Monday, March 24, 2014

How to Improve Your Student Evaluations

I have taught college classes for thirty-five years.  Yikes.  I like to think I have learned a few things in that time.  One of these days I'll write it all down (and like a good academic, provide theoretical and evidence based support for it).  But today I'll focus on anecdotal data.

When I came to my current position, I was told that I had to earn 4.6 or higher on my student evaluations to advance professionally.  I had always gotten 4.4 to 4.5 or so, and thought that was pretty good.  Certainly I wasn't expected to be perfect!  Yet some of our professors did get 5s, rather frequently. I balked at this like everyone else, but took on the challenge eventually--not willingly, but having to.  I did a lot of reading about the subject, although I doubt anyone could really read the volumes on it.  Five years ago I read a meta-analysis published in the late '90s on the subject, and at that time there were 3,000 academic articles on the subject.  I read 30, 1%, and thought that was enough!  Obviously, faculty and administrators have a lot to say about student evaluations, pro and con.

Next week I have to turn in my portfolio for performance evaluation, and I had not looked at my evaluations from the fall.  Ours are done online, so I just had to do a few clicks to find it.  I had put it off because (a) I am extraordinarily busy with doctoral work and teaching five classes and (b) I did not have a good semester with a couple of classes and just didn't want to face the music.  But, since I had to look at them to finish out the portfolio, I finally did last Friday.  Happily, they were pretty good.  Over the year period of January to December 2013, I had taught fourteen classes (yes, summer and overload) and the average, was 4.78.  Not too bad.  I had two 5s, 3 4.9s, and assorted other grades.  The lowest was 4.3, which was not surprising for that class. 

Since coming to this institution, I have managed to achieve the 4.6 or higher, but not without work.  So here are some thoughts about what I did to improve.

1.  The smaller the class, for me, the better, because I can provide more individual attention to students.  This is not always true, because if you have ten students in a class and 1 of them is incredibly unhappy with you, it will skew the averages.
2.  Smile.
3.  Be approachable.  What does this vague adjective mean?  See #2 when a student comes up to you, and put off saying no to a request until after you explain why. Fairness to other students is a good reason, versus your own convenience.  In other words, "If I give you extra time on this assignment, that is not fair to the students who have worked hard to get it in on time," vs.  "I don't want to grade your late work."
4.  Be in your office when you are supposed to be.
5.  Answer your emails.  I am masterful at this, truly.  At least give them a time frame and an idea of when you won't (like Sundays).
6.  Try not to teach first semester freshmen.  They are (a) enthralled with the idea that they can evaluate their teachers and (b) don't have a frame of reference for what they are looking for.  They may think it's acceptable to play with their cell phones in class or that the teacher should return emails within an hour.  I have found that second semester and further on students get it.
7.  Start class on time.  Many professors think the students just want to get out early; well, they do, but if you are holding them past time because you showed up ten minutes late, that's not right.
8.  Have policies in writing and enforce them uniformly.
9.  Be strict, no-nonsense, and by-the-book the first month or two of the semester, and then lighten up.  This way, the slackers will drop the class early on, and the serious students will stick around.  Then, when the student have to fill out the evaluations in the last three weeks of the semester, they have seen your lighter side, have forgotten the harsh side, and only the serious ones will be evaluating you anyway.
10.  Turn work back within a week, as much as possible.  Feedback that takes longer than that really won't help their learning.
11.  Be self-reflective about whether you treat certain types of students better than others.  Males vs. females; nontrads vs. trads; slackers vs. serious. 
12.  Accept that the students have an opinion.  Although most of us believe that student evaluations are a limited, indirect form of assessment, they aren't going away.  The students are not clueless about how they learn and how you conduct the class.  They have a different perspective, that's all. 
13.  Train your students to complete the evaluation. For example, one of our items is "did the teacher let you ask questions."  Point out to them when you are letting them ask questions.  I even say, "Later you are going to evaluate the class (not me) and one of the questions is, did she let you ask questions.  Well, I am, right now."
14.  Regularly give the students a sense of where you are in the class, what's coming up due.  This will require some repetition but it works.
15.  Finally, if you get 100 good comments and one crappy one, don't get all jacked out of shape about it.  One student from last semester said I was "a horrible teacher" "who did nothing but talk about herself. "  I can say, "What an idiot" or let it slide, conclude that that student was having a bad day, was hearing something no one else was hearing, had trouble with female authority, didn't think any self-disclosure was appropriate, etc.  I can't help but wonder what led to that comment, but it's not keeping me up late.  I would hope that after 35 years of doing this that one complaint would not derail me.

Notice that none of these things I have written here have anything to do with dumbing down the class, totally abandoning lectures, providing study guides for tests, flipping the classroom, using student response systems, what you do the first day, letting them get into groups, etc.  I am all for those things (well, not the first), but each of us approaches teaching in our own way.  I am getting a doctorate in Adult Education and my dissertation is about faculty development, and I ran a Teaching and Learning Center for three years, so I'm pretty well read on this subject.  Lecturing a lot works for some, not for others.  Clickers are great for big classes.

We have to respect how each of us teaches but at the same time be reflective about our prejudices toward teaching.  I have learned from my research that many of us teach the way we were taught and the methods by which we learn.  That's not a complete way to approach what we do.

I am reading The Courage to Teach and being truly blessed by it.