begun to imagine the university as a retail store where the consumer-student is the ultimate arbiter of truth.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I agree with Anthony that Jeremy’s explanation probably gets at the root of the problem — though surely the other factors mentioned in this thread only exacerbate that underlying issue.


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