Evaluating Student Evaluations: The Search for Perspective

Article excerpt

"This class was an embarrassment to a fine journalism program."

It happens at the end of every quarter or semester. The tests are over and the grades are turned in, but students are given one last shot. There's no appeal for instructors condemned by student evaluations.

What educators receive on teaching evaluations is honest feeling--but not necessarily helpful feedback. Evaluations often do assist classroom teachers in determining trends and student perceptions. Insights can be gained, leading to improvements in the classroom game plan. But not all student comments are constructive, and not all are motivated by a desire to help improve teaching techniques. Some comments are downright rude.

"Dr. Washburn is the most uncaring, unfeeling teacher I've ever had. He grades unfairly, and he seems to enjoy giving out poor grades. He wrote unnecessary, sarcastic comments on my papers and he criticized students' mistakes in class."

There's a problem with this opinion--it's probably inaccurate. Students

named Ohio University's Patrick Washburn the Outstanding Graduate Faculty Member for the 1991-92 academic year.

Other faculty received these stinging remarks:

"I think Professor Bugeja is too egotistical because he cuts off students and doesn't always listen. Instead everyone has to listen to him, as if he is too intelligent for us." "I hated this class. I don't think Mel Helitzer has a right to tell me what I can and can 't do (career advice)...I'm going to buy the ugliest dog I can find and I'm going to name him Melvin. Every time he barks I'm going to kick the s- out of him."

These devastating words were not directed at insensitive instructors with little experience, or research-oriented grouches insulated by decades of tenure security. Nope. Both Michael Bugeja and Mel Helitzer are top teachers, chosen by undergraduates as among the best professors at Ohio University. For those who dread opening their evaluation packets, the irony is clear: Even the best teachers get bad evaluations.

Candid interviews were conducted with journalism educators at Ohio University. Their comments are generalizable to every campus where evaluations are handed to students during the last week of classes. These thoughtful, sometimes emotional observations by classroom teachers are illustrative of concerns some educators will only discuss with a spouse or trusted colleague.

Few articles have ever addressed this matter.' Yet a frank airing of emotions and beliefs may eliminate stress from post evaluation syndrome, which is evident among some new faculty members on almost every campus. True, some teachers may indeed be unprepared to teach and ambivalent toward students. They should cringe with guilt when bad evaluations arrive. But many others are trying hard to be great teachers. Negative, seemingly harassing comments on evaluations only confuse and exasperate them. Many, no doubt, feel alone and defeated.

Attempting to understand

"I thought it was just me," said one assistant professor, still reeling from the emotional discovery that you can't please everyone. She teaches promotions and media research in another Ohio University department. "I haven't even looked at mine for two quarters. I have worked hard on my teaching. I don't want to abuse myself--I always feel bad for two days."

There are many educators--especially in their first few years of teaching--who do not know how to accept rejection. It may be inherent in good teachers to want to reach every student--not just most of them. Arguably, some of those teachers who hate evaluations may be counted among the best educators. They care so much it hurts. But they do not feel like good teachers. They feel lousy.

"I can get ten good evaluations and one bad. Yet the bad one stays with me... I'm not sure why," confides one teacher, after completing his first year of instructing news editing. He equates the evaluation process to a refereed review of research submissions. …