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James Lee

To the author of the question:

What do the written parts of your evaluations say? Do you have students complete the evaluations in class to increase response rate? If the answer to the second question js yes, then do you provide guidance on how to give written feedback? For instance, before I leave the classroom, I write two questions and ask them to answer the questions in their written feedback. The questions are as follows:

1. Did you learn how to do philosophy? If yes, then what about the course helped you learn? If no, then what about the course kept you from learning?

2. Did the course increase your interest in learning more philosophy? If yes, what about the course increased your interest? If no, what about the course kept you from being more interested in philosophy?


teaching as a skill is something that takes real time & effort to learn, and it's a shame that most graduate training puts very little explicit focus on pedagogy considering it's arguably the most important output of an academic job. we require high school teachers to take one to two years of grad courses just in pedagogy & lesson design, and it's hard for me to see what about the demands of teaching at the secondary level is radically different from teaching undergrads. op has been let down by their training, i think; it's odd that we all have to be autodidacts when it comes to learning... the art & science of teaching well.

as for some concrete tips:
- i would second james lee's suggestion that consulting past feedback for patterns is absolutely key. in addition to the feedback that goes on course evals, i have a couple other tricks: a survey i give out on day 1 along with the syllabus to assess their background coming in, an anonymous complaint box which they can use to tell me what i'm getting wrong, a voluntary supplementary survey post-course-completion that goes into more depth & is principally free-response, and i periodically ask randomly chosen students qualitative-research-style if they have time to spend an half-hour with me talking just about what could be done to make the class more effective. these are all standard practices in program evaluation, and i've found them very helpful within the classroom. this is all to say: ask students what you're doing wrong, and they can tell you! your students are the ones who need to be giving you advice here.
- marcus is right to raise active learning as a real prerequisite for effective teaching for all groups of students besides the most self-selecting, those engaged & interested enough to follow a lecture. too many classes fall into the vicious cycle where students don't read overly-long or poorly-structured reading assignments, the instructor (sensing the incomprehension) lectures about the readings the next day, and the students come away with the idea that they needn't do the readings. the only way to break this cycle is with the concrete assumption that the delivery of content happens at home, and in class, we don't go over things you should've read, but rather actively engage in philosophy together. filling lessons with something besides lectures takes practice at first, but there are great resources online & in pedagogy books (take a look at the journals PLATO and the AAPT offer, as well as past cocoon pedagogy posts), and i find that developing more explicit lesson plans in the style of secondary-school educators to be very helpful at the lower-undergrad level.
- finally i would see if your institution has any resources for teaching observation & evaluation. a growing number of schools have full-time pedagogy experts who can evaluate what it is you're doing in the classroom and why it is or isn't working, and provide you with some help from someone who thinks about this full-time. if your school doesn't have this available, do you know of any other effective pedagogues at your institution who consistently manage strong evaluations? ask them to sit in on your class & give notes; advice is going to be the most helpful when it's delivered by someone who can watch your classes and speak to your strengths & weaknesses on a concrete level.


Could be worth trying a midterm survey (asking for written feedback) to see where students are at 1/3 or 1/2 way through the course. Then make adjustments based on what you learn from that.

I feel ya

I'm sorry to hear this OP!

I will share the interesting fact that I get consistently "low" evals *at my current institution.* I taught at 3 institutions before this one all at which I had solid to excellent evals. My current institution is a relatively competitive "rising R1" in a "high-paced" urban environment. Our students are highly ambitious and career-focused.

I'm finishing my 6th year at this institution and like you, OP, I feel like *no matter* what I do, I always have really frustrated students at the end of the semester. And throughout. My evals tend to report that while a good number of students enjoy my classes, a chunk are indifferent and a chunk HATE not just the class, but it feels like, me. These students seriously tank my numbers, especially in comparison to department and college averages. My chair has at one point expressed concern.

I am a teacher at heart. I attend our CTRL workshops, I read Teaching Philosophy and teaching blogs, I give pedagogy presentations at the APA teaching hubs, I rework my syllabi each semester, I've done the midterm feedback, the "supplementary" feedback, the intake survey, I've consulted the teaching specialists on campus.... I've tried *dozens* of reading and assignment configurations-- more reading, less reading, videos, journals, writing summaries, quizzes, "talk to a roommate", papers, playlists, op-eds, community projects, lectures, "agree and disagree discussions," large discussions, small discussions, group brainstorming. And yet. Every single semester.

I recently had the very clarifying realization that I'm a bad fit for this particular student body. I overheard a group of students raving about another professor a few weeks ago. I looked the professor up and, wow, that person is not me. He's got awards, comes from very fancy institutions, has worked in politics, speaks multiple languages, has travelled the world, etc. And it clicked. Oh, I am not who you are here to learn from. I am not who you imagine as "professor." And my "de-centered, student-driven, problem-posing whatever whatever" is not what you imagined as an ideal classroom. I try to fade into the background in my classes, but my students want an "expert" up at the front guiding them. To get good course evals at my current institution, I feel like I would have to be a different kind of teacher, person, than the one I am.

