Avoiding bad teaching evaluations: Tricks of the trade


Student evaluations are the main method used to evaluate our teaching. These evaluations are, at best, an imperfect measuring tool.

Lots of irrelevant stuff affects evaluation scores. If you’re attractive or well dressed, this helps your scores. If you are a younger woman, you have to reckon with a distinct set of challenges and biases. If the weather is better out, you might get better evaluations, too. So, don’t feel bad about doing things to help your scores, even if they aren’t connected to teaching quality.

My university aptly calls these forms by their acronym, “PTE”: Perceived Teaching Effectiveness. Note the word: “perceived.” Actual effectiveness is moot.

People are aware whether or not they learned. However, superficial things can really affect perception. What our students think about the classroom experience is important. But evaluation forms are not really measuring teaching effectiveness. These evaluations measure student satisfaction more than learning outcomes. Since we are being held accountable for classroom performance based on student satisfaction, it is in our interest to pay attention to the things that can improve satisfaction.

Here are some ways I’ve approached evaluations with an effort to avoid getting bad ones.

  • I try to teach effectively. The best foundation of perception is reality. I put some trust in my students’ ability to assess performance. If I’m doing a good job, my students should know it.
  • I work hard to demonstrate that I respect my students. It’s easy to give in to the conceit that my time is more valuable than the time of my students. When I see myself going down that dark pathway, I try to follow the golden rule, and treat the time of my students with as much concern as I would like my own time to be treated. For example, I make sure class always ends on time.
  • I emphasize fairness. On the first day of class, I let students know that life isn’t fair, but I try hard to make sure that my class done as fairly as possible. Students often volunteer gripes about their other classes, and unfairness is always the common thread in these discussions. Even if students perform poorly in a class, if they think that it was conducted fairly, then they are still usually satisfied.
  • I recall Hanlon’s Razor: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” None of my students are out to get me. Ideally, they’re out for themselves. Sometimes, I’m not clear enough about expectations. When a student needs something, I approach the interaction with the default assumption that it’s my fault. And if it’s not my fault, it’s not an intentional flaw, so I can’t give students a bad time about the shortcoming.
  • I don’t engage in debates about graded assignments. I tell my students that if there is a very simple mathematical error or something I missed, they can bring it to me immediately after class. Any other errors need to be addressed with a written request by the start of the next class meeting. I’ve only gotten a few of these, and in all cases, the students were correct.
  • When a student is persistent about points, I avoid the argument whenever possible. I don’t concede unearned credit, but I don’t dismiss the concern either. Nearly all requests for grade changes are so tiny, they have a negligible on the final grade. I show, numberwise, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I tell them that if they are right on the borderline at the end of the semester, I’ll make a note of it and we could talk about it at that time. This prevents the student from waging a futile argument, and keeps me out of the business of catering to minutia.
  • I run a tight ship. I can get annoyed by inappropriate behavior, but the students are usually even more annoyed. When someone is facebooking in the front row or monopolizes discussion, the rest of the class is usually super-pleased that I shut it down, as long I do it with respect. Classroom management is a fine art that we are rarely taught. (I’ve learned some education faculty and K-12 teachers.) I think establishing the classroom environment in the first few days is critical. I don’t enforce rules, but I develop accepted norms of behavior collaboratively on the first day of class. When things happen outside the norm, I address them promptly and, I hope, gently. When anybody (including myself) is found to be outside the norm, we adjust quickly because we agreed to the guidelines on the first day of class. I’ve botched this and have been seen as too severe on occasion, but I’d prefer to err on that side then having an overly permissive environment in which students don’t give one another the respect of their attention.
  • A classic strategy is to start out the term with extreme rigor, and lessen up as time goes on. I don’t do this, at least not intentionally, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea as long as you finish with high expectations. In any circumstance, I imagine it would be disaster to increase the perceived level of difficulty during the term.
  • I use midterm evaluations, using the university form partway through the semester, for my own use. This gives me early evidence about perceptions with the opportunity to change course, if necessary. I am open and transparent about changes I make.
  • I often use a supplemental evaluation form at the end of the term. There are two competing functions of the evaluation. The first is to give you feedback for course improvement, and the second is to assess performance. What the students might think is constructive feedback might be seen as a negative critique by those not in the classroom. It’s in our interest to separate those two functions onto separate pieces of paper. Before we went digital, I used to hold up the university form and say: “This form [holding up the scantron] is being used by the school as a referendum on my continued employment. I won’t be able to access these forms until after the next semester already starts, so they won’t help me out that much.” Then I held up another piece of paper [an evaluation I wrote with specific questions about the course] and said, “This one is constructive feedback about what you liked and didn’t like about the course. If you have criticisms of the course that you want me to see, but don’t think that my bosses need to see them, then this is the place to do it. Note that this form has specific questions about our readings, homework, tests and lessons. I’m just collecting these for myself, and I’d prefer if you don’t put your names on them.” I find that students are far more likely to evaluate my teaching in broad strokes in the university form when I use this approach, and there are fewer little nitpicky negative comments.
  • I try to avoid doing evaluations when students are more anxious about their grade, like on the cusp of an exam or when I return graded assignments. When I hand out the very helpful final exam review sheet, which causes relief, then I might do evaluations.
  • I don’t bring in special treats on the day I administer evaluations. At least with my style, my students would find it cloying, and they wouldn’t appreciate a cheap bribe attempt. Once in a long while, I may bring in donuts or something else like that, but never on evaluation day.
  • I’ve had some sections in with chronic attendance problems, in which some students would skip or show up late. On those occasions, I made a point to administer evaluations at the start of class on a day that had low attendance. I imagined that the students who weren’t bothering to attend class were less likely to give a stellar rating. Moreover, the absent students weren’t as well qualified to evaluate my performance as those sitting in class. (Of course, those attendance problems indicated that I had a bigger problem on my hands.)
  • Being likable and approachable. Among all the things that influence evaluations, I think this is the biggest one. There are many ways to be liked by your students, as a human being, but I think being liked is prerequisite to really good scores. Especially with our students who face a lot of structural disadvantages, approachability is important for the ability to do the job well. I’m not successful enough on this front. It hasn’t tanked me in evaluations, because by the end of the semester the students are comfortable with me, but that doesn’t emerge as quickly as I’d like. This is the area I need to work on the most. I am to do all the professorly things with students with the greatest needs, they need to be able to talk to me.

