Friday, May 08, 2009

Your Post-Evaluation Persona

A conversation with a colleague today about Teaching Evaluations made me wonder if I had scratched the dark underbelly of college-level teaching or whether I was just desperate to do another poll on a strange topic. Or both. As you may have guessed, I have a question for my readers who teach:

Do you change anything about your teaching behavior in the few classes that remain after teaching evaluations have been completed for your class?

Or, at the very least, do you feel a sense of relief after evaluations are done because you know that you can make innocent mistakes and not pay the same penalty for them? In fact, the topic came up when my colleague said that he didn't want to do online evaluations because the online evaluation period lasted too long and didn't give him those last few post-evaluation classes in which he could relax more as he taught.

After an admittedly shockingly brief investigation, I have determined that in the apres-evaluation near-end-of-semester time, some of my colleagues don't feel quite the same compulsion to answer annoying questions like "What is going to be on the test?" or "Are you going to ask anything from the classes in the week before Spring Break?" My colleagues report that they answer these questions, but perhaps not as nicely or completely as before the evaluations are done. Smiling may become more optional when answering such questions apres-evaluation. Having teaching evaluations completed can be rather freeing, but not in any sinister way.

What this question really gets at is the extent to which our behavior is governed by the looming prospect of teaching evaluations. Does the fact of teaching evaluations make (some of us) nicer? Is that a good thing?

I am not dealing with the issue of whether teaching evaluations make us better teachers by giving us constructive feedback or biting criticism, albeit too late to change anything to help a particular class (e.g. "I would have gotten more out of the class if you didn't just read endless text slides in a monotone every single class"; "You suck", etc.).

No, I am asking whether the prospect of teaching evaluations affects professorial behavior when interacting with students. Hence the question: Are you more patient, kind, and/or polite than you might otherwise be because you don't want to be slain in your evaluations for being cranky and terse with students, even if you are being completely insincere? And: Does your niceness level decrease, even if ever so slightly, after evaluations are done?


Anonymous said...

So if you are an "Easy A" teacher, you would get better student evaluations?

On another note:
Some Professors are really bad teachers (and they have tenure).

Why do Tenured Professor still care about evaluations? "A job for life...."

Why should tenure decisions be based on evaluations of 18-22 year old. How can teaching quality be judged objectively vs. subjectively....

Rachella said...

Anonymous, I hate to say it, but students who think they are getting bad grades always give poor teacher evaluations. Also, those who are mad because the teacher won't let them slide on things like mandatory attendance, etc.... If you doubt this, just take a look at sites like "rate your professor."

It's a sad state of affairs that the university does, indeed, pay attention to the often selfish opinions of 18-19 years old.

I'm not slamming all students here, it's just that they don't put what they are doing into context. Getting an A is often the most important thing to them; they don't stop to think what they are doing to someone's career.

Anonymous said...

A colleague of mine who won awards for teaching (and based on his lecture notes that I used was truly an excellent teacher) described the rhythm of a setting exams in a semester as:

- First midterm hard
- Second midterm easy
- Course evaluation
- Final exam: do what you like

His tongue in cheek point was that it is not too difficult to manipulate student evaluations and that this can even be done in a way that reinforces good learning.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

I don't think I'm much different after the evaluations (muscle memory and all), but I am certain that my behavior generally is linked to having the evaluations in the back of my mind. I also sometimes calculated when to actually give the evaluations depending on the students who were present (or absent) to try and enhance the likelihood of more positive responses. Now that my institution has moved to on-line evaluations, a lot of that has changed since I don't know when students have finished the evaluations and they can finish them past the time of the last class session.

Anonymous said...

All semester, I do little things that increase my popularity without affecting the quality of teaching; e.g., have a super-strict official late homework policy and then grudgingly waive it if a student requests. But I would feel almost no difference between getting great evaluations and being unpopular versus getting lousy evaluations on top of being unpopular.

That is, I want my students to think I am a good teacher, just for my own pride. That usually translates to good evaluations, but I am much more emotionally driven by what they think of my on the last day as opposed to what my evaluations say. I imagine the worst possible thing I could do for my popularity would be to allow them to see a visible change in my behavior after evaluation day. (Incidentally, I usually do evaluations on the last day of class.)

Note: this doesn't mean I am always popular. I have had very good and very bad semesters. But I have never been afraid of evaluations; as long as a student tells the truth about how I teach, and I am not afraid of anyone in my department knowing that.

franglais said...

You have got to be pretty insecure to feel relief after evaluations are completed. Or you have been traumatised, which may be the source of your insecurity. I am tenured and a "mature" professor (in age more than attitude). Looking back, I don't remember thinking about evaluations at all when I was teaching. The only sense of relief I ever felt from course evaluations is that it signaled the end of the semester, and on that 14th week, it feels really good!

Kim said...

When I was untenured and lived in fear of every set of student evaluations, yeah, I think my behavior might have changed. I became more relaxed, friendlier, less defensive, more willing to be challenged.

