Friday, September 19, 2014

Suggestions for Teaching College Students How to Write a Teaching Evaluation

Why Teaching Evaluation Matters

Student evaluations of teachers (SETS) are tricky things. Many teachers do not find them particularly useful, yet many administrators rely on them to assess teaching. For adjuncts especially, SETs can be fraught because poor evaluations, or too many negative comments in otherwise neutral or even good evaluations, can get you fired.

If you talk to students about doing SETs, many, maybe most, will say that they don't think their comments matter, and so the do them, but not with as much thought or reflection as hoped for, maybe with a touch of cynicism.

Yet as imperfect a system SET is -- and Rebecca Schuman describes some of the problems here -- for those many professors who do care about teaching, student evaluations do sometimes offer constructive feedback. And it can happen more often if students are taught how to write constructive evaluative comments on those portions of SETs that call for written comments, a skill that can be and is worth teaching.

The student evaluation of teachers (SET) is a largely ignored genre. But to the extent that it involves writing, thinking, judgment, has a purpose and multiple audiences (the professor, the department chair, the promotion committee and others), can have an impact on the learning of future students if drafted effectively, the SET is a genre worth teaching.

So here are some notes toward doing that, beginning with some tips and strategies to give to students.  When I teach, I usually teach a writing course, where a lot of what follows can be worked in a course more easily than perhaps a psychology of physics course. And I don't want to suggest that writing courses should all be responsible for teaching SET writing. What I do want to suggest is that SET writing can be taught in any course if a professor wants to make some time for it, and that there are good reasons for doing so if one can find a way to make it work.

Teaching Evaluation -- Four Things I Try Convey to Students When I Teach SET Writing

1. Show Don't Tell 

Early in the semester, sometimes on the first day of class, I write on the board this sentence: My wife has a pretty cat.  Then I sit down, tell students to take out a sheet of paper, put their name and the date on it, and I declare a test: they have 10 minutes to accurately describe my wife's cat.

Students cannot of course say anything accurate about the cat; "pretty" tells them nothing they can use to describe it. It's an opinion, unsupported by a photo, prior knowledge, context, or even a description of the cat. Much of the writing in SETs is of the "pretty cat" type: students assert a behavior or attribute to the course or professor without context or details enough to make the feedback useful.

So the first thing I tell students is that they need to describe something that leads to the judgment they are making; they need to ground their reviews.

Instead of "My teacher is lazy," for example, they might say:
In the syllabus, it said papers would be turned back within three days with comments. However, this semester, we only got our papers back in three days once. The average was five days, and for two assignments took even longer. Three of those times, we were not given more time to revise -- our next deadline held even though we lacked the time promised to get the work revised. The worst was the last assignment, when returned papers were five days late and we only got two days to revise a ten page paper that had extensive comments. This made it hard to plan work, and I had to cut into time I'd set aside for other courses. If it's going to take five days instead of three, change the syllabus, and for every day late back, we should get a day extension on the next due date. But it would be better to just stay on schedule.

2. Transfer Critical Reading and Writing to the SET Endeavor

The detail in the imaginary critique above describes a teacher not following the syllabus, and leads to a suggestion that the teacher either do what the syllabus says they will do or to change the syllabus and course schedule to do what the teacher ends up doing.

In other assignments and other courses, students are taught to write with the kind of detail, analysis and suggestion shown above. But that skill, I've found, doesn't transfer automatically. A SET doesn't trigger in most students their ability to write with the kind of detail they might have done in a formal assignment. I think this is so because SET questions that invite writing come in the context, often, of a survey, where Likert Scales and ratings questions are designed for data gathering set students to write short, "pretty cat" responses to open ended questions.

When I talk to students about SET writing, I have to know how the SET system in use where I teach frames and poses open-ended questions. With that knowledge, I can focus a bit on addressing the desire for students to transfer some of the analysis skills we used reading texts in the course to the course. That is, the course and my teaching become the text they are asked to analyze, assess, describe and review.