Of course, some of these tips don’t apply if the evaluations are being administered online. This is a growing trend, and my university made the switch a couple years ago. (Thoughts and experiences with paper vs. online evaluations are in the ever-growing queue for future posts.)

Are there different or additional approaches that you use for the non-teaching-performance related aspects of student evaluations?

[update: be sure to read this comment. I think everything in this post is relevant to professors of both genders, but there are additional issues involving student biases that female professors need to deal with that I haven’t addressed. Professors need to be approachable to do their jobs. If students can’t talk to us, then that puts a low ceiling on what we can help our students achieve. However, what it means to be professional and “approachable” for a younger female professor might look really different than for an older guy. As I don’t have experience being a younger female professor, I’m not as well qualified to address this as some others. Another good reason to cruise over to Tenure, She Wrote.]

7 thoughts on “Avoiding bad teaching evaluations: Tricks of the trade

  1. Thanks for this post! I really like the idea of using the University Form (perhaps with some supplemental questions) as the midterm evaluation – a lot of the questions are so esoteric it’s hard for me to know how the class will answer them at the end of the semester.

    Re: positive evaluations – how important do you think it is to occasionally remind students what they have learned, and/or act as a “cheerleader”? I think in a challenging class (particularly in STEM) students often feel frustrated with what they haven’t quite gotten a grasp on, so they can perceive themselves of having learned less than they have.

  2. Good points all. Similar to your midterm evals, I have established a quick weekly survey form through Google forms that I embed in the course companion website. It is very simple, with 4 questions: 1) rate the content 1-5, 2) rate the difficulty 1-5, 3) what did you like the most, 4) what was the most difficult; plus a box for comments. I have noticed that in those anonymous online forms some students will say things they don’t in class, often sharing fears, frustrations, or difficult personal times. Being able to respond to concerns and then address the “most difficult” topics right away has been well received.

