Course Evaluations Redux

A couple of years ago I noted that course evaluations do not necessarily help us understand our strengths and weaknesses as teachers because most of the time the responses are so contradictory. Last term’s batch, which just arrived in my mailbox, is no different. Some samples, from the Brit Lit survey:

One the one hand…

I really liked the collaborative wiki; it made for an engaging project that encouraged me to keep up with my readings.

The wiki pages worked well.

Her wikis are a great way to keep a class engaged and to help study for finals.

The wiki assignments are interesting and useful.

The wiki assignment is somewhat progressive and relevant.

but on the other hand,

I hated the wiki assignment!

The wiki was an unfair aspect of the course due to the amount of work it required … the wiki is a waste of time and effort for most of the students in the class.

Stop doing the wiki pages, just because we’ve moved into a technological era doesn’t mean we’re going to do something like this or want to.

On the one hand…

The material assigned helped the professor to be stimulating, and some lectures were inspiring.

Dr. Maitzen is brilliant and funny, and a pleasure to hear speak.

Dr. Maitzen made the course enjoyable and the lectures were easy to follow.

Maitzen is amazing at being informative and witty at the same time.

Maitzen did a great job being interesting with the material. The class moves along quickly but I was able to gain a good understanding of British literature.

but on the other hand,

Dr. Maitzen speaks too fast! … it is important for students to be able to follow.

The lectures were normally quite dry and boring.

I found it very difficult to stay interested in this class because of the teaching style.

On the one hand…

She also excelled in pushing her students to relate [to] course material with such a broad selection of writers.

The breadth of the material covered in this class was really nice.

but on the other hand,

Too much material to fit into one semester!

I think that Maitzen could have focused on fewer texts in a greater amount of detail.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy as much is the amount of poetry that we talked about. Poetry is not one of my favorite things to analyze.

I did not enjoy the amount of poetry, I would rather have more stories / novels.


Professor Maitzen is very enthusiastic. She has a good influence on students to become excited about their studies. Also, she is able to relate to the various positions of students in order to maximize development.

The instructor led a superb class in which I learned quite a bit. I am very glad it was a required class as I gained valuable skills for my major.

One of the most engaging professors I’ve had so far at Dal, she’s brilliant but not in an intimidating way.

The instructor is interested in the students and makes sure they are engaged in the course, concerned with students’ academic success & cares about overall wellbeing of students.

Always willing to meet outside of class to help the student.

easy to approach!

She engaged the class in discussion often, making the class intellectually stimulating.

Although challenging at times, such difficult is necessary to learn.

She is approachable and lovely.

She was great! Really smart and interesting & I always left wishing class wasn’t over!

She is a wonderful prof who seems very interested in the material and in her students.

I appreciated how thoroughly Dr. Maitzen would prepare us for our assignments.

But then,

Professor Maitzen was an average instructor. She did what was necessary to get her point across.

Dr. Maitzen didn’t seem to care how we did in the course. By this I mean she only offered help when it was convenient for her and she offered no sympathy if you were busy with other school work.

A bit intimidating.

Not as bland as most instructors can be.

I found her classes very structured but not very stimulating.

I think she may have been a little too demanding in her assignment requirements.

Well, obviously you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and on balance the responses were actually more positive than I expected for this particular course. But what can I learn from these comments, going forward? Some of the reiterated complaints were predictable given the nature of the course. For instance, though I explained frequently that we would cover selected examples in class but that they should then be able to analyze the other assigned readings independently, using the information and models they learned, many of them objected to having been assigned readings that weren’t lectured on.  I can do better, perhaps, to clarify the relationship between class time and their own reading, though I know they will always (wrongly!) feel better served  if all the material has been “covered” by me explicitly.

