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.
8 months ago