I'm not sure if you have "what to do" thoughts, but I for myself feel like I have a choice: a) not care that a good chunk of my students don't like my courses, b) try to bend myself to be the teacher they want, or c) see if I can find a different student body to work with.

I hope I'm being clear that neither I nor the students are right or wrong here. We're just different. It's a bad fit. Again, I've thrived as an instructor elsewhere.

I hope this proves to be helpful commiserating and not just my own therapeutic venting. lol.

Also mediocre evals

Maybe it isn’t the kind of advice you came for, but if I was in your position I would focus on writing as many grant applications as you can to get teaching buy outs and just focus on research instead. That would not be particularly helpful for people who are on the job market and need to prove that they are decent teachers, but since you have a position and don’t sound like you are at risk of losing it I don’t see anything wrong with doing your best to avoid teaching if it keeps going badly (according to student evals, which I don’t think actually track the quality of teaching at all really). You are under a contractual obligation to teach, not a moral one. If you can find a way to get out of that contractual obligation (by bringing money to the university to hire someone else to do it) then you should (if you want to).

Also, for what it is worth, my teaching evals are also mediocre and seem to stay that way no matter what I do. And I also suffer from fairly significant anxiety when dealing with students but not with other academics. I think that anxiety ends up causing me to come across as arrogant and uninterested in the students, when really I would love to have proper engaging conversations with them about their ideas that actually moved their understanding forward. I don’t know what to do about that and unfortunately I’m not yet in a position to get out of teaching as much as I can (since I don’t have a permanent position yet).


Thanks, I feel ya. Almost everything you said resonates with me. I too, when received negative feedback, tend to think that it was because I didn't do this and this, and tried to change accordingly. In particular, I too have tried almost all the things that you have done...!

I'd add too more things that hurt me a bit more: one is that I am really not good at organization and one is that I do not love teaching (I have the privilege of knowing what loving feels like, and this is not it; but this does not mean I am not passionate in class: in fact students wrote I was passionate). However, these are not sufficient to explain the low eval, as I have seen too many counterexamples.

I think you are right about the fit. I too feel that I might not be the person that the students want to learn from, e.g., unattractive and no cultural capital. At one point in the remote past, someone suggested to me that I should tactfully talk to students about my achievements. I tried it once or twice, but always felt like awkward bragging that made me feel even more unfit.

I feel ya

I feel ya back again. I remembered this very validating, for me, story from bell hooks. Maybe you’ll find it helpful, too. It’s from the Introduction of her wonderful book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994):

“One semester, I had a very difficult class, one that completely failed on the communal level. Throughout the term, I thought that the major drawback inhibiting the development of a learning community was that the class was scheduled in the early morning, before nine. Almost always between a third and a half of the class was not fully awake. This, coupled with the tensions of “differences,” was impossible to overcome. Every now and then we had an exciting session, but mostly it was a dull class. I came to hate this class so much that I had a tremendous fear that I would not awaken to attend it; the night before (despite alarm clocks, wake-up calls, and the experiential knowledge that I had never forgotten to attend class) I still could not sleep. Rather than making me arrive sleepy, I tended to arrive wired, full of an energy few students mirrored.

Time was just one of the factors that prevented this class from becoming a learning community. For reasons I cannot explain it was also full of “resisting” students who did not want to learn new pedagogical processes, who did not want to be in a classroom that differed in anyway from the norm. To these students, transgressing boundaries was frightening. And though they were not the majority, their spirit of rigid resistance seemed always to be more powerful than any will to intellectual openness and pleasure in learning. More than any other class I had taught, this one compelled me to abandon the sense that the professor could, by sheer strength of will and desire, make the classroom an exciting, learning community.” (8-9)

I love that she’s challenging here the idea that all successes and failures in a course are the professor’s alone. And, just personally, I feel like “well, shoot, if bell hooks gets “resisting” students that she just can’t reach, then it’s certainly okay if I (small-time, “not bell hooks,” professor) struggle on that front, too.

And I do think this is an important counternarrative. I’m recalling as I’m writing that one time my chair said to me, in the context of some student complaints, that “we need to try to reach all students, even the difficult ones.” On the one hand, that seems so obviously right. I’m the “adult” and my job is to care about student learning. All students. On the other hand, that arguably puts an unreasonable expectation on faculty who are in circumstances that are really out of their control, like hooks describes above.

Again, hopefully some validation of your experiences as well OP.

Chris Stephens

Lots of good comments so far - I would just add that, as you may already know, some well regarded studies reveal a negative correlation between positive course evaluations and student learning (higher scores correlated with less learning).


Of course there are a lot of other possible biases in course evals as well.

