Poor course evaluation scores? Try these three tips to let your students know you care
I stood in the back lobby of a Vegas hotel, staring at my phone with panic. I was on a weekend getaway, but I could no longer focus on the moment. My wife noticed I was distracted as we took our Uber to ‘Battista’s Hole in the Wall’ for dinner and pried the truth out of me.
My university had gone to new instructor evaluations, and I was below average. Our old system only gave raw scores. Like many surveys, it used 5-point Likert-type items, and my scores were almost all 4s and 5s. The new system used a similar scoring but gave analytics for each question, showing how I ranked relative to my department, my college, and the university as a whole. It also provided a chart showing the distribution of scores for each question, and where my average fell.
An average score of 4.0 seems fine until you find out that the department, college, and university averages are 4.8, 4.6, and 4.4 (illustrations only, not real scores). The question that hurt most was that the students didn’t believe I was genuinely interested in teaching. Were they blind?
Below average? That’s just not who I am. Over the course of a ride to dinner, I went through all the stages of grief:
Denial. This evaluation isn’t fair. Online instructors are lumped in with everyone else.
Anger. How could they rate me like this? Didn’t they understand the work I put in?
Bargaining. If only I hadn’t been traveling so much for my regular job(s).
Depression. They’re right. I suck.
I briefly fixated on depression, and as usual my wife snapped me out of my funk. “Just do better next semester.” She should be the one with the PhD. I moved on to Acceptance.
Three tips to turn it around
I teach master’s level courses in an asynchronous online format. There are limitations to student interaction. I analyzed the data and the problem and identified what I could work on. These tips seem simple, but if you care about customer experience, then they are essential.
Between tuition, fees, and books, these students are paying $1200 or more per class per semester. Even if getting tuition assistance through an employer or the Veteran’s Administration, somebody is paying. Students deserve good customer service and should come away from the experience feeling satisfied with the money they paid.
Answer emails and return calls
I don’t know for sure if this was an issue or not. I am generally very good at letting students contact me, and I’m happy to get a call, text, or email. Sometimes their problems probably don’t seem urgent. Odds are, the answer is in the syllabus anyway.
It doesn’t matter. I only get a dozen emails, calls, or texts from a class over the course of a semester. If the problem is large enough for a student to write to me, the problem is large enough in their mind that they would feel better with a response. I often start my response with “As laid out in the syllabus,” but I try to respond as quickly as possible. I’m not perfect, and sometimes I will lose an email, but the student that feels ignored will not feel that I care about them.
Grade papers in a timely manner
Life happens. I travel a lot, and sometimes grades get backed up. I’ve developed a better routine now, and grade weekly work within a week to ten days.
Also, I take better care to manage expectations. For example, assignments are easiest to grade in bulk. I accept late work with some penalty, but now I have to go back to that assignment and treat it as a special case. I took the view that an assignment turned in after all the others of its type are completed will get graded when it gets graded.
From the student’s perspective, though, it just seems like that assignment got lost or misplaced. Or the student may be wondering whether the assignment will be accepted. The class doesn’t have visibility over the grade book as a whole.
To manage this, when the queue gets backed up, I communicate deliberately and let them know what’s coming. A quick email to the class to let them know when to expect results reduces anxiety.
Participate in discussion boards
The first two suggestions, like much in life, seem obvious. This last one is magic.
I can type up my thoughts into an outline or lecture notes and post them. I can also spoon-feed important concepts by posting PowerPoint slides. Both of these communicate the same information but don’t have the same feeling with the recipient.
Like most online classes, every week there is a discussion question. I try to focus on some pivotal concepts and make the students take sides. Of course, they also have to respond to other posts too.
Under my new paradigm, I write a post as if I am part of the discussion. I take a side on the question, provide some expansion of information, and illustrate how I would engage the problem.
This creates a more intimate communication, closer to a classroom discussion. Also, it helps demonstrate what ‘good’ looks like. If I’m throwing down a couple of hundred words, it’s reasonable to expect the students to do the same.
Since the change, I have gotten a comment like this more than once:
…This only my second semester in grad school, but none of my other professors in other classes have participated in class discussions like you have. It shows your passionate about the material, as well as your students. For that i appreciate you.
How it all turned out and my way ahead
I’m not going to go into detail about scores since my employer may feel the department and university averages are proprietary data. However, I can say that my overall score was solidly below average before making the changes. After making the changes, my results are at or somewhat above average. Even more important than the overall score, my score for being interested in teaching is solidly average.
Delving into the details, I had one particularly dissatisfied student in one class that skewed the results. The data says that the student expected a D or F. This is a rare grade in my classes for anyone that completes all of the work. Not every customer will be satisfied, but I’ve definitely moved the needle.
There are still a couple of areas that I have not yet figured out how to influence. One relates to meeting the class regularly, and the other discusses whether I am well prepared and use time effectively. These are head-scratchers for an online class without meetings.
Going forward, I am going to keep doing what I am doing. I was actually disappointed that course evaluations weren’t done this semester due to the university shutting down physical operations; I was anticipating even better scores.
Next semester, I may offer a couple of optional Zoom meetings to chat and answer questions. I’d also like to teach a weekend seminar open to my classes and anyone else in my primary department to cover the mechanics and best practices of writing papers. Most of our students are professionals, and some have been out of school for a long time.
What I learned from this journey is that I really do have the ability to influence how I am seen, even in an online environment. My performance is in my hands.
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So here’s my new pitch…why not head over to my new website, brianewish.com, and put in your email address. It will give me some real emails to work with, and you will get some spiffy notifications when I write new stuff.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own.