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I remember my first year as a tenure-track professor as a nightmare. For reasons I won’t belabor, my teaching stunk. During class, my face was red and hot with humiliation as I fumbled through the content. During lectures, I prayed that no one would ask me a question that I couldn’t answer. They always did. At night tears splashed as I tried to piece together lessons.
I expected a reckoning on my course evaluations, but the results were way worse than I expected. The students hated me. As colleagues prepared for the summer break, I slumped in my chair reviewing their harsh (but true) comments about disorganized presentations, lack of preparation, and “tragic incompetence.” Their words stung like YouTube comments as I read them over and over again. I couldn’t stop punishing myself for a job poorly done. “Maybe this isn’t the job for me,” I whined to anyone who would listen.
Finally, after a summer spent sulking, I decided to pick up the pieces and try to recover professionally. Like any good millennial, I started by googling “how to recover from poor teaching evaluations” and “is tenure still possible after low evaluations” but found nothing.
I decided to find the way out on my own, and I have. Memories of that disheartening quarter still make my stomach turn, but I have recovered and learned to use my course evaluations as a tool for growth. I’d like to share the process I use.
Read your evaluations, and let them sit until you gain some objectivity. This could take days, weeks, or even longer. In the meantime, be kind to yourself. Have a drink. Take a bath, a nap, or a walk. For those of us in academe, it’s important to remember that our jobs do not define us.
Identify and organize common themes. Is there always a student who objects to the workload and the difficulty of the reading? There sure is! Ignore them. Look for reactions that more than a few students share. I use this rule of thumb: I tally the number of recurring comments about a particular aspect of the class and if the number exceeds 10 percent of the class enrollment, then I consider doing something about the objection.
Write a reflection summarizing the major themes and their content. I add my own clarifications and reflections on what the comments mean along with what I thought worked well and didn’t in the course. At the end I identify clear and actionable changes that I will make the next time I teach the course. For example, “10 students indicated that I spoke too quickly during lecture, so next time I will slow myself down by annotating my slides as they take notes,” or “five students said that lab seven was not useful, so next time I will explain its application in the real world and add this as a learning objective to the course.” Then I close the book on that set of evaluations. I never read them again.
Revisit your written reflection and not the evaluations. At the start of a new term, I read in my own words what worked and what didn’t. I make a plan to execute the changes that I previously outlined. My interpretation is an important filter that allows me to begin a new course in a positive and productive way. Reading my reflections, I hear the advice of a good teaching friend who wants me to succeed.
Reflect on your growth and give yourself credit for the progress you make. Usually, courses improve each time you teach them. Take positive student comments as evidence of this improvement—for example, “eight students commented favorably that when I added weekly quizzes they felt more prepared for exams.” More likely, the absence of certain comments from your evaluations will reflect improvement: “last time, 10 students indicated that I spoke too quickly. That comment did not appear once since I began writing notes on my slides in real time.” Or, “previously, students questioned my knowledge. Since I stopped prefacing every answer with ’I think,’ they no longer make this comment.” Acknowledging how specific actions changed the student perception of a course creates a narrative of my growth as a teacher.
It has been four years since I sat heartbroken in my office, and although negative comments from students still sting, I no longer let them dictate how I evaluate a course. I have learned to trust my own instincts about what is best for my students. I’ve learned from my experiences and gotten better at my job. My advice to a young professor devastated by a batch of bad evaluations? Know that this one course will not define you. Your job as a professor is to make steady and measurable progress. You will be fine. Years’ worth of courses lie ahead. Some will be great, and others will not. Let this experience humble you, but do not let it stop you. Evaluations can be a part of your growth and development as a teacher; take the bits that serve you and let the rest go.
This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on March 8, 2021 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Emily Dosmar, PhD, is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. Her teaching interests include classroom gamification, ungrading, and project-based learning.
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