On Student Evaluations

As I anxiously anticipate beginning my new job as a high school Spanish teacher, I’ve spent the last few days truly beginning to plan in earnest for the upcoming year. As I’ve done so, I’ve been not only trawling my PLN’s tweets on Twitter and looking at the wonderful resources beginning to appear in the #wldropbox, but also looking back on my own teaching at UC Davis to consider which practices I wish to continue and which I feel I would be better off leaving behind.

One such practice involves a polarizing aspect of teaching at the university level that seems to be slowly but surely trickling down to secondary and even primary schools: the Dread Pirate Roberts Student Evaluation. Now, it may just be me, but my experience with evaluations my first few classes led me to react something like this:

Simply put, students responded with such unexpected vitriole for me, the class, and my subject area that I felt like I was reading my Ratemyprofessors.com entry all over again (which, by the way, you should never, never do if you want to maintain your teachesteem larger than that of Polly Pocket). While I readily admit that I wasn’t likely the absolute best teacher ever in my first term formally teaching, I like to think that I wasn’t so bad that I “made [the student] never want to study Spanish again.” I stopped being quite so hard on myself once I realized that such statements tended to be accompanied by others of this variety: “I hate how we have reading and homework every day!” …Is this exceptional among college courses? Or high school courses? Or elementary school courses?

Of course, not all of the evaluations were terrible, even those first few groups, and they got better over time. But I would argue that the students weren’t really what changed; I changed. One important change that I made was to institute my own student evaluations. Yes, I was not satisfied with one auto-da-fé of my merit per class, I wanted FOUR! (Kidding.)

What I realized was that there were a lot of very valid criticisms and concerns being expressed in student evaluations—hidden among the complaints about my speaking entirely in Spanish in, um, Spanish class—that I could do little to nothing about only hearing them after the class was over. Comments that flew in the face of the others I just mentioned above. Comments like “Signature activities don’t really help me learn the language because you just read what’s on the sheet twelve times.” Or “I needed extra practice on the subjunctive.” Or “Why do we have to use the textbook every day? I want to be able to really SPEAK the language.” Whoa. Are these really the same students who were just saying

So, after having a long heart-to-heart with a dear colleague of mine with a few more years of teaching experience than I, I found the solution: Three times during the quarter, students would be given anonymous evaluations to fill out about how the class has been so far. These evaluations would be given at a reasonably spaced interval of about every three or four weeks (don’t want to annoy or overload the students!), and they would be given on days when a regular homework assignment was not assigned on the syllabus, giving ample time to complete the four questions. Students could respond in either English or Spanish, but the questions were given in English for simplicity’s sake (and because I was using the same survey for Spanish 1, 2, and 3). Below, I include the questions that I shamelessly ripped off from said colleague:

1. Which specific class activities (or types of activities) have been most helpful or most engaging to you? Why?

2. Which specific class activities (or types of activities) have been least helpful or least engaging to you? Why?

3. What sorts of changes would you like to see implemented in class and/or in the instructor’s teaching methods? [Note: The students were informed ahead of time that tests and other assignments were set by the department and couldn’t be changed by the lowly instructor before them.]

4. What concepts and/or vocabulary have been most difficult for you? Which ones do you need more practice with in class? Which ones do you need more practice with outside of class?

Now, I’ll admit that there is a big difference between the sorts of things students are willing to say on a survey their teacher sees before grades are posted versus what they’re willing to say on the official evaluations I don’t see until after the quarter is over. However, the vitriole almost completely vanished from those official evals. In its place, I saw comments like “Teacher really cares about our opinions and interests” and “Caleb listened to what I had to say about the videos in class” and “Gave me extra help about the pronouns in Spanish and I finally think I get them” and “The last Spanish teacher I had came into class each day with a binder that looked about ten years old, would open it to the day’s lesson, and do whatever she’d written down there. I didn’t think she was really even aware there were students in the class. Caleb is not that teacher.”

