Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Except One (2009 edition)

Last June I wrote about how every student but one in my medium-sized course for science majors gave me a positive evaluation for my teaching. What I wrote last year applies to this year as well for another medium-sized course for science majors that I taught this past term. Last year I wrote:

In the evaluations for my class this time, every student except one said that they learned a lot. Every student except one said they would recommend my class to others. Every student except one said that they would recommend me as an instructor. Every student except one said that I treated students with respect, was approachable, gave timely feedback, was organized, and so on.

But here's the difference between last year and this. Last year I wrote:

I know which student hated the class. This student was unremittingly rude throughout the entire academic year.

and I asked the question:

Is it better to know in advance that at least one student hates your class, or is it better if you don't know until you read your evaluations?

I now have more data to answer this question. This year, I have no idea who the exception is. I was shocked that one student hated me and the class so much and I was completely unaware of this until I read my evaluations.

I would understand it more if this were my big intro course with hundreds of students. In a big intro course, it's not unusual to have a few students who check off all the most negative ratings on an evaluation. In my big class this past term, I was surprised that I only got one extremely negative comment (maybe one of the cheaters I busted? the student I caught lying about needing to miss a quiz for an athletic event? someone else entirely?) and one moderately negative evaluation (from someone who hated the fact that when I was asked a question by email, I typically explained how and where to find the information rather than just giving the answer directly). I expect those sorts of evaluations in a big class, and as long as there are only a few of them, I don't worry about it.

In a small to medium-sized course where you know all the students by name and see them around the department all the time and chat in the halls etc., it's troubling to find out that one of them was extremely unhappy throughout the course and never said a word despite having ample opportunity. The one unhappy student wrote no specific comments to explain what exactly he or she hated about me and the course, but checked off all the most negative ratings on the multiple choice part of the form.

So, is it better to know in advance that at least one student hates your class, or is it better if you don't know until you read your evaluations?

Both are lousy situations, of course, but I guess overall I'd have to say that I prefer the latter. I feel great regret that I didn't know one of my students was so unhappy with the course and there was no time to discuss the problem, but I enjoyed teaching this class this term, thinking (delusionally, as it turns out) that all of the students were also enjoying the class.

Last year, the one extremely hostile and vocal student had a serious negative effect on the the class and my feelings about teaching it. Each day of the course last year, I dreaded going into the classroom and seeing that student sitting there, arms crossed and frowning, in the back of the room, preparing to whine about something. The rest of the class was intimidated by this student and the atmosphere of the entire course was affected.

This year, the class seemed cheerful and filled with motivated, perky students who were very interactive about asking and answering questions during the class. It was a pleasure to teach that group of students.

So I lost one student along the way and I am sorry about that, but if you forced me to choose between the two unappealing options, I would choose the unknown hostile student over the in-my-face hostile student.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since the student who checked off all the most negative answers didn't make any specific comments about what was wrong, it's also possible that s/he simply didn't look at the form carefully, and actually intended to select all the most positive answers.

In my experience, that's a fairly common mistake with this type of evaluation form.

FEP said...

I had a somewhat different, but memorable experience last term. As I wrote about it a month ago, I had one extremely negative evaluation. Besides guessing the student might be one of the few who missed the lecture a lot, I had no idea who the student (out of 40) was, but I am sure it was the same student who gave extremely negative comment in the informal midterm review of the course. The one extreme negative midterm review was always on the back of my mind going to the classroom, knowing there was one student out there extremely unhappy. I quickly decided there was nothing else I could do, but to try my best to not be affected and tried extra hard to improve the course in general in the second half term. Although this apparently did not work with the one student (maybe he/she did not come to class anyway), it worked at least for some others, based on comments that the second half of the course was improved greatly. But in any case, I too, would definitely prefer not to know. Well what about the midterm preview?
Thanks for writing about teaching and teaching evaluation. Your writing is always helpful and informative to me. It is a topic that I care about, but rarely hear being talked about in our large research university. I am sure people care too, but just don’t care to discuss because our priority is supposed to be research.

Katie said...

Is it possible that this student wasn't paying attention and had meant to check all the most positive ratings? I remember that, on the rating sheets used at my school, it was never completely clear to the students and I often got questions about it. Particularly if the student didn't leave any comments as to why s/he was so unhappy, it's at least a possibility.

Adrian said...

Is it possible that this student just misread the scale and thought that he/she was giving you the highest ratings for everything?

Anonymous said...

I suppose it's possible that the student has a personal/politics-related dislike for you for reasons unrelated to the course--it might explain the all negative ratings without specific comments. I can think of a situation that occurred in my department a bit ago where students of one professor would be likely to take negative action against another professor due to loyalties, regardless of how good the class was (though of course I'm thinking grad students here, not undergrads).

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about negative attitudes. There's a contingent of students from a particular programme in one of my classes, and over the term I developed negative feelings about their capabilities and unceasing questions. Fortunately, I seem to have successfully hidden the negative feelings, since my course evaluations still showed a high score for 'professor-class atmosphere'.

