It’s the end of my very first semester as a full-time professor and it hits me like a ton of bricks. No one warned me of the rollercoaster of emotion I was about to ride. Fast forward to the end of my fifth year and I have the same sense of fear at the end of the semester. If there was a list of the things new professor need to know about, but no one wants to tell you…this would be on the list. There is one thing in academics that leaves you elated and at rock bottom all in the same 10 minutes. What could leave you weeping and laughing all at the same time? Student course evaluations. This is the time of year when a student wears the cloak of anonymity and logs into BlackBoard to complete their course evaluation. As a professor, you have put in your blood, sweat, and tears to a course and now the audience will speak. Did all the changes you made matter? Could the students see beyond the mistakes you made? Did you make a difference?
“I would make a lot of changes to this course. One of the most important ones being actually teaching what will be on the exam…Also, when we ask questions during the exams, helpful feedback is not provided. In other classes, the feedback is way more helpful. A lot of people felt this way about everything and were very angered by how Bethany taught the course, even if they don’t put it down in this eval. Additionally, Bethany always said that we would be tested on information in the PowerPoints and in the book; however, many people (including myself) studied from both of those resources, and some of the questions were still ridiculously hard. Many of us think that Bethany has been making the course harder on purpose.” -an excerpt from a recent student’s course evaluation
“Bethany Huebner is a wonderful professor who takes our opinions into strong consideration. She was the only professor to have a midsemester evaluation and then also implemented what we said. We asked to do more small review sessions and we would do these once a week. We also asked for more quizzes, so she revised the syllabus to allow for more quizzes. She promptly answers my questions whenever they arise. So, I believe Dr. Huebner was a major strength of this course.” -an excerpt from a recent student’s course evaluation from the same course as the above student’s feedback
The above two excerpts were from different students in the exact same class. How did I completely fail one student at the same time surpassing another student’s expectations? This is what I mean when I say a rollercoaster of emotion.
For me, reading the course evaluations for the first time was like entering into a 40-degree ice bath at the end of a 2-a-day volleyball hell week without toe covers on. When I was a freshman, I was coaxed into getting into the ice bath by some upperclassmen at the end of a really tough practice. “It will help so much!” they said. “It is hard to get in at first, but then you get numb and it will all be fine,” others said. They convinced me of the benefits of the ice bath, but unbeknownst to me they also were pranking the freshman. They coaxed me in first and as I dipped my foot in, I winced. Wow, it was cold! With their encouragement I emerged myself into the ice water. It was a little as I expected and a lot like I hadn’t. I held my breath thinking that would make it better…no change. After a little while, my toes began to ache, and I asked my teammate, “Do your toes hurt too?” The upperclassmen busted out laughing and then slowly each held up their feet. They were all wearing insulated toe covers. They were right about one thing, the ice bath did help with the post practice soreness immensely, but it was at the expense of a different type of pain.
Here are the three things I have learned to do to “keep my feet warm” while in the ice bath of reading course evaluations:
1. Retreat to a place of comfort.
Before I open my course evaluations, I make a cup of rooibos tea and retreat to my favorite couch with my favorite blanket. More than likely, I didn’t connect with every single one of my students and I am going to read some critical feedback. That is okay! I need the critical feedback to get better. I need the honesty of where my blind spots are. I just need these revealed when I’m in a place of comfort.
2. Reset my mindset.
After I brew my tea and get cozied up, I pray for a few minutes. I pray that God will give me a mindset ready to receive critical feedback and to not personalize it. Early in my tenure, I would read negative feedback and just get depressed. It didn’t matter that there were 40 other students writing positive comments in my course evaluation…I took the words to heart. Now I remind myself of how far I have come, but how far I still need to go. I pray that my mind will be in a place that can take the constructive information from the feedback and leave the personal behind. I don’t like to eat most fish, but that doesn’t mean fish is bad. My teaching style may not be a student’s taste, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. I can grow from whatever the feedback I receive, I just need to be in the right mindset for that to occur.
3. Retool my reading.
As I peruse the comment section of the course evaluations, I underline comments that spark emotion. The emotions can be positive or negative, but what I’ve learned is that in those comments are the gems of feedback. Sometimes the feedback just has to be mined like a diamond. For example, in the above excepts I shared, I immediately became defensive while reading it. I wanted to speak to the student and tell them that it has never been my intention to purposefully make a class hard or harder. I wanted to tell them how their assessment was unfair. But then I decided to retool my response. Maybe I do need to do a better job of providing helpful feedback. They said that other classes didn’t have the same problem, so I could discuss with my colleagues how they give feedback during exams and try to see if I can mimic their approach. I had to set the emotion apart from the words and retool how I was reading it.
A minister once told me that there is 3% true to everything that is said. Even when your told a bold face lie, you could probably identify 3% of the content to be the truth. I apply the 3% rule to reading my course evaluations to help me stay grounded in the things I’m doing well and to keep me growing in the areas I need to improve. Teaching is a lot like parenting…if your kids are your best friend then you probably aren’t giving them enough boundaries…if your kids tell you they hate you and slam the door shut (but secretly wouldn’t trade you for the world) then you are probably doing it right. Although students aren’t always going to like how you teach a class or how hard you push them, that may still be what is best for them. Don’t lighten up if you know what you are doing is right, but find the 3% in their feedback you can work with and keep growing.
How do you read course evaluations?
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