Student Evaluations: What, Me Worry?


Melissa_MillerBy Melissa Miller, Ed.D., M.Ed.

My e-mail inbox reads: Student Evaluations Now Available! Permission to freak out? Why do I feel as though I’m back in seventh grade, awaiting my report card and the teacher comments in the small box on the back? Ideally, evaluation responses should not be a surprise. As we tell our students, their grades should not be a surprise because we’ve been communicating throughout the semester, working together, and they know the scores they’ve earned. But with student evaluations, it feels like Russian Roulette – you never know what you’re going to get.

First of all, student evaluations are anonymous. I understand this, but I also feel it creates flawed data because students can “vent” and the professor has no way means of defense. Also, students may feel they can say things in the evaluation, but did they address these issues with the professor during the course? Sometimes we are left totally in the dark that a student feels a certain way or sees something in a certain light. Some may feel they can have a cathartic release of a “parting shot,” meanwhile we are left holding the bag a few weeks later when we receive the evaluation comments.

Second, obviously student evaluations come at the end of the course. This is understandable, but it is also when we all (teachers and students) are tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. Do students remember the time you stayed late for one-on-one tutoring, or the time you made extra copies for them of your lecture when they were sick? Or will they remember the “unfair” C on the final exam because the “mean” professor cares about stupid things such as following all of the task directions? I’ve had students question points deducted for a project – after they were allowed to revise and return it several times! So sometimes I question their frame of reference when it comes to completing an evaluation.

When you receive a great compliment from a student, one you know you deserved or worked hard for, it can be very rewarding. I am also open to honest feedback and like to read ideas and suggestions that have obviously been given time and thought. Misplaced criticism can take the wind out of your sails, however. I have to tell myself that I can’t please everyone, and my objective as their teacher is to educate, meet the course objectives, and perform the job to the best of my ability. The connection may not be made with some students, and no matter what you do for them, they may end the course with an ax to grind.

Finally, I’m unsure as to what the Department Chairs “do” exactly with these evaluations. Certainly, they pass them on to us, but I’m not sure what exactly is done with these evaluations and how they may affect my evaluation. As a former classroom teacher, I am used to being evaluated by a supervisor with a classroom observation, then a direct follow-up with a self-evaluation and a discussion. But the student evaluations just kind of hang out there in limbo and, as I said, you can’t defend or explain the circumstances. I assume department chairs take this into consideration, but you know what happens when you assume…

As educators, we put a lot of time and energy into completing student evaluations, whether it’s for an assignment or final grades. We take the time to write recommendations, referrals, and numerous other papers that require reflection about the student. When it comes to their evaluation of the class, all we can do is hope that they put the same time, effort, and consideration into their evaluation of us, our teaching, and our class.

About the New Adjunct: Dr. Melissa Miller completed her Ed.D. with an emphasis in Teacher Leadership from Walden University. She holds a M.Ed. from Mary Washington University and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Virginia Tech. Dr. Miller’s professional and research interests include adult and online learning, professional development, and literacy. Presently, Dr. Miller works as an adjunct instructor and an evaluator, while also enjoying her role as a wife and mother.

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  1. There is a better way, at least to supplement the student evals. I was Director of a Graduate School of Education for most of my 20 years at the university, and always thought the student evals were of little value as they are records of student opinions rather than real data.
    So in my failed retirement, I wrote a software program to collect objective frequency and duration data during an observation, such as Class Learning Time, Level of Questions, Divergent Question Type, Teacher Response to Questions, etc, etc. It’s widely used in K-12 systems.

    At the university level there have been some very interesting uses. Two or three students in the class with laptops or iPhone/iPads are asked to gather data on one specific teaching practice or student behavior during the class. In the last 10 minutes of the class, the entire class reviews the data and suggests ways to improve the teaching and learning (students have a responsibility also). This is done on some regular (weekly) basis in an honest effort to improve the education process.

    There have been two broad effects according to feedback: as students become involved and aware of both the teacher’s and their roles in learning, the behaviors of both teacher and student’s change for the better. Also, the paper student evaluations of the teacher’s skills as an effective instructor raise significantly. MY interpretation is that they can see that the teacher is truly interested in being a good teacher and when students get a chance to be involved throughout the process they view the class with a more positive light.

    I’m always happy to chat about this. Contact me at or

    Peace, John

  2. Very good post! I got my evals from last semester last week and some of the comments made me laugh. While I got decent “ratings” overall, the class that did them (for some reason the college only selected one of the three I taught to do them) was academically the lowest performing. One comment stated that we should have spent more time on “important things” and not learning about birds, world history or other “UNIMPORTANT THINGS! This was a college skills class. I mainly teach history and like to offer my students little tidbits of historical trivia at the beginning of class. I also brought one of my parrots and used her as a springboard for classes on note-taking, organization of notes, and writing essays – but guess that stuff was all “unimportant”!!!LOL

  3. Thanks for the note…I pay little attention to evals from students because, as you noted, they are extreme to say the least. That is, students either think you are super or the worst…very few middle of the road comments.

    One thing I do that may be a little different from other folks is to encourage students to evaluate me throughout the course, just like I do of them with grades and discussion thread responses, etc. I make a little video and show them how to communicate their suggestions for improvement. I have been doing this for the last five years. The first five years I taught online there was a mixed-bag of evals as you described. These last five have been much better with very few irate comments…the only thing I did differently was encourage them to eval me…which very few actually do. Perhaps it was just the opportunity that tempered their angst. In that regard:

    I am wondering how many of you are aware of using visual narratives in your courses. I have been teaching online since 1999 and used Camtasia and Jing a few years ago, but recently switched to Pixetell because of ease of use…the response from students and administrators has been phenomenal…here is an example to introduce my psychology course…


  4. Hey Melissa;
    I also just got last semester student evals and the results of it all. My dean was so irritated (it seems, I can’t be sure) by the positive comments, and the lack of “needed corrections” in my Chair’s performance that he went digging for minute points to take me to task on. I’m sure he feels this is in my best interest; he seems to think critique and corrections make me a better instructor. Whatever! I agree that it IS a kind of Russian Roulette and there are so many bullets that our poor faces are out-numbered. But, in the end, we can’t let the pettiness of some of these things attack our ability to do the job. Disgruntled students happen, fact of the business (and so do “helpful” deans *snort*) … we just need to keep rolling along.

    Thanks for posting about this! You made me smile as I held my own pile of this stuff! LOL

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