The Screwtape Teaching Evaluations

It’s that time of the year when instructors find student teaching evaluations popping up like an unwanted utility bill. Inevitable, yet often painful. I’m still waiting for mine, but I’ve noticed a few people on Twitter, particularly newer instructors, starting to Tweet about them. This article is about, how to evaluate them, what to reflect on, and what to discard. The title is an illusion to C.S. Lewis’s book “The Screwtape Letters”, a set of reflections and advice from an older devil to a younger one, on how to tempt humanity. If you haven’t read it, you might give it a try. Lewis is so much more than just the Narnia series. As I’ve been teaching large courses, each with hundreds of students, for a considerable number of years, I’ve had a very considerable number of student comments, so I can take the part of Lewis’s old devil.

So, you get your student evaluations. Let’s split them up into a few categories. Some might fall into more than one.

The Good

Good comments are ones that every teacher likes. It’s good for our self-esteem. Praise from students makes us feel good. So, reflect on the nature of the comments. Are they ones commending you for giving an easy course? Is that what you intended? Or maybe they are commending you for your communication skills with students. Good. Keep that going. Or maybe they like the subject. Take these on board. Do the good comments reflect what you did in the class, either with the syllabus, the assigned work, or the assessment methods? If not, did you communicate these intentions to the students effectively. I now make sure that I explicitly tell students in the first class exactly why we use a classroom response system (because, when used properly, it promotes retention of information).

The Bad

In this category, I put the unfavourable comments, which nevertheless give you valuable feedback to help your teaching. Some examples would be:

Inaudible at the back.

Hand writing illegible when writing on the board.

Disorganised.

Course objectives not made clear.

Don’t see the point of the course.

Harsh grader

These are all things you can modify and improve upon, and you should make an effort to do so. For example, I now put all my notes online in advance, and record the lecture on video. This gives a good impression, and makes you seem organised to the class. They may not know how chaotic things are behind the scenes, of course, but that’s my little secret.

Some of these feedback comments don’t always come in the official evaluations — look at the work handed in, and the performance on exams. Did the students understand what you were getting at? Did they avoid common pitfalls? I now explicitly tell the class what the common errors are, so that hopefully some of them don’t reproduce them. Some of them do, of course. Did you explain why we did that course? What is the context of the course in the degree program? What does it provide the foundation for? Did you provide all of the answers to those questions? If not, why not? Did your grades on term work translate well onto final exam grades? Did you make the exam more difficult than the work during the term, leading to false expectations from the students. Did they get feedback throughout the class? Did they know if they were performing well, or poorly before the final evaluations? If not, why not?

The Ugly

The student feedback process is a one-sided one. You have no chance of rebuttal, or comment. The student has no responsibility for any of the comments made. The majority of students make sincere comments, but there are the occasional ones which can be rude, downright cruel, or just plain wrong. You need to identify these, and disregard them when necessary. And it may be necessary for your own well-being. There will be students who will not see the point of your course, or for whatever reason, not be engaged with it. Some of them may be tempted to take it out on your teaching evaluation. I have suffered from this in the past, where students, intently focused on a career objective, cannot see the point of doing a physics course. Remember, you are older and more experienced. You have more context and far more insight into the reasons their degree program requires your class. Share that with the students. If you see many ugly comments, then you should start digging into the programs your students are enrolled in. Are there systemic reasons for the dissatisfaction? Can these be mitigated by your institution?

You should always bear in mind that some comments will be crass, thoughtless, and sometimes downright prejudiced. Being an older white guy with a British accent, I am less likely to be on the receiving end than other groups. My sincere advice here is not to bottle up any thoughts or doubts. Share your feelings with someone, or some supportive community. I can’t even imagine the pressures that women and minority groups are under. But I know that talking can help.

Finally

Remember that you did your best with the class. It might not have been perfect, and it’s unlikely that you will get a glowing report from every student, because everyone has a different perception of each class. Just make a resolution to act on comments when you can do so, if it doesn’t compromise your vision of the teaching. Because it’s your class too.