Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What I've Learned from Student Evaluations

Students ask the darndest questions sometimes. Like the sophomore guy—a guy!—who asked me last week how old I was when I got married and how long my husband and I waited to have kids. Hilarious.

(I answered him, by the way. No need to keep my students in the dark about my personal life.)

Another student, also a guy but not in my class, asked me recently about how I felt about student evaluations. Did I even read them? Did I learn anything from them?

I had to hesitate before I answered because I have some serious past baggage with student evaluations.


After taking a five-year hiatus from teaching, I returned to the classroom in August of 2011. I’ll admit, I was nervous. Throughout the entire semester I wondered what my students thought of me.

O.K., I obsessed.

I was well aware that I was five years older than the last time I had taught. Would they just see me as a mother figure? Would they think I was dumb? Out of touch? Not on top of my teaching game?

Heck, I wondered the same things about myself.

I had a whole lot of doubts that followed me around like a lost puppy that first semester.

So when evaluations came back to me after the semester had ended, I was devastated to read that a couple of students really hated me. Devastated.

O.K., I cried.

I just stared at the comments, wondering if I would ever be able to put myself in front of a group of overly-critical, picky, self-absorbed, entitled students again. If my office had a window in it, I probably would have climbed out of it and fled, never to return.

I called my husband and said, “I should never have come back.”

He very wisely asked, “Shelly, did you get any good evaluations?”

“Well, yes.”

“What did those say?” he asked.

I don’t really remember much about those evaluations any more, but I do remember one thing: my students, pretty much across the board, felt like I cared about them as individuals and that I wanted to see them succeed.

What more could I ask for?

Apparently, a lot more.

Because the next semester, I couldn’t even look at my evaluations. They came to me in an email, and I deleted it before even looking at them.

What can I say? I’m weak.

And prideful.

And seriously uninformed.

Last fall, I decided to take a new approach to student evaluations. After giving myself a mental pep talk and a virtual kick in the pants, I decided that 1) I needed to grow up, 2) that I would read the evaluations but that 3) I wouldn’t take them too seriously.

I knew by then which students loved me and would give me a glowing evaluation no matter what. And as much as I’d love to stay in Neverland and read only those remarks about me, I knew they weren’t that helpful.

I also knew which students pretty much hated me. These were the students who didn’t work hard enough to get the grade they felt they deserved (remember the entitled ones?) or who felt it really wasn’t that rude to consider class time their personal nap time or (my personal favorite) to knit while I was talking. (Oh yes she did!) I knew what would be coming from those students, and I braced myself.

That semester I read every evaluation, every comment, no matter how much they skewered my pride, and did this: I threw out the really glowing reports at the top of the scale along with the really nasty reports at the bottom. I focused on the evaluations that fell somewhere in the middle—those that had some good things to say along with some constructive criticisms.

And that’s where I really started to learn what worked and what didn’t in my class. I’ve made changes based on the evaluations that landed somewhere in the middle.

Honestly? I wish my students didn’t have to evaluate me every semester. Because I pretty much know what’s coming. I know that some days I drone on and on like Charlie Brown’s teacher and that on some days my classes seem like a never-ending glut of boring, regurgitated information. (I’m working on that.) I know I don’t always start every class with an inspiring word from the Lord (I teach at a Christian college), but I’ve come to grips with that too.

Hey, you can’t always be inspiring at 8:00 in the morning.

And I know that I’m not the best professor they’ve ever had. A lot of factors come into play here, not the least of these is the subject matter. (Who knew that some kids just don’t like writing?!) But I’m O.K. with that. I work very hard to present the information to my students in the best way I can, and I feel good about the work I do.

What I also know is that I am a teacher who cares very much about her students and who wants to see them succeed, and my evaluations consistently bear that out. If a student doesn’t ever get the importance of the Oxford comma but knows that I cared enough to meet with her outside of the classroom for thirty minutes each week, I’m good with that.


So my response to the student who asked me how I felt about evaluations? I told him I’ve learned that some people will love you and some people will hate you. It’s important to not waste energy obsessing over it.

I’ve learned, instead, to look at how the people in the middle evaluate me—the people who take the time to see me for who I am, to listen to what I'm really saying, to care enough to respond with thoughtful comments—those are the ones that really matter.

Good advice for life? I think so.


  1. What kind of class size do you teach?

    Just a thought from a mom with a couple or more kids with ADD. That girl knitting might have heard your every word and the kid who looked like he was paying attention might have been "somewhere else" while you were talking.

    You are a wonderful teacher and they are blessed to have you in their lives!

  2. I only taught one semester, and reading my evals killed me. Even though I'd already made the decision to go back to work and leave full-time grad school (and teaching), I was devastated. I still remember being shocked by a student who I thought liked me...who clearly did not. All that to say, your journey through this is brave and smart, and I'm inspired to take your approach to criticism/feedback in my own life!

  3. Linda, I usually have 21 students, but 18 right now. In the fall I teach two classes, but one in the spring.

    Mary, I didn't know you started grad school and taught a semester! Wow! And thanks for your kind words. :)

  4. Love your wise and
    truthful words, Shelly!
    You are absolutely right
    when you say it's the
    way to view life, too....

    Do you teach at Wheaton
    College? I have a friend
    with a son who attends there.

    Wherever you are, the
    students are lucky to have
    a teacher with as much
    heart as you have, my friend!

    xo Suzanne

  5. Shelly,
    I am proud of you! I remember just after you read those first evaluations. Good job for really evaluating the evaluations.