Student Evaluations: The comment section

Congratulations! Most of us have successfully reached the end of another semester. Well done!

Now that things are winding down, those pesky little things called “evaluations” are being sent out, far and wide, in every student inbox across every campus. Soon that feedback will be compiled and land in the inbox or mailbox of faculty everywhere. Half the time it will sit there for a long while. Ignored as we go into the summer holiday or summer research venue. But eventually you have to look at it.

Well you SHOULD look at it. Right?

Yes, of course you should! It’s not just there to sit in judgement of you. It’s there to help you. It’s there for you to respond to as well. No, not directly to those students, but to the next class. And the next. Your response comes in the changes you make, the ways you continue to improve over the course of your career. Yeah, sometimes the feedback is painful. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it could be more constructive, but it’s feedback nonetheless. It’s an assessment. And that data needs to be utilized. Not just by your administration, but by you. How will you respond? How will you use YOUR data?

I suggest ripping off the band-aid. Just sit down with a strong cup of coffee (or a strong drink, I don’t judge) and skim through it. I would be willing to bet that you find at least one compliment.

We know that if given no incentive, typically we get the most satisfied and most dissatisfied individuals that respond to evaluations. They love you or they hate you (unless you gave them credit for filling out the evaluation, in which case you get the good, the bad, and the ambivalent ones that are here for the points). So don’t go in expecting all sunshine and daisies. Expect to get feedback that is less than pleasant (and sometimes downright immature) and know that you have room to improve. We all do. I do. My boss does. My mom does. And you do too. No one is perfect. So go in prepared.

The quantitative feedback is easy. The ratings are right there. High or low, simple. Often, that’s where most of us stop reading. We close the document, and go on our way. But typically there are several more pages in that report.

Yes, the comments section.

That’s where the discomfort starts.

So how do you examine the comments? You don’t have to do an in-depth analysis. Just a quick read-through of each comment is enough. See where the majority of student opinion is falling. Get a blank piece of paper (or spreadsheet, Evernote note, whatever) out and divide it in two columns. Do a quick scan of the comments. Read each one and write the general theme down. If there are lengthy comments then sure, two themes. See what students are liking about your course. Write those things down in one column, just short notes. Then look for things you may want to change based on the less-than-positive feedback. Write those in the second column. Maybe it’s that lecture at the start of the course where students all seemed half-asleep. Maybe it’s the pace of the course. Maybe it’s that one guest speaker who got way off topic. See what changes can be made. Don’t avoid the discomfort by not reading the comments.


Take all the feedback with a grain of salt. Not just the bad parts, but the good too. You may be perfect in the one student’s eyes, the one who got an A, loves the discipline, knew you from another class and thinks you walk on water. But are you really all that that student makes you out to be? No. And are you really a horrible, terrible, mean, imbecile like the other student said? Also no. Where are you? Probably in between. So be humble and self-reflective. Know that you aren’t perfect but know that by reading and analyzing your feedback, you can make your teaching practice better.

I know it’s hard to read your feedback. Some students are malicious in their responses, but some are highly complimentary. Print those compliments. Save them in a document for a pick-me-up on a bad day. You’re not doing everything wrong. (And….well, if the comments show that you are, you may want to take them a bit more seriously)

But it’s your data. The assessment of your efforts (but not of you as a person, remember that). Either use your data to move you to change….or let your data sit and stagnate. Either way, you can’t make that data not exist. So use it to your advantage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s