Something Any Teacher Can Try

To prepare for a semester ending SET, I'll often ask students to write anonymous mid-term reviews based on the kinds of questions I know the SET will ask. After students post anonymously, I'll log in and respond, focusing both on the structure of the critique -- whether it had enough detail for me to understand the basis of the review -- and if the structure was good, a response to the review. If the comments lacked the kind of detail needed to be useful, the kind of structure I asked for, I'd explain why I couldn't use the feedback, and would invite a revision.

For the mid-term self-generated SET, I mix this up and sometimes include peer review, letting students swap critiques so they can give one another feedback and advice for revision. But also, like with any reading they do, they can share a discussion about the shared reading (me as teacher and the course) and topics they're choosing to write on.

This call to revise and to peer review is a moment where I am treating the SET writing like any other writing in the course. Though in the final SET circumstance will often not allow for that kind of revision and review, getting practice writing to a SET question and treating it as writing worth revising, helps get them ready for official SET moment by giving them practice that associates SET writing with the same kind of critical writing and revising they do normally.

After receiving these mid-term evaluations, in addition to written responses, I'll say take some time to summarize for the class the gist of things, to discuss the course, and together, if I'm going to make adjustments to the syllabus and course, we'll talk about what those might be. I want students to see changes in my teaching that come from their reviews. I want them to see that constructive feedback can make a difference, and that for me these reviews matter. That helps them to write better reviews at the end of the term, reducing some of the cynicism.

3. Do Not Critique Dress, Hair, Make Up, Weight, Gender, Orientation, or Politics

So here's what I tell students: you may not like nor understand as a person every teacher you have. However, these reviews are a place to address teaching. Chances are if you're motivated to say anything about clothing, body, gender, orientation or other issues, you either did not like the course's topic, approach to the topics taught, or the teaching strategies used, the assignments, books, homework, and so on. Or, I say too, you've been to Rate My Professors and have used the hotness rating.

But to write an effective SET, to have your judgments considered, describe and critique or praise the teaching, the course content, the assignments, the grading policies, and teacher behavior as a teacher (handing back work on time, treating students fairly and with respect, for example).

A lot of times students fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy-- a woman professor who assigns readings that criticize male behavior is a feminist who hates men. Because of this, they come to see a direct critique of a professor's gender, orientation, or politics as a critique of a course's content or politics, especially if the content, readings, and discussions make the student uncomfortable. When I teach SET writing, we spend a bit of time discussing this fallacy among others.

Instead of addressing the teacher, students can be taught to address the course: What questions did the course ask you to ask? Why did you not like those questions? If the professor critiqued your writing or comments you made in class discussions, was that done respectfully?

These kinds of questions will not stop a student who is angry about a course in some way from expressing that anger, what I stress with students is that this truth holds: -- the more they  can describe the details of a course that they did not like nor agree with, the better teachers, their mentors or supervisors, can discern how to address the complaint.

4. Describe Strengths, Things that Worked 

A lot can be learned from knowing what works, especially if a learner can tell a teacher why something worked. I ask students to think through these questions: What in an assignment helped you learn? What projects worked? What about the grading policy made sense and seemed fair? What motivated you to do better work?

When I address this with students, the need to describe what works and why, I remind them that teaching is an experiment. No teacher can control for all variables -- the collection of students assembled, the class chemistry that will emerge, how an assignment will work. We talk about how in a class an assignment will work for some students and not others. They almost all can recall a time when they've gotten something a classmate hasn't or vice-versa. Plus asking the questions also gives them insight into how they learn and what kinds of learners they are.

I tell them how sometimes as a teacher, an assignment that goes great in one class will bomb in the next when one is teaching two or three sections of the same course. Teaching is not a certain thing, no more than learning is it. A syllabus is a learning hypothesis, not a guarantee, not a fact. Teachers learn as much from knowing why something was good and how it worked for a learner as they do from when it doesn't.