There are some other fairly consistent comments across the set that I willcertainly keep in mind. One is that the course was very clearly organized–that I followed the schedule and syllabus closely, and so on (these comments always make me wonder what happens in their other classes!). It’s good to know that my efforts to be clear and consistent are appreciated. The other is that I talk too fast and they do not want to be responsible for putting their hands up and asking me to repeat things or slow down (as I always encourage them to do, if I start getting carried away). A couple of them felt it was easier for them to stay with me when I used PowerPoint slides; this is something I’ll think about, but mostly I need to keep reminding myself to slow down. My own perception often is that I am going slowly, doing a lot of repeating of key words and arguments, and so on, but enough of them felt harried by my pace that I should take their input seriously. Also, by and large they loved Atonement but not Mary Barton (but wait, here’s one who “particularly enjoyed Mary Barton“!). When (if!) I teach this survey course again, I’ll weigh my options again, but I think their lukewarm reaction to Mary Barton is as much a function of their unfamiliarity with long discursive novels in general (the most common specific complaint was about its length) as of Mary Barton in particular. Last year my exemplary Victorian novel was Great Expectations and the reaction was not that different. Also, though they were very enthusiastic about Atonement, their papers suggested a lot of them did not understand it very well! So as always, their preferences will not be the only, or even a major, influence on my book orders.

I must say, it’s easier to take in all this mixed and fairly personal feedback when I’m not going right back in the classroom. Although years of experience somewhat inures us all to the knowledge that we are being judged in this way, it’s still hard not to want to respond, sometimes quite sharply, to some of these comments (I did too care how you did in the course! And I held office hours every week that nobody came too, and I always invited students to set up appointments if those times weren’t convenient! And why are you an English major at all if you don’t like poetry? And I bet you didn’t think the wikis were a waste of time when you were using them to study for the final exam!). At the same time, the nice comments are a seduction that has its own dangers. You can’t teach well if you want too much to be liked. As one of the students says, with great (and rare) maturity, “difficulty is necessary to learn,” but difficulty is uncomfortable, and you may not realize until well after a particular course is over whether it was valuable to you or not–which is, surely, a more important issue than whether you enjoyed it in the moment.

12 thoughts on “Course Evaluations Redux

  1. Annie January 7, 2011 / 1:10 pm

    If it’s any comfort I could have been reading a set of my own end of module surveys. “The best thing about the is class is the way AD lectures.” v “The worst thing about this class is the way AD lectures.” My favourite totally useless comment was “AD does not punch holes in our handouts.” You mean that is how you judge the quality of a course? I don’t know about your institute but a lot of the issues that were raised in our end of module surveys were to do with things outside the individual lecturers control, such as library acquisition policy and timetabling problems. While you can pass these alone to the relevant bodies you always seem to get the flack when they don’t listen.

    I’m also interested in what you say about ‘Mary Barton’. I had the same problem with ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ and I’m sure the nub of the issue was that it was written in a style very different from the other books on the course and the students found its unfamiliarity off-putting.

  2. Rohan Maitzen January 7, 2011 / 3:02 pm

    OK, that hole-punch remark is really crazy. Do you suppose the student had any idea how lazy it sounds, as well? I remember one of my colleagues remarking, with understandable peevishness, that one student’s sole comment on his form was “his shoes squeak.” Really, at that point the whole evaluation exercise becomes an insult to the effort we put in! And you are exactly right that sometimes we are simply there on the front lines taking the blame for things decided elsewhere. One of my students wrote “have a later exam,” for instance–although the exam schedule is set by the Registrar’s Office, not by me. Dissatisfaction is also typically highest in mandatory courses. I try hard to explain how courses are shaped by their place in our overall curriculum, but I think to a lot of students that long-term perspective is of little interest compared to their short-term preferences.

  3. James Ross January 8, 2011 / 9:49 am

    When I TAed for Anthony Enns’ Cartoons and Comics course, I got a huge number of “excellent lecturer! Very informed and engaging!” type comments based on my one lecture. But then I also got “he seemed very pompous in his knowledge of the material” and “his lecture was very biased towards alternate viewpoints” (this is a lecture about the publishing history of Batman, by the way. I haven’t a clue what bias I might have been showing).

    I kind of suspect that the majority of negative comments, unless they’re particularly constructive, can probably be written off. Even if a professor is a subpar lecturer (and you aren’t!), I don’t see what they’re supposed to take away from a series of comments declaring them a subpar lecturer. Plus, there’s the whole issue where most of these kids are actually just complaining because they didn’t get the A’s they totally deserve.

    I think the “use PowerPoints” may be good advice for you. I never had a problem following you, but I was very interested in the material and quite fond of you. In a course that didn’t really interest me like, say, PSYC1000, even undetailed PowerPoints that only featured keywords were tremendously helpful in keeping me semi-focused.

