Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Don’t Say It

2014-05-08 13.36.39The end of classes is here or near – depending on your school. That means that course evaluations will be filled out, perhaps online or perhaps with paper and tiny pencils.  Although this may be coming too late for this term, the end of the semester/quarter is a good time to reflect upon how the course went, and maybe some of these things can be altered for next semester/quarter. Perhaps these are some of the 20% changes you can make for next time, as I have posted about in previous posts (here and here).

One big thing I have noticed with student evaluations is that they are parrots. They will parrot back in your course evaluations ANYTHING you have said to them. If you say, “I know this homework is hard, but it is for your own good.” You will get about 50% of the students commenting that the homework was hard in the course. If you say, “This book is not great, it isn’t my favorite.” They will say, “The book was terrible.” If you say, “This is my first time, and I am worried I might not do a good job.” They will say, “She didn’t do so great a job because it was her first time.” So my advice: Don’t say it. Don’t say anything negative to the class at all.

Is this dishonest? Let’s say it is the first time to teach a course, and it isn’t going great. The scientist who truly wants to be honest and report facts wants to share with the class. But RESIST the urge to share. It doesn’t make them feel better to know it isn’t going well. Yes, you are withholding information, but it is not important information that they need. They do not need to know that the course is veering off the rails. Since it doesn’t help them and doesn’t make them feel better, why say it?

Does it make you feel better? There might be some cathartic feeling of sharing a traumatic experience that is alleviated when you share with the students, but the negative impact it will have on your evaluations will leave you hurting in the long run. There is no way to explain away a course that is going poorly.  Even if you promise to do better next time, it won’t be with these students, so it doesn’t do them any good that you learned from this experience.

If the class is going so badly the students will know, won’t they be mad if you act like it is all rosy? Yes, they might, but at least you aren’t giving them ammunition to shoot you down. Make them come up with their own words for how crappy the course went. Their complaints about you will likely be less severe than your complaints about yourself. Further, you don’t have to act like it is perfect. You can make reasonable changes throughout the class that attempt to solve problems. The students will appreciate it, too, and your evaluations will probably be better if you try to course correct. What I am suggesting is not to act like you are perfect, but rather to not be so honest and blunt about your self-evaluation during the course, which is likely to be worse than they think and probably worse than you deserve (if you are like me…). As you make these reasonable changes, give credit to the students. You can say, “Several students have brought it to my attention that it would be better for you if we…” By stating it this way you, (1) give credit to the students, (2) don’t say the old way was bad – just this new way is better, (3) make a change that will be favorable, such as changing the homework due date for the class from Thursday to Friday or allow students to redo a question on an exam for half the points back, or whatever. Don’t point out that the old way wasn’t as good – it isn’t necessary!

As I write this, I am thinking, is this for others or for myself? I am so amazingly guilty of doing all the things that I just told you not to do. So, my NextSemesterResolution to change 20% is to try to not make any negative comments about my course. What do you think? Post or comment. You can get an email every time I post by pushing the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Don’t Say It" (3)

  1. Lola the Prof said:

    I so agree too. If you are a new professor, take this advice at face value, don’t learn it the hard way!

  2. […] I would like to comment on student evaluations. I have talked about them before here. There has been a lot of information about how sexist student evaluations are. Truly. If you […]

  3. […] ever say anything negative about yourself. I have had an entire blog post about this (here). Yes, I have said it before, but as any teacher knows, repetition doesn’t hurt. You should […]

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