Anonymous said...

Were there no comments at all? Is it possible that someone just mixed up the range on the questions? I've had forms where there were positive written comments, but the numerical values were very negative. It was clear that, for whatever reason, the student thought 1 meant great instead of horrible...

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergrad, we filled out evaluations for a very popular biology professor who was an excellent teacher and mentor, and whose class was in high demand among majors. Shortly after class, a group of us were standing around, and one student said that s/he just ticked the "0" box (worst on a 4-point scale) for every question, just to keep the professor "humble". Is it possible that this is a similar situation - where the student didn't personally hate the class, but has the kind of personality to play games with their prof's evaluations?

christina said...

may be the student doesn't really hate you/your class, but hates filling out course evaluations. ours were required and sometimes i was so annoyed that i wanted to just mark all negatives, but i didn't, b/c i know that they matter. but this student might not.

John said...

As a number of other people report, I've had students who evaluated me at the negative end of a numeric scale but gave me nothing but positive written comments (the written and numeric evaluations were on two sides of the same sheet of paper). This led me to be very clear when administering evaluations about which end of the scale was positive and which was negative.

Anonymous said...

our department has a long history of evals being handed out where one sheet says 1 is lowest and another says 1 is highest. The result - a lot of profs average out to average - meaning they were either hated (and some marked good by mistake), loved (and some marked bad by mistake), or truly split opinions.

It would be laughable if it didn't affect tenure and merit scores..

Ms.PhD said...

I wonder if the student was upset at the end - did badly near the end of term? Just having a supremely crappy day on evaluation day and took it out on the form? Was there someone whose grades would fit that pattern (sudden drop at the end?)?

I can't think of a scenario where I hated a class from top to bottom but had an opportunity to express that constructively during the class in a way that I didn't worry would hurt my grade. My tendency in those situations is to keep my mouth shut if I couldn't drop the class, and just suck it up until it was over.

And in a small class, many times students don't want to give specifics on an evaluation form, since those can sometimes be identifying. Perhaps this person had good reasons but didn't want to out him/herself. Which is too bad for you in terms of getting potentially useful feedback, but maybe shouldn't be taken personally?

lusenok said...

"Most negative" ratings cannot be objective.
I would be much more concerned to see ratings of 2 or 3 out of 5 rather than "all zeroes".

Nicole said...

My university does electronic evaluations. A friend of mine confused the recommendations for grad EM and grad Stat Mech and ended up giving the (excellent) stat mech professor a horrible evaluation. My friend felt very guilty after, but had left enough specific comments that the professor should have been able to tell it was for another class. This is one advantage to in-class evaluations!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I'll flunk a good student, you know, just to keep them humble.

My students are always amazed when I tell them evaluations count toward promotions and raises. I think most students believe that no one ever looks at them (and, let's face it, they are a lame way of evaluating teaching). I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was intentional.

Comrade Physioprof said...

You've got tenure. Why do you even read those fucking things?

Anonymous said...

I suspect, if you've got one student whose evaluation went that much against all the other evaluations and there wasn't a student whose attitude and performance makes it likely that they would be unhappy with the class, that it was probably a case of mistaking which side of the scale was positive. I know I've had to go back and erase my marks when I've become confused, and I'm usually very good at following directions and filling in bubbles. Years of standardized testing will do that for you.

I will say, though, that I'm a grad student right now, and that in my current classes I'm very unhappy with the courses but am not planning on saying anything to the professors. My dislike of the class isn't due to failings on their part; I am unhappy with the requirements I have to fulfill for professional certification, and I feel the classes are wasting my time. Could the professor improve the class from my perspective? Probably. But I'm not narcissistic enough to believe that they should make the classes focused solely on my interests and life plans. If I could take other courses that would apply more to what I'm interested in, I would. But I can't, so I sit in class quietly fuming, and do my work.

That said, I'm not going to give the professors bad evaluations. They don't deserve them; I'm not unhappy with their work. But that doesn't mean that others would think the same way.

Megan said...

A lot of students do not take evaluations seriously. It's possible that this student likes to check off all the lowest ratings as some kind of joke. If there were no specific comments, then don't let it get to you. I've had mostly good professors, but when I got a bad one, I made a specific point to explain exactly what I didn't like about them or their class.

Anonymous said...

"Last year, the one extremely hostile and vocal student had a serious negative effect on the the class and my feelings about teaching it...."
I had this same issue this year in a lab I was teaching. I could not figure out how to get this student under control. During the lab time this student tried to dominant all my time by butting in when I was helping other students or loudly complaining about whatever we were doing. I mostly resorted to ignoring this student or asking them to wait their turn but I know most of the other students ended up not getting as much out of the lab as they could have because of this one loudly negative student. I feel very guilty that I could not handle the situation better - it just got worse every week (I had three lab sections for this class and this particular section had the lowest average). Just hoping you had some advice.

Thomas Joseph said...

You've got tenure. Why do you even read those fucking things?

Probably because she gives a shit?