Now that I don't have anything riding on my teaching evaluations other than info about whether I'm teaching effectively, I don't think about whether the teaching evaluations are done or not. (I'm also more relaxed, friendlier, less defensive, and more willing to be challenged throughout the semester.)

(Although promotion to full professor and merit pay increases do rely partly on teaching evaluations, mine have been consistently good enough that I don't worry about whether a particular class is mad at me or not. Now my research, on the other hand... I need to worry about that.)

Anonymous said...

We don't do teaching evals until the last week of class.. not much break time.

They probably do keep me from rolling my eyes at the kids (seriously - wikipedia is NOT a valid reference.. particularly as your ONLY reference).

Danielle said...

I did mine in the last class of one of the courses and the 2nd to last in the other course. I did feel a little less pressure in the one where I had that extra lecture evaluation-free. I'd like to think that I behave mostly the same, regardless of having done them or not.

But there are three things to note:
1) We can't see our end of the semester evaluations (the mandatory ones) until grades are turned in.

2) I do voluntary mid-semester evaluations so that I actually can change methods if needed. This is the first semester I tried it, and it actually helped me a lot. I'll see if the students saw a difference when I get my end of the semester ones back. As a side-note, I'd also heard that mid-semester evaluations can help give you a boost in your end of the semester evaluations. So, there is an extra side benefit to doing them.

3) I'm at a small liberal arts school where teaching is so heavily emphasized that evaluations can make or break your tenure.

Anonymous said...

Don't read them so they are irrelevant to my behavior. When i read them my first few years they made me too depressed, as I focused on the five percent who hated me. I try to be nice all the time, but do try not to hand out evaluations right after an exam is returned.

a physicist said...

No, my behavior doesn't change if I have a bad teaching evaluation. I once had a possibility of another job offer (it didn't come through), and it occurred to me that even if I was going to change institutions and thus my teaching evaluations would be irrelevant, I would still teach the same way I do, at the same level of niceness.

I do agree, though, I breathe a sign of relief that innocent mistakes won't count against me once the evaluations are done.

John Vidale said...

As the first response states, there's no teeth in the teaching score after tenure. I tend to give out the questionnaires earlier in the quarter, rather than later, to catch the students in a mood less inappropriately anxious about my final grading, but my attitude doesn't change afterward.

I do read the scores to learn what I did wrong. It may sound nerdy, but as a scientist, I'm averse to trying to tweak the testing conditions to get the "right" answer. That applies to behaving differently afterwards as well; it would make the evaluation incomplete.

John Vidale said...

to 8:43 physicist - the only way my teaching evaluations DID matter was changing jobs. My current research U asked for all my teaching evaluations for years as part of the portfolio to compel my hiring package through the upper administration.

Anonymous said...

How much do grades effect teaching evaluations? I would say this is totally dependent on individual students. For example, the most scathing reviews I gave professors in undergrad were for classes in which I got an A. I also gave good evaluations for courses in which I got poor grades.

On the other hand, some people ARE mean and vindictive, and they will in fact write negative reviews for profs that grade them harshly. I just don't think it's fair to categorize all students this way (e.g. "students who are getting bad grades always give poor evals").

It's probably not very healthy for professors to assume that every student is out for revenge, and probably leads to this kind of "post-eval slump."

I haven't looked at my teaching evals since the first time I TA'd... Although 95% of the evals were positive or neutral, the 3-4 that were negative just floored me. I'm not looking forward to when I'm a prof and I have to look at them again for tenure purposes.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 1:02 and Rachalla

There is a lot of empirical evidence showing that student evaluations, while not perfect, can be meaningful and useful tools in evaluating and improving teaching.

Most importantly, student evaluations tend to correlate positively with objective measures of student learning. Ratings are related to grades, but this is (at least in part) because grades are related to learning. For instance, in multi-section courses that use a common final exam, student ratings were highest for instructors whose students performed highest on the exam.

See the links below for more:

The History Enthusiast said...

Perhaps this is immature, as one of the comments noted earlier, but I do notice my behavior changing. I am less likely to answer pointless emails (like where is your office again? It's posted online and in the syllabus). I am only a graduate instructor, and my evaluations do come into play when I am up for renewal (our contracts are year-long contracts).

Anonymous said...

Once, when I was still TAing, I gave a mid-semester evaluation out myself, collected it myself, and didn't use it for anything official other than my own information. It was actually more like a survey, and just had very basic optional free response things that students wouldn't feel awkward with me seeing- like, 'things you've liked', 'things you think could be improved', and 'some topic you were really hoping we'd learn about before the class ends'. My evals for that class were awesome, and I think it was in part because the students had a chance to vent a little of the frustrations they had, and also feel like they had had input. Then their actual evaluations were more realistic since they didn't have this whining aspect based on grades.

pt said...

