Many University teachers, like me, have a love-hate relationship with the teaching evaluations that students fill out at the end of each semester: We love to hate them.

Seriously though, there is helpful information and suggestions a teacher can glean from these evaluations, though sorting through the contradictory and sometimes messy pile can be daunting.

Some professors I know toss their evaluations in the garbage with nary a glance. Others claim, with numerous scholarly studies behind them, that good grades tend to predict good evaluations. One lecturer I respect greatly — and whose job depends heavily on her student evaluations — once wondered out loud why any lecturer would dare give a student any grade less than an ‘A.’

I understand the sentiment. It is difficult to read through the sometimes inane remarks of an obviously clueless student. For example, one of my admirers from last term wrote the following gem:

“Discussions were pointless. Basically show up and learn nothing from class material and readings. We might have done this in discussion twice. Otherwise the other discussions were used for our paper which was already done by the time he explained to (us) what to do. Clearly this GSI does not have experience on being a teacher and therefore was not ready to be a GSI for this class.”

But despite the semi-literate epistles like this one, I still believe that evaluations have value. For example, two years ago, several students suggested that I put my lesson plan on the board to help organize class better, a tactic which has helped keep me on track during section and helped students better organize their notes. Other times they have reasonable complaints, like reminding me that I should allow an extra five minutes to get AV equipment so we can start class on time (sorry, COMM 484).

However, it’s often difficult to glean consistent feedback from a batch of student evaluations. One reason is that individual students are different people. They come in with different levels of background knowledge, have different styles of learning and perceive the classroom atmosphere differently.

For example, I try to run a lively discussion in class with lots of student participation. How did I do? Here are two comments from students in the same section:

“The section only featured discussions, which were always interesting.”

“Didn’t feel as though there was class discussion.”

Another thing I take seriously is my availability to students. Was I reasonably available to students to help them both through e-mail, office hours and appointments? Again here’s a representative pair of comments:

“When students ask to meet outside of class please don’t make them feel like they are inconveniencing you.”

“He was always willing to meet with students to go over test scores/work on the final term paper and he definitely was helpful during these office hours.”

Finally, the course I taught had a final project and several exams. Before the term, the professor and I sat down and determined that I should focus more on preparing students for the final project, while he would focus more on the content of the readings to prepare students for the exam. I had specifically asked my students about what they thought about the workshops and presentations I had prepared to help them develop their projects. Did they want more help on the project or would they rather go over readings more thoroughly?

According to the following comments, apparently the answer was “yes”:

“More help on the paper!! Maybe a workshop outside of class. I’ve NEVER done this type of paper so knowing how to do the math and correlations was impossible.”

“A lot of the discussion time seemed like time wasters, such as learning how to use excel or watching clips to learn how to analyze them. Although these helped with writing our papers, we did not necessarily have to spend as much time on it. Learning about material for the tests would have been more beneficial.”

I’m not belittling the feedback from my students — they were quite an insightful group as a whole. I had a really good time teaching them and the half-dozen comments above are all legitimate feedback. It’s just often tough as a GSI to filter all the content to develop coherent take-away lessons.

In the end though, I’ll end up doing what I always do: I’ll look for patterns and try to improve one or two concrete things each term.

And perhaps I’ll finally become a good enough teacher to earn the ultimate commendation: a Chili pepper on Ratemyprofessors.com.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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