How to Improve Your Student Evaluations


by Harleen Kaur

The very idea of student evaluations of teaching can spell terror for professors, but particularly adjunct faculty whose continued employed rests on the quality of the students’ evaluations. This continues to be done despite the fact that recent research questions the overall usefulness of student evaluations. Several recent studies have revealed that women and unattractive teachers get evaluated more harshly as compared to men and attractive female counterparts.

As per Rodin and Rodin, “students are less than perfect judges of teaching effectiveness if the latter is measured by how much they have learned. If how much students learn is considered to be a major component of good teaching, it must be concluded that good teaching is not validly measured by student evaluations in their current forms.”

Michael Scriven, the person behind extensive research on the methodology of faculty evaluation, cautions administrators not to use such student evaluations for making personnel decisions. As per S.C Erikson and Paul Rosenfeld, researchers at University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, colleges must “eliminate the questionable practice of using the results of student ratings for purposes of administrative assessment.”

Likewise, Canadian sociologist John C. Damron, who has conducted research on student evaluation states that, “the ratings yielded by virtually all teaching evaluation procedures bear only a modest or non-existent relationship to the very quality effective teaching must promote: student learning.”

Yet, the practice continues of relying on student evals to decide whether to re-hire adjunct faculty. So what can a teaching faculty member do to make the process of student evaluations a less stressful and a more productive one, both for the faculty member and the students alike.

Make a Good First Impression –A first impression is, undoubtedly, the last impression any faculty member gets to make. Just as research shows faculty members judge students based on first impressions, the reverse is true, too. First impressions are vital for students, faculty, and the professor-student relationship. The truth is that your first impression, by and large, is going to have a significant impact on the classroom climate for the whole of the term or the semester. And when we talk about a good (or bad) impression, this includes not just your verbal, but also your non-verbal communication, as well.

  • From the moment you walk into the classroom, work on establishing a good rapport through non-verbal interaction. Students feel happier and comfortable when they connect and engage with their teachers. So, smile, relax and make an eye contact with your students. Don’t scribble notes on the board as you stand with your back turned to the class. Arrive early and post important points or notes before class begins so you can stay engaged with your students and make use of the body language they’re sending your way. Research shows that students, “indicate that they enjoy a course more, feel more comfortable with the material, and intend to pursue the subject farther than do students with less immediate teachers.”
  • Be warm and friendly with your students to win their confidence. Peter Sacks, the author of Generation X Goes to College, writes that in his classroom, “Students could do no wrong, and I did almost anything possible to keep all of them happy, all of the time, no matter how childish or rude their behavior, no matter how poorly they performed in the course, no matter how little effort they gave. If they wanted their hands held, I would hold them. If they wanted a stapler (or a Kleenex) and I didn’t have one, I’d apologize.” His evaluations were stellar.

Effective Teaching—Making an earnest attempt to teach students effectively can pave the way for earning a place in students’ hearts. Remember, if you are trying to do a job in the best possible manner, your students should and will be able to see that and reflect it in their feedback. Be gentle, but be firm when you address issues that are outside the norm.

Talk Softly and Grade Fairly—One educational research scholar writes, “A study of several thousand courses at my home university confirmed what most professors have always suspected: students definitely give a higher rating to teachers who grade higher. The coefficient of correlation is a low but significant .38. This correlation might have been higher had the study considered not actual but expected grade.” Award fair grades to your students, because there is sufficient evidence that providing fair grades to your students proves to be connected to better student evaluations. As University of Northern Iowa researcher Dennis E. Clayson writes, “the most prominent bias in student ratings of teaching effectiveness is the evaluation a student receives from the instructors in the form of a grade.”

Keep your Students Well-informed—Keep your students informed about important aspects of the course. For example, if assignments or tests are coming up, then tell them. Don’t simply hide behind the syllabus. You’re there to instruct your students, including in how to best succeed in your course.

Respect your Students—Do you want to earn respect from your students? Then show respect to them. A good example of showing respect towards your students is beginning and ending the class on time, being prepared for every class and answering any and all questions.

Don’t Be a Hard-Ass TeacherBeing flexible is good for you and your students. Being a hard-ass teacher puts the instructor in an adversarial relationship with her/his students as opposed to fostering a collaborative and collegial relationship. The hard-ass adjunct faculty member (any faculty member, really) is waiting for students to make mistakes. Rigidity and/or intolerance contribute to poor personal outcomes. Not surprisingly, decades of psychological research show that being a hard-ass, being rigid with your students, in other words, leads to poor psychological outcomes and higher levels of stress and anxiety for both the student and the faculty member

Be Fair—Practicing and emphasizing fairness while dealing with students is going to make them satisfied with regard to their teacher. Preach and practice fairness in your class. Classroom management is an art, and that is what we are seldom taught. Nurture a healthy classroom environment from day one and make it a norm as you move ahead.

Tell your Students the Importance of their Evaluations—Last, but not least, make sure to tell your students that their evaluations are vital. Let them know that you’ll use their feedback to improve the class in the coming semesters.

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