Student course evaluations are a reality we cannot avoid, although some of us would like to. The reality is that while these evaluations are necessary, they are not without their challenges. For most of us, they trigger emotional reactions. When we get negative comments about our course or our teaching, they are sometimes hard to swallow, knowing the students have no idea how many hours, late nights, and weekends we put in to make the course the best we could. We also are worried because our institutions use these evaluations to a greater or lesser degree to measure our effectiveness as teachers – a debated issue in higher education. The fact is that an overall average number representing a teacher’s overall effectiveness is problematic. Because all that we do and who we are as teachers cannot be defined by a single number. Nor can it be determined by the comments accompanying that number which are based on students that either loved or hated the course or us enough to actually write a comment.
Although I have written about this topic several times, since we are getting close to that time of year again, I thought revisiting some suggestions for navigating your course evaluations would be helpful.
Pick a place and time
Place and time matter when reading student evaluations. Find a calming place and peaceful time to review the evaluations. Look at them when you are not tired, frustrated and stressed. Do not look at them immediately after you receive them. Before you start reading, it can be helpful if you take a few moments to create an open, curious mindset instead of feeling like you have to brace for impact. Remember, this is simply feedback we sort through to find something useful, even from the negative comments.
Don’t take it personally
I once had a faculty member who was so upset and infuriated by a negative comment that she pulled all the course evaluations and samples of all the student’s handwriting until she felt she had identified the student who wrote the comment. I get it. It can feel incredibly unjust as if you have been invalidated as a person and teacher.
I bet you have heard someone say this to you somewhere along the way – don’t take it personally. It’s the truth. Some comments are simply not worth the time or upset. You just need to leave them - let it go. Words, I know, that, at times, are hard to implement. Here is the thing - it doesn’t define you unless you let it. You are the only one suffering. I can guarantee the student has moved on and is not thinking about what they wrote or its impact on you. I know, on some level, that may further infuriate you. The truth is you are only responsible for yourself, what you think, how you act and react, and what you feel. What and how will you choose? If you are still having a hard time letting go– talk with a trusted colleague or friend so they can help you get things back into perspective. Don’t let it fester inside of you. I remain fascinated that we are like Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative comments. Somehow we need to flip that around.
Let me point out that I am not condoning in any way inappropriate and unprofessional student comments. However, if they are that egregious, there should be a mechanism to address the student who wrote them.
Here are a few other things to consider to help you not take these comments personally. First, if completing these evaluations is not mandatory, many students won’t fill them out. Happy or content students tend not to respond, but those that are disgruntled or unhappy do. So the information is skewed. Second and more commonly, if they are mandatory, students rush through them so they can be done and do not take the time to reflect and respond thoughtfully. Third, if a student is upset or annoyed about something else or other issues with the program, the negativity may stem from that and not your course or you.
Put it in perspective
When I have had to work through some of the negative comments in my course evaluations, what has helped me is to step back to try and see things from the student’s perspective. They are on the receiving side of the course, and while I have at times been convinced that my organization of a particular activity in class was outstanding, the students don’t always receive it that way. So when I feel my sense of injustice rising at a comment, I try to shift and look at it through their eyes to see if there is anything in their feedback that makes sense and can be helpful. I think of these evaluations as a useful point of reference to help me gain insight into how the students are receiving and experiencing the course, including my teaching, that led them to make such a comment.
The other thing to keep in mind is that student comments are not always grounded in reality, truth, or accuracy. They can make statements reflecting their lack of course engagement or comprehension when they complain about the workload or some course dynamic but cite it incorrectly—for example, complaining about quizzes every week when there were four across a 16-week semester. Stating the papers required too much work given the short time when there was only one paper for which they had the entire semester to complete, with feedback along the way. Sometimes their frustrations and fears skew their perceptions.
Look for patterns
The key to reviewing student evaluations is to look for patterns, themes, and frequency in the comments. This approach is valid for both positive and negative ones. I think we all do this to a degree. But remember, one negative comment holds little weight. If there are only one or two similar negative comments, it doesn’t rise to a level of actionable attention. However, if there is a cluster of negative responses about one particular aspect of the course, this is valuable information and warrants a further look.
Looking for frequency, patterns, and trends helps us focus where we need to since the whole idea behind evaluations is to help us continue to grow and become better teachers. If we focus only on the outliers and the few negative comments, we have missed seeing the forest through the trees.
There are things we can do to foster better feedback from students on our evaluations.
Ask for feedback sooner
I would venture to guess we have all been perplexed to learn that students significantly struggled with some aspects of the course but never said anything to us. Instead, we are learning about it for the first time as we read the course evaluations. Truth be told, if they had let us know sooner, we could have made a change. I have found that sometimes students don’t want to speak up. However, providing a brief mid–course evaluation that focuses on how things are going in the class, what is working well, what isn’t working, and any concerns can be amazingly insightful and helpful. It lets the students voice their concerns indirectly while the course is running, and it provides you with the opportunity to take that information and make adjustments you feel are valid. It means a lot when students see that you took this feedback to heart and made changes.
Set ground rules
I try to impress upon my students that they will have to provide effective and constructive feedback in their careers as PAs. Therefore, learning how to do so is essential; this is their opportunity to practice those skills while in school. Then I talk about what constructive feedback is and provide examples. I also talk about what kinds of feedback aren’t helpful. For example, just saying they hated the course doesn’t help. However, reminding students of these points before completing the evaluation can be helpful.
Ensuring student evaluations would be anonymous was the carrot we used to dangle to get them to fill out the evaluations. However, the cloak of anonymity and invisibility lacks accountability for their comments. Over the years, I have observed increased caustic and brazen language that crosses appropriateness, civility, and professionalism. This behavior happens despite clearly communicating often to the students that their comments on these forms must be respectful and constructive. So, in one program, we went to a different system that was confidential but not anonymous. We felt it was vital that we be able to address unacceptable, unprofessional, and inappropriate comments when needed. Although students still did not provide their names on the form, they knew that if there was a concern about something they wrote, the program director could request the student's identification from the data manager. In addition, because students had to log in to the survey with their university e-mail, their IP address was recorded. We were concerned this might limit what students wrote, but there were no indications that it did. And yes, there were a few occasions when we had to do this and address the student directly.
Student evaluations are an essential part of the educational process. They help us appreciate how the student experienced the course and provide invaluable information that helps us continue to grow and evolve our teaching and courses. The key is to look for valuable information and let go of the rest.
Meyer, E. H. (2018). Putting student evaluations into perspective. HigherEdJobs. https://www.higheredjobs.com/articles/articleDisplay.cfm?ID=1760
Gannon, K. (2018). In defense (sort of) of student evaluations of teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/in-defense-sort-of-of-student-evaluations-of-teaching/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in
Gurung, R. A. (2023). The agony and the ecstasy: Reading your student evaluations. The Teaching Professor. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/professional-growth/evaluation-feedback/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy-reading-your-student-evaluations/
Reiner, C. (n.d.). How I read my student evaluations. UVA Center for Teaching Excellence. https://cte.virginia.edu/resources/how-i-read-my-student-evaluations