I remind them too, if you can describe something that worked -- only doing so if something did, of course -- then descriptions of what didn't work or suggestions for what might change will be easier to hear, assess and consider.

Notes for Teachers

Assign Practice Writing Teacher Evaluations

As noted above, I'll ask students to practice evaluations. When they do a mid-term review of my teaching, it's easy to set up anonymous mini-evaluations using something like Survey Monkey, Google Forms, or other options.  I'll include some Likert and rating scale questions to mimic more the kind of context they'll see in a course ending SET. To transfer critical reading, analysis, review and recommendation skills takes practice.

Sometimes I'll ask students to craft a review with their name on it, of a course other than mine. They keep that course anonymous by not naming the professor nor the course title or section. They have to practice describing course activities -- a classroom discussion, homework, how a professor works in the course, and as well, in this version of the writing, how they responded to the work and managed their role in the class. This morphs a bit a traditional SET question into an exercise in learning awareness, but it gets at SET skill practices too.

I don't mind taking some time on this because the ability to read closely, to observe, record detail, draw inferences, come up with recommendations, analyze what might be worth changing, are all skills central to my writing course. In treating courses they take (mine included) like a text, I'm asking students to read courses and their own learning crtically. In asking them to look at the teaching and learning, I'm asking them to be reflective students, which goes to them being reflective writers, thinkers, and learners overall.

Not every course lends itself to asking students to do this kind of writing about what's going on in other courses. It is the kind of writing assignment that can work in first year seminars, study skills courses, or courses that touch on pedagogy and teaching and learning. If you are not teaching a course where the assignment makes sense, then I still recommend doing a mid-term SET of your course, where, on the writing portion, you ask students for detailed feedback. But teach what you mean by detailed feedback, perhaps by drafting examples (Take the one above under "Show Don't Tell" if you'd like.) of what you'd like to see.

You can connect the skills of observation, analysis, writing, and recommendation that might map to the disciplinary thinking your course encourages, and ask students to write in a way that applies those ways of seeing and thinking to your course and its structure. If you do not have time to read and respond to students individually, to ask for revisions, to organize peer review, that's o.k.. Just taking the time to read through the feedback, acknowledge it, and talk about how you'll use it will in itself be a form of feedback and validation, and just the act of being asked to write to a SET question, and to see that writing read and considered will give students some practice and motivation in writing better responses at the term's end.

How Teaching Evaluation Has Changed My Teaching

I had lunch with a friend last week who described a set of evaluations she once got, where the students complained that she didn't do enough work and that they did more. Students went into her course assuming she would lecture, give tests, and grade their essays. That their job was to show up, listen and take notes, go home, read, draft and revise, and answer questions when called upon. So the reviews were harsh when the course didn't do what they had come to expect.

The next time she taught, she spent more time explaining to students why they were doing more workshops, why they were in small group discussions taking turns as discussion leaders, why they had drafts were the only feedback they got was from fellow writers. All those choices my friend made had very good pedagogical reasons that once students understood them, they accepted more, which lead to better evaluations and reviews, including ideas for making the workshops even more effective. Students instead of pushing against, were pulling with the teacher, and the feedback became more constructive, the reviews more positive.

Getting students to understand the purpose of the work in the course -- the readings, discussions, workshops, peer review, why an essay will be held five days before getting it back instead of three, how one assignment paves the way for another, why some things are done over and over, why others are optional, how the work of the course will be assessed -- goes a long way to getting constructive teaching evaluations.

Too often students enter a course and are asked to do work in it without understanding how that work moves them to a teacher's goal. I believe in a constructivist classroom by and large, that in a writing course students learn to write by writing, by reading writing with a writer's eye (to see how something is constructed) as well as reader's eye (to understand the argument) and a critic's eye (to assay the essay). Writers need to be able to describe writing and to describe for fellow writers their reading experience, to offer suggestions for revision. Seeing writing this way helps them write their own stuff and helps the make decisions about the feedback they're given.