If your system is just starting student evaluations, or even if you are used to them and are just looking to get better reviews, the very best recommendation I have is to take matters into your own hands. Implement your own evaluations. Heck, even ask the students what sort of questions would be important to consider in such a document. They may surprise you with the depth of their knowledge as to what makes a great educator.
Make your classroom a student-centered space. Meet your students wherever they are at, and show them that you are listening to their challenges and their successes. If you have several students saying they don’t feel a certain type of activity—in my case, it was the “Find someone who…” survey/signature activity—is helping them learn to communicate, take a step back and really consider whether the task is contributing anything toward a proficiency goal for that unit. If it isn’t, throw it out, at least for this semester. You can always try again in the future, but it has been my experience that if you have more than one or two students commenting on a single activity, it was either a wild success (e.g., ZOMG REVIEW JEOPARDY IS AMAZEBALLS! [Disclaimer: Not an actual student comment.]) or a bit of a trainwreck. And you know what, those kinds of polarizing activities are really OK because it means you are (probably) trying, you are innovating, you are thinking outside of the textbook box.
Anybody else experimenting with student evaluations of your own? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments, or you can Tweet me your thoughts.

5 thoughts on “On Student Evaluations

  1. I have used student evaluations and reflections for a few years now, and I find that they are very helpful as well! Students need to have a voice in the classroom and this is a great way to incorporate it. Thanks for sharing this, Caleb!

  2. Evals are a tricky business. I sat down with students one-on-one at the beginning of the second semester to evaluate and reflect on three things.

    1. What was the best assignment and why?
    2. What was the worst assignment and why?
    3. What's your favorite tool we've used in class and why?

    I wrote down their answers in a Google doc. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t9VP9oqMBwIZeBGQOv5gD0q5pjCOgw4jveRsNOW9Io8/edit?usp=sharing

    Looking back, I see those questions focused on my teaching other than their learning. I wanted to know what I did right rather than how they had grown in French. It wasn't necessarily wrong at the time, but I would ask it a different way if I had the chance again. I need to think about how I would do evals differently before I could post what I would ask.

  3. In a concerted effort to be concise (it took me two tries to get here, so…):

    -I think you do a great job taking into account feedback and learning preferences, and that is commendable. A model to be followed, for sure.

    -Take the student feedback to heart, but not too much so on an emotional level (this is me wearing the hat of 'wife of a PhD student who gets his own university-level teaching feedback' and not that of the WL teacher who often cares too much, to be clear. Those hats are verrry different!). Sometimes everyone need a place to vent, whether or not it's the best forum for whatever they are venting about.

    -And here comes my potential divisive comment: Keep student suggestions in mind, but also have confidence that you have pedagogical training & experience, and arguably most importantly, the experience of learning an L2. As such, I think it's ok to disagree with students on a best (or worst) method sometimes. Use their feedback to adapt, but maybe not always to completely change a method–there IS a reason we are the ones helping to guide their learning, after all.

    So much for concise. Great first 'real' post!

  4. Intriguing post, Caleb! Student evaluations are definitely invaluable when you look at the overall feedback, even at the high school level. We were asked to do a beta test with our school's new evaluation form in December and I was pleasantly surprised to receive what seemed to be some honest feedback/constructive criticism from a number of students. You have a great idea to ask the students to share the types of questions they would like to see on your evals. Your decision to make your own form that is tailored to your classroom/content area also makes good sense. Thank you for the inspiration to revisit the self-assessment forms I've used in the past and to consider creating a content-specific evaluation form, moving forward. By the way, I like the fact that you wrote this post with humor weaved in it. Bonne continuation! 🙂

  5. This is a great post. I love the idea of giving them a survey more frequently. It could even be a ticket to leave on Socrative or a closing activity so they don't even have to do it for homework.

    I gave a survey to the kids when I returned from maternity leave last year and it was pretty helpful. I truly wanted to know what the sub did that was particularly helpful. I love learning from other teachers. However, with the responses-there are always a couple of kids who take the opportunity to exploit their anonymity and criticize in a way that is not constructive at all. I was in tears reading some of the comments made on surveymonkey, but when I singled out the responses I realized that it was only 2 or 3 kids out of 90 who were leaving nasty feedback. It just seemed like a lot more when I was reading 2 or 3 comments per question!! If the students know how seriously I take the surveys, they might start leaving some constructive feedback and give good suggestions! I think I'm going to make a preset quiz on Socrative or Surveymonkey right now!!

    Thanks Caleb!

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