  3. Published this bit of eval satire in “Notes from the Academic Underground”:

    The Chronicle of Higher Education prints a teaching advice column, and the other day the subject was student evaluations of teachers. The Chronicle offered advice to university teachers on how to become, well, more entertaining to boost their evaluation scores, but the Chronicle is suggesting half measures.
    Evaluation, or grading, in the first place, is a political game. Students know that getting a good grade has at least as much to do with sucking up as it does with studying hard because there is no such thing as a completely objective exam or professor. Any exam or prof has biases built into it; a smart, hard-working student can completely bomb on a test for knowing too much, for seeing too many possible answers, or for seeing nuances that make more than one answer correct, but how many professors, especially those teaching large lecture sections, want to do anything other than machine grading given the pressure to spend time serving on committees or, most importantly, boosting a research reputation. And grad students, who do most of the teaching anyway, don’t have time and knowledge for decent evaluation skills. They’re not trained to teach and know that one day they’ll only have to give canned lectures anyway.
    So university instructors from grad assistants to full profs game the evaluation just as undergrads game their grades. Both students and their instructors know the system is corrupt, meaning it’s just plain political like everything else in life. The students score teaching performances based on the grade they think they will earn, to stay out of trouble, to get even, or simply to fill in bubbles because they have to. And any faculty persons or grad assistants who think there is no connection between good evaluation scores for teaching and grades needs to crawl back into a study carrel. And if they think that the entertainment value of a course has no connection to student evaluations, then time to crawl back under a book. But, you, faculty person, can do more to boost your teaching scores without mastering song and dance as the Chronicle suggests. Do the following:

    1. Have the evaluations completed as early in the term or semester as possible, and definitely before you return any graded homework or exams. 

    2. Have the evaluations done early in the term or semester as possible after you’ve returned a graded assignment or test with as many As and Bs as you can muster. 

    3. Have the evaluations done as late as possible in the semester or term after the bad students have dropped the course and you have used the following pedagogical tools:

    a. Tell students that grading is actually a means for them to evaluate their own progress in the course and not really a bureaucratic tool offering a false, arbitrary, and highly abstract measure of ability and achievement. In other words, all students can revise up to an A. 

    b. Never, never grade using a curve. If the A students don’t get beat up, you will. 

    c. Always tell students they’re improving no matter what the condition of the work they turn in. 

    d. If you encounter plagiarism, return the work for further revision.

    e. Never, ever return student work or tests the day you have your evaluation done. 

    f. Wear bright colors the day you give evaluations, and tell a joke in class that’s actually funny. 
    g. Check the weather. Give evaluations only on bright, sunny days in the middle of the week. On Mondays, students are surly, and on Fridays they just don’t give a damn. And during spring term or semester, only grade hounds, serious students, or failing students who need brownie points show up on a warm, sunny day–that’s the cohort you want for top scores.
    As Mark Twain said, there are lies, damned lies, and evaluation scores.

  4. An alternative form of evaluation I use is based on an evaluation used in our religion department. It asks students to revisit the learning goals of the course and evaluate (1) where they were on that learning goal at the beginning of the course, (2) where they were on that learning goal at the end of the course, (3) what about the course aided them in improving on that learning goal (if they improved), (4) what about the course impeded them from improving as much as they would have liked, and (5) what suggestions they have that might make the mastery of that learning goal more likely in future offerings of the course. These are far more informative for guiding course development than the standardized forms the college uses. Giving out these evaluations BEFORE the standardized university forms usually generates better standardized form results because (I think) students perceive that you really do care (which I do) and they recognize that the two forms of evaluation have different purposes (which I also explicitly point out as Terry recommends).

    One final note: Get to learn the form your college uses and be careful in how you fill out the faculty information side of this. On the IDEA form, which our college uses, if you rate a learning goal as “Essential” it gets “weighted” twice as much as a learning goal you rate “Important” such that the “Important” things don’t affect the “average score” if you rate too many things “Essential”. Add to that the fact that we should not be calculating averages and standard deviations on ordinal data and it is a wonder that any of us are still employed (see 2 blog posts at sciencemalcontent.wordpress.com for more on this). So, know your university’s instrument and use it to your best advantage.

  5. Being seen as like able or approachable is interpreted differently for female faculty – “approachable” is taken as meaning “not rigorous.” Just a warning for young faculty reading this – advice that leads to good teaching evaluations for men can lead to a perception of “too easy” for women.

  6. Very important point. I would guess that women first need to dispel myths and defy biases before making sure that students feel they can talk to their professor.

  7. I just go the worst eval from an adjunct assignment I have ever gotten and can’t help but think it is a set-up by very cold dept chair who went with these kids evals (1st year comm college) 100%. These kids are babies who went to the dept because I was “too hard” and they slaughtered me in the evals and to my horror, he backed them up and told me they will not be hiring me again. I have been a teacher for ten years and have never had this happen. Before you accept an assignment, you better dmn well know who will be controlling the evals because if/when they decide to ruin you, they can. This situation was completely and totally unfair and I am done. No more. It’s not worth my $800/month to grade papers till 1 a.m., thoughtfully answer their emails, and give a dmn. What is it now? A crap shoot. Not one I am willing to deal anymore. I will miss teaching but no more.

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