Making use of student feedback

With the end of the semester comes the opportunity to review what students think of my teaching. As a (relatively) new teacher I take the reviews seriously. However, with four years of practice and data I do struggle with how to interpret the reviews and use them as constructive feedback that yields measurable improvements in subsequent evaluations.

This is not to say that I have not attempted to improve my teaching. For example, I believe I'm much more consistent in reviewing the concepts encountered in a session at its end -- and the students seem to appreciate this. However, when I plot the trend for the overall ratings from those four years I hoped there'd be a strong uptick with time, but there's no consistent trend.

Also, confoundingly, there is the disparity of opinion. For some things people naturally have different preferences: more or less outside readings, lecturing, student discussion, etc. (Students do seem to universally love watching video clips.) However on other things, like the completeness of the syllabus or the clarity of the grading system, I am confused.

As a follow-up to my experiment to quiz the students on the content of the syllabus at the beginning of the semester, students did surprisingly poorly. So I know some of them are not paying attention to the syllabus while rating the syllabus as less than complete. I feel similarly about the grading system as it is clearly described in the syllabus and I do four detailed grade reports throughout the semester, each time saying I would be happy to discuss their performance so far, but some students still occasionally fill-in the bubble suggesting that their grade is an opaque mystery. Also, while one evaluation rated me as a poor instructor overall, the vast majority rate me as very good or better. In fact two wrote in the comments that this was the best class they've taken at Steinhardt and NYU respectively. How to reconcile these disparate evaluations?

I conclude that there will be a student or two that, for whatever reason, doesn't like me or the class. (Most characterize me as nice, friendly, and sometimes even funny, but one noted I was intimidating...?) Yet, since my school finally provided departmental wide statistics last semester, I know I am right in the middle of the distribution. I rate higher than half of the faculty, but also lower than the other half. So I know there is room for improvement. However, given it only takes one disenchanted student to skew the averages and that I've not yet been able to implement changes that clearly manifest in the evaluations, I'm not sure how, or if I should be overly concerned? But I am very curious as to how the instructors in the top quartile manage it.


Ported/Archived Responses

Joseph Reagle on 2010-07-27

Thank you for the comment Sunflower. It's always interesting to see things from the other side of the desk!

Sunflower Duran on 2010-07-26

I think that sometimes students' own insecurities are projected onto the professor. For instance if they find the material too challenging they may attribute feelings of intimidation or unfairness to the professor.  I think that the key is to remain consistent. Students often communicate and when they know what to expect in an upcoming class they feel more comfortable. I met a girl who told me she dropped your class the first day because she thought it would of been boring. I told her how interesting and how much I learned in your class and she immediately expressed feelings of regret. I  felt the writing assignments helped improve my writing so much. I am not the best student and yet I felt your class was completely fair and engaging. Hope this helps. Maybe a joke during the first class will help others who are easily discouraged by your serious demeanor :)

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