I am a college math professor. I generally find that my behavior in class is rather unaffected by the teaching evaluation process, with the exception of the day before the evaluations are done. On that day, I suddenly find myself rather sensitive to all the mistakes I make (or perceive I make). Once the evaluation process is done, I feel relieved and go on teaching as before.

It has never occurred to me that I can suddenly cease trying to be a good teacher at this point. This could be because I frequently have a student in more than one class.
Rachella- The data I get on my evaluation forms indicates otherwise. The evaluation forms at my university ask students to give their expected grade; rarely is there correlation between bad grades and poor evaluations in my classes. Also note that "rate your professor" websites suffer from a huge selection bias.

That being said, it is true that many (first and second year) university students "don't put what they are doing in context." In general, written comments from upper-division students are much more mature and insightful. I am confident, however, that my dean and P/T committee understands this.

Pagan Topologist said...

I don't think my manner or niceness level changes at all after I administer the evaluation forms, although I am sometimes disappointed if a student who I believe would have given me a good evaluation misses class the day evaluation forms are filled out.

yolio said...

I am great believer in the mid-term evaluation, especially the unofficial one. It is helpful feedback in time to be useful. The students feel that they are being listened to, which improves their attitude. And, it gets them thinking in terms of feedback, which means that they are more likely to tell you about problems as they arise, and more likely to give final evaluations that are thoughtful. One of my goals is for the students to feel partly responsible for how the course unfolds, and the midterm evaluations are an important part of getting that from them.

Chemprof said...

Rate my professor .com bothers me much more than classroom evaluations because only a few students comment on rmp, but they often are disgruntled students - the intelligent ones doing well in all their classes don't seem to bother to comment. The other kind of student who tends to comment on rmp is the freshman or sophomore student who wants to steer other students towards the classes that are easiest, rather than "best". And drop subtle or not so subtle hints to others about classes where cheating is easy. But at our institution the students do look on rmp to find out who is "easy" as well as depending on the campus grapevine for that information.

Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

I always got my evaluations after the grades were submitted for the semester. The Graduate School office was actually the only one to see them before that point, and then I would get a synopsis with any comments left in the "additional information" boxes. I technically wasn't supposed to be in the room while they filled them out either, unless it was on the date of the exam and they filled it out after they completed their exam then slipped it in the envelope at the back of the room without my interaction before they left. All classes in the Grad school had this requirement. Not sure why, maybe retaliation issues in the past?

Chris said...

Perhaps there is something unique about the classes I teach or our department, but I find (most of) my students appreciate being challenged, as long as I treat them with respect and don't waste their time. I don't change my behavior after evaluations, but I do change it in response to them. While most students are relatively clueless about what they should be learning, my lowest ratings almost always reveal something I can improve if I look objectively.

feminist chemists said...

I see that you got a mention in the current issue of Science. Way to Go! On our blog,, we just published a letter we wrote to the Editor of Science that didn't publish. It is a critique of a sexist research article on "variance" in math scores that was published in Science several months ago. Check it out and know that this is the crap that Larry Summers cites when he says women are genetically inferior in math and science:

a physicist said...

John V -- thank you for the comment, that's good to hear. Reassuring actually that an administration hiring at a more senior level takes teaching seriously.

A lot of people have talked about mid-semester informal evaluations. I love them too. In some cases I change my behavior; in other cases, I can explain to the students why I won't change my behavior (why I think I'm doing something good) and perhaps change their minds. I often find that the aspect of the course I'm most concerned about in a given semester is not at all the ones the students are concerned with.

Anonymous said...

We do teaching evals late in the term, and I've been teaching since '86, so no, not much changes in response to when I hand those Scantron sheets around.

However, I do have students write learning evaluations after each major assignment -- they are supposed to assess how they performed in that assignment, what they want to improve in the next unit, and what kinds of comments/feedback they'd like from me. _That_ does shape what I do in the classroom.

PQuincy said...

1. Any professor for whom student evaluations matter at all (which is to say, most of us) who does not game the leeway the institution's particular policies allows is being naive. Pick a day for evaluations when the more diligent students are likely to be there, but not the slackers, i.e. not the last day of the term (if you have a choice). If your institution uses online evaluations, push them hard in lecture (where, towards the end of a term, the diligent are most likely to be there), but resist importuning requests to send personal e-mails bringing evaluations to the attention of all your students -- that might encourage the slackers and the frivolous. And so forth...

2. I work hard to appear both fair and generous to all my students -- but not because I'm hunting for evaluations, but rather because I think that's an important role for a professor to fill. (I also think that the 'martinet' style has been making a comeback -- the "No late papers will ever be accepted for any reason whatsoever" style -- and I think it's unbecoming.)

3. Of course evaluations have much less effect on your choices when you're tenured. Surprisingly (for me), they matter that much less again when you make it to full. I'm finding myself quite liberated by the end of ranks to conquer (well, not really in our bizarre system, with Step VI and Above Scale still waiting to be scaled). But I also think that this may make many of us better teachers, not worse.