  4. Rohan Maitzen January 8, 2011 / 3:05 pm

    James, that is just student-speak for “he didn’t completely agree with and applaud every remark I made during class.” I am always a little bit amused (in a fearfully patronizing way) by comments about how well-informed or knowledgeable I am, just because I wonder on what basis, exactly, students are making that judgment! What they mean, presumably, is that I sound well-informed…

    I think it’s a good point that pre-existing interest (and affection–aww!) makes a difference to how well a student stays mentally with the prof during class. I do use PowerPoint now for ‘big lectures’ (introductions to the 19th-century novel, that kind of thing) and could probably draw up some outline slides for more classes than I use them for now. But I don’t really see how I could use them for more discussion-based sessions. Even if (as is often the case) I know where I expect us to go, or have some key points I want to be sure to cover, prefab slides would tie me down more than might be helpful. But I might try using the whiteboard more deliberately (writing out the leading questions I use as prompts, for instance, before gathering input–that way we can’t forget what we are trying to figure out). There are whiteboard options in PowerPoint, too, that might let me play more with presentations–sounds like a good angle to explore while I have time.

  5. Danielle Gridley January 8, 2011 / 3:34 pm

    It’s encouraging to know that an amazing, thoughtful, and inspiring teacher such as you, Rohan, get comments as conflicting and confusing as the ones that I do! My particular favorite comments with completely opposite reactions to the same tutorials were these:

    “Maybe teaching a little bit ‘off the script’ of the handouts would have made tutorial more enjoyable”

    “Sometimes discussions went astray [. . .] keeping the tutorial on track would make it more effective”

    Hurm. What to do? My favorite comment period, though, said, “The faces she makes are awesome.” Perhaps this is the level from which most of the other comments are coming as well?

  6. Robby Virus January 9, 2011 / 12:49 am

    I think my favorite critique is “Not as bland as most instructors can be”. LOL! Talk about damning with faint praise!

  7. Lisa Peet January 9, 2011 / 7:36 pm

    she offered no sympathy if you were busy with other school work.

    Awww. Let me guess: One of your late/incompletes?

  8. Litlove January 10, 2011 / 1:48 pm

    All those negative remarks say way, way more about the students than they do about you! But it’s a shame in a way that we never really do get useful feedback. I remember the first time the modern critical theory course ran in Cambridge. The lecturers themselves wer e all so excited about it that they attended each others lectures and seminars and then had long discussions afterwards about the material – now that would have been incredible to witness!

  9. Shashi January 10, 2011 / 7:33 pm

    In my creative process class, I received one evaluation that said, “It helped that the professor seemed very creative herself,” and another that said, “I did not get the impression that the professor was very creative.” Yikes. I can take the comments on course content and organization in stride; it’s the ones that attack my personality that had me eating ice cream all weekend.

    There was a NYT discussion of teaching evaluations last summer:

  10. Chris January 11, 2011 / 12:49 pm

    I almost invariably get one or two comments (or, more frequently, checked boxes) indicating that I “do not respect the viewpoint of students.” Apparently this is because I assert my authority as the leader of the class and the designated master of the subject matter and decline to let wrongheaded or outright stupid interpretations of the material stand unchallenged. It’s hard to take this stuff too seriously. Last semester one student laid waste to the entire semester — material, method, approaches, presentation, interest, attitude, etc. But also gave me poor marks for attendance and punctuality, which I *know* I aced.

  11. Rohan Maitzen January 11, 2011 / 5:34 pm

    Thanks for all these comments, everyone! It’s reassuring to know that we all get contradictory input, and that we need to have a healthy degree of skepticism about the value of these things. I read an article recently about a study that showed many students self-consciously lie on their evaluations, whether to boost or to shoot down a professor.

    It occurs to me–belatedly–that I used to do mid-term feedback forms, partly for my own use (is the pace too fast or too slow? etc.) but also because I could tally the results and show them to the class. The years I did this, I think it had a salutary effect on the smugness factor in the final evaluations: students were aware that their responses or preferences were not necessarily shared, and thus they couldn’t be quite so certain what I should or should not do differently. They might even have reflected a little on whether they were contributing to their own difficulties. I think I’ll start doing that again.

  12. Annie January 12, 2011 / 5:39 am

    Well, at least no one could have complained about my shoes squeaking – I always lectured in my (well-washed) bare feet. Which, perhaps surprisingly, no one ever did complain about.

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