Professors benefit from student evaluation comments

Jamie Shearer

Graduate student Steve Butcher calls it a “dark day” when instructors receive their evaluations.

Butcher, who teaches geography, is talking about the end-of-semester student evaluations – evaluations that can bring happy, helpful, critical or hurtful comments.

Getting comments such as “the professor inspired thinking on the subject” and “it was the best class” are easy to hear but almost as easy to forget.

“On a personal level, you could have a class of 30 students,” geography professor Jim Tyner said. “Twenty-nine of the evaluations are wonderful. One is bad. Decades later, you always remember the one bad one.”

Instructors generally get two kinds of bad evaluations: constructive criticism about the class and personal attacks on the instructor.

“If the class doesn’t align with their expectations, they think that we’re somehow doing something wrong,” Tyner said. “And they tell you about it.”

When health professor Scott Olds found students like to give regular feedback on their progress in the course, he intentionally incorporated that into his classes.

“I check in with them much more regularly,” he said, adding he will even administer another survey to get more feedback.

And when students told Butcher he needed to speak louder, he listened and now makes a conscious effort to make sure his class can hear him clearly.

Some evaluations have comments that are not only hurtful but don’t belong in the evaluating process, Tyner said.

“When you start criticizing a person’s appearance, if you start criticizing them because of their weight, because of their height, because of certain physical mannerisms, that has no place on student evaluations,” Tyner said.

But professors also receive evaluations that don’t benefit anybody.

“Sometimes they give you evaluations that are completely unhelpful,” Butcher said. “You got to deal with them taking out their frustrations, which could be a lot of things.

“I mean, who knows why somebody sits in there and says something mean? It could be they just got dumped. I don’t know.”

Morgaine Etheridge, a freshman education major, hasn’t given a bad evaluation, but she has an idea about why some students do.

“I think a lot of it is they just don’t like their professors,” she said, adding that students

hold grudges.

Some evaluations have suggestions that the professors can’t do much about.

Olds listens to comments about the amount of reading and difficulty of the tests, but he doesn’t change his entire class to accommodate them.

“I don’t mind asking the students to do a lot,” he said. “I mean, they’re paying a lot. They should get a lot.”

Professors who take evaluations seriously, however, said they want students to return the favor.

“I don’t think a lot of these students take these evaluations seriously,” Butcher said. “I don’t think they realize the impact that they might have.”

The impact is the evaluations having a say in whether an instructor could be rehired.

“I think it has to do with what you teach, what your relationship is to the university,” Butcher said. “If you don’t have tenure, obviously, they mean a lot more to your notion of getting a job.”

This is one of the concerns about evaluations among faculty members: Students have too much control.

“The tendency, I think, can be that we rely perhaps too heavily on student evaluations to make judgments about what qualifies good teaching,” Olds said. “They’re a part of the mix, but they’re not the entire mix.”

Contact faculty affairs reporter Jamie Shearer at [email protected].