Every time I give an assignment, describe an activity, set up a workshop, I include in the doing a reminder of how the work pertains to those beliefs. Not once, not occasionally, but every time. I've found that with that, even if a student doesn't like me or my course (as sometimes will happen), they at least understand the rationale of my teaching and assignments, my purposes and pedagogy.  And understanding that helps them to write better evaluations and more useful reviews in the same way knowing something of a restaurant's aspirations, approach to food, style of service helps a food critic write a review.

That is, I teach to the kind of evaluation I hope to get, trying to give students enough information, guidance, and faith that the SET matters, that they can do it well, and that if they do it as taught, with ideas I can use, that I'll listen, learn, and will become a better teacher because of them.


Alan said...

Hello and thanks for this Nick. I don't know what your views on AAUP are, but it strikes me that some of the rhetorical fallacies you take up here, which for tenured professors merely make student evaluations relatively useless, can, as you admit, be the kiss of death for contingent faculty. It would seem an issue worth taking up as some sort of "standardized" set of things required of universities that use SET's as part of their evaluation processes--in other words, ad hominem or content based critiques or critiques that have no examples or "mere numbers" without comments could be levied against, indeed deemed inadmissable by the AAUP as an educator's right. Indeed, evaluations which contain such rhetorical fallacies or at the very least do not provide a certain amount of "evidence" and "logic" could be dismissed out of hand at the administrative level (after AAUP pressure). Faculty handbooks, especially in private universities, are weighed heavily against professors of all ranks, and with contingent faculty (70% now?), there is a guilty until proven innocent attitude when a student or students complain about anything, regardless of the complaint's merit. So, while your argument is sound, I would like to see it become as much a part of university culture as, say, "peer review" when it comes to publications. Otherwise, we are still relying on the alleged good will of students to make extended arguments in university situations where the professor cannot compel students to give commentary of any length or substance. Rather, the norm is for the professor to leave the room so as not to "intimidate" the students--and how many times my colleagues and I have seen students burst out five minutes after the evaluations have been handed out leads me and others to believe such lack of input to almost be endemic to the administration of SET's themselves, something outside the professor's control.

Nick Carbone said...


I think you're onto something about changing the cultural of how student evaluations are read so that "guilty unproven innocent" isn't the norm.

Whether an AAUP contract can address how the evaluations are to be read is hard to say. But rules about how evaluations are used, how claims of bad teaching by students against teachers are evaluated, what due process the instructor has, especially contingent faculty, can be addressed.

It also strikes me that a faculty union or faculty senate might want to collaborate on the design of the SET. One of the reasons I think they can be a problem is that their design encourages poor written feedback. The survey format questions are usually embedded in, where students can quickly use a Likert or rating, promote moving fast. And so the questions get short shrift, are rushed. And if the form is given at the end of a class, the incentive to move fast and get out works against getting richer and better feedback as well.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I think this is an excellent example of a faculty member owning the SETs instead of pushing against them.

Many of these are suggestions that SET researcher and teaching consultants give faculty, but your post is so much stronger because it comes from a fellow faculty member!

Alan seems to miss the important points of the article in order to give us one more blast of complaints about SETs in general.

SETs are just not going to go away. It would be much better to spend time using the results for improvement than complaining about them or about rare nasty or inappropriate comments. Every faculty member receives some.

Nick Carbone said...

I read Alan's post less as a complaint -- though complaint comes through -- and more a concern that poorly written, perhaps with unsubstantiated claims and personal asides about the professor get taken too seriously in a way that's unfair to teachers.

I do think SETs are here to stay; I also think that done well, they can be wonderful tools for improving teaching and learning. Designed right, they can also help students reflect on their learning as well as on the course, its design, and the professor's performance.

What would it take -- systemically, not just at the teacher level -- to make SETs work well? That's one question that's hard to answer, and finding a possible answer, getting it to work. Systems are hard to change.

The one place I do have some control over SETs is in my classroom. As an adjunct teacher these days, that control is even more important.