Learning From and Addressing Negative Comments in Student Teaching Evaluations

Learning From & Addressing Negative Comments in Student Teaching Evaluations

I think it’s safe to say that most math Ph.D.s do some teaching sometime in their lives. Even if one’s career path ends up being non-academic, it’s likely that a job as a teaching assistant happened sometime during grad school. If there was teaching, then there were student teaching evaluations passed out, collected, and eventually reviewed by the professor and his/her department chair. And whether we like it or not, student teaching evaluations are one of the instruments that are used to assess our teaching effectiveness.

Having now been in the classroom for almost 30 years (first T.A. assignment in 1985 and faculty appointment in 1992), I have had my share of bad comments on teaching evaluations and thought it would be a good idea to write about some of the most common student complaints and give some ideas for addressing them. I’ll group these into general themes, and provide solutions that have worked for me throughout the years.

Not providing students timely feedback on their work. e.g., “It took him forever to return our assignments.”
Students don’t like it when it takes us weeks to return their graded assignments. They want/need our timely feedback to be able to improve future assignments, quizzes, exams, etc. My solution here is easy: return graded assignments quickly. For my courses now, if an assignment is turned in on class day n, my goal is to grade it and return it on class day n+1. I don’t always succeed, but having this as a goal keeps me on task when it comes to grading. Also, let’s face it: grading stinks, so the sooner we get it done the sooner it stops looming over us.

Vague assignments or grading standards. e.g., “He never told us what he wanted on the assignments, and no matter what I tried, I kept getting Cs on my assignments.”
This tends to be less of an issue in math classes since our assignments, quizzes, exams, etc. are usually a collection of problems, and it’s clear that what we want are solutions to the problems. But it can be an issue in courses where we assign papers or projects. The solution that I use is to be as specific as possible with the assignment sheet and about the criteria that I use to grade things. If possible, I set up a grading rubric beforehand and share it with students. I also make it a point to not give letter grades to assignments. Instead, I use a point system where different portions of the assignment are given points and then totaled to arrive at a total score for the assignment. As a general rule, I think it’s easier to justify a point total than it is a letter grade, and thus, students will be less likely to complain about a 34/50 than a “C.”

On this same topic, I’ve found that having firm deadlines for assignments is better than not having them. Students really want to know when something is due so that they can get it done by that date (because they too are busy people). They in general don’t like “turn it in when you have it” assignments, because they’ll end up procrastinating.

One more minor thing on grading: I grade with a green pen and not a red pen. I don’t have a study to cite about this, but I think that red is a more “punitive” color on an assignment, quiz, exam, etc. so I think green is “easier on the eyes,” especially if I end up really marking up an assignment.

Not knowing what grade they are getting throughout the term. e.g., “I thought I was getting an A but ended up with a B. If I had known, where I stood, maybe I would have done more …” (This is a type of comment that will come after the course, and not on the student evaluations. In fact, this type of comment may end up going to one’s department chair.)
I think most of us want to know how we’re doing whenever we are being evaluated over a period of time. (Think about wanting to know how faculty in your department view your progress towards tenure.) Most students are very grade conscious (and the very good students tend to be the most grade conscious) so they want to know “where they stand” in the course throughout the term. My solution is to provide periodic grade updates throughout the semester. I keep my grades in an Excel spreadsheet and use the mail merge feature of Microsoft Office to send an individual message to each student in my courses with a grade update after each exam and before the final exam. If you are at a campus that uses an online gradebook, then it’s not enough to tell students at the beginning of the term that they can check their grade anytime, because many won’t do it, and then they’ll say, “How am I supposed to remember what was said the first day of class when the syllabus was discussed.” It’s best to remind/require students at specific times in the term that they should really check their grade.

Not responding to students in a timely fashion. e.g., “He never responded to my emails” or “It took him forever to reply to my emails.”
We live in the age of instant communication (email, text, Twitter, etc.). The expectation when we send a message that requires a response using these types of communication is that that response will come in a timely fashion. If that doesn’t happen, then it can be viewed (because it perhaps is) as unprofessional. My solution is to make my students’ emails the priority of my inbox. Most of the time, emails from students require a single sentence response (e.g., “my hint is that you…” or “like the assignment says, it’s due Tuesday…” or “OK, you can have a 1-day extension…” etc.) so it’s easy to respond and get that message out of my inbox. Often times, if I am at my computer and see a message from a student that requires a one-sentence response, I’ll stop what I’m doing and reply right away. It impresses them that a faculty member would respond to them in less than 60 seconds! If it’s a message that requires a longer response for which I will need more time, I try to send them a “let me get back to you” message; that way they know that I am not ignoring them.

The priority during office hours is to work with students. e.g., “He would talk on the phone and not pay attention to me during office hours.”
It is unprofessional (perhaps even rude) to ignore students in the office because we are occupied with other tasks. My solution is that during office hours, I drop everything that I am doing when a student steps into my office. In general, I won’t even answer the phone if I have a student in the office. If I notice (via caller I.D.) that it’s a call that I really should take, I will excuse myself saying something like, “I am sorry, but I really need to take this call. It should only be a couple of minutes.”

On the office hour topic, something that students very much appreciate is extra office hours before exams. So if possible, I hold a couple of extra office hours before exams. Sometimes, none of my students show up for them, but I know that they appreciate me making the extra effort for them.

Well, these are a few of the issues that have come up in my teaching evaluations throughout the years. I just realized that really none of them are “in the classroom” matters. Maybe those issues (and there are plenty of those that also have come up) should be the topic of a future BLOG…

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1 Response to Learning From and Addressing Negative Comments in Student Teaching Evaluations

  1. Heather Finotti says:

    I agree and have also tried to do everything you list here with the exception of the always immediate email response and the periodic grade updates. The immediate email response was possible when I had no children and was teaching only two classes, AND it was long ago enough that people didn’t expect you to respond actually immediately – 24 hours was enough. Now that I’m lecturing and have 4 classes a semester AND a young child, it is not possible to be always immediate and nor do I *want* to respond immediately when it’s my family time (like the weekend). Some boundaries need to be set here too, so that faculty don’t end up “on call” 24 hours a day. When I’m at work I try to respond quickly. Once I’m at home, during the week emails wait for response until after everyone else is asleep. And the weekend, well, those wait till Sunday night or Monday morning. But I do tell my students to expect that, so if they haven’t organized their time well enough to get to me for what they need before the weekend comes, that is on them, not me. I make exception if there is a Monday exam, but even then, I think asking them to plan ahead is not unreasonable.

    I feel similarily about the periodic grade updates, but I also tend to teach engineers, math and science majors, so I feel like they should be trusted to be able to figure out accurately for themselves where they stand in the class, gradewise, especially since I rarely curve and when I do it’s small. College to me is where we need to expect them to take responsibility for themselves in these ways, so comments like that would lead me to just make my expectations clear rather than computing grades for them (comments like “how am i suppose to remember…” would lead me to put more things in writing and leave them posted on the course website for them to read and remind themselves as needed).

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