Lucky Jim

The first time I had teaching evaluations, they were a real mix: some students loved my classes, but about as many hated them. However, my teaching evaluations improved after I did three weird things:

(1) I spent less time preparing for text-heavy classes. I started reading any text we would discuss as close as possible to the last minute. This made me feel less like a "master of my subject" who needed to explain the relevant ideas to the students, and more like another student who was feeling their way through difficult ideas. This made it easier to let go and let the students talk. It meant that sometimes I had to say, "I don't know," in response to questions about e.g. exactly how to interpret a passage. However, I would then say, "Let's try to work it out" or "Are you writing an essay on this? I'd be interested in reading your thoughts."

Note that this doesn't mean I don't read the texts: I just don't get to a point where I feel like I can answer anything students will ask.

On the other hand, for problem-based classes, I always try to spend a lot of time both solving the problems myself and carefully going over students' individual answers, so I know who to ask to solve particular problems in class (the students who got the right answers in their homework).

(2) I stopped trying to do every innovative, student-focused, progressive, transgressive, perssisive, pegagogical method in the book, and just tried to imitate my stereotypical idea of a 1950s Oxbridge lecture/tutorial in whatever way seemed best for the particular students I had. So, chalk-and-talk lectures, probing and inquistorial tutorials, and a mix of the two for seminars. Slow talk, dry humour, and the occasional paradoxical claim to wake them up. I do some activities, but only in tutorials, and only when they really seem useful (or the higher powers force them on me).

This has consistently achieved the goals of modern teaching methods (student participation, independent thinking, getting everyone involved etc.) while not using any of the apparently helpful tricks. I'm sure they work for a lot of other instructors (I've seen it happen) but perhaps students just want me to be old-fashioned. Also, this works across very different institutions and countries, so it doesn't seem to be due to the idiosyncratic preferences of one student body.

I don't do student participation while they learn the basics, which is apparently a big no-no according to the experts... but it works for me, both in terms of student performance in assignments and in my evaluations. I'd rather do teaching right the wrong way than do it wrong the right way.

However, I keep my modern methods sharp for teaching demos or peer evaluations, because search committees apparently think that these methods are things to do. Who am I to question their wisdom?

Note, I'm NOT recommending that everyone ditches all the modern methods of teaching, because I think that teaching is highly idiosyncratic to instructors and students. I've definitely seen it work for some people and some students. However, I think it's worth trying at least once in anyone's teaching career.

An alternative explanation of my experience is that I just got better with experience, but the change was abrupt, and people's evaluations don't always improve over time, even when they really put their hearts and souls into teaching. So I teach old-fashioned and sometimes wear modern make-up to disguise this hideous secret. It's worked so far.

(3) I worried less about my teaching performance, especially teaching evaluations, while still caring about it. (Worrying and caring are two different emotional conditions.) This helps me to relax and enjoy teaching, which always comes up in students' comments. Like anybody else, students want people to enjoy their company, and I enjoy my students' company a lot.

I suppose having such a different experience from Marcus Avran shows that the main generalisation we know about teaching is that there are almost no true generalisations about teaching!


I cannot say much about low teaching evaluations (mine are usually really high, for reasons that are unclear to me - maybe it is just sympathy or so) but about being nervous in front of class and anxiety to be before students. I have been teaching for over 7 years at different universities, and I have also struggled for all this time with being nervous, wondering whether I do a good job as a teacher. (As the author of the text, I do not have this problem at all at conferences etc. - I am extremely outgoing and an extrovert and can put on quite a show).

I recently went to take a few pedagogic and didactic courses for university teaching at my institution, and I also talked to a coach who is specialized on university teaching. This really helped me to see
i) that my teaching approach is in 85-90% very good, that is, in accordance with new insights from teacher training;
ii) where I can still improve my teaching.

I know render more explicit why we do something in class (e.g., read a particular text) and why I use a particular method (e.g, debate or definition excercise). I also outline the learning goals more explicit in every class for the particular session, so that students understand better why we do what. I also do more applied argumentation and writing excercises etc.

Being assured by the university teaching courses that my teaching is really well done helped me to lose or at least reduce anxiety in class. After all, I can (and do) now explicitly justify and explain why I chose the teaching method and the particular texts etc. So even if evaluations were bad, I would know that I did my best and that my students learnt a lot, which, at the end of the day (or term), is what eventually matters.


Thanks! To be frank I wasn't seeking for validation, plus I didn't feel validated by others' occasional bad experience (in the same way that a player who always loses does not feel validated by the losing games of a chesmaster). But I deeply appreciate all of you who have commiserated with me and offered advice from your experience. I have contemplated on each unique experience and advice.

I don't want to diverge from the original post, but to @also mediocre eval, I want to say that I am considering using your advice, even though it may look bad contra the image of a well-rounded faculty.


I want to add a more positive note now that the thread has slowed down.

Since this thread, I have been viewing my teaching in a more positive light, and discovered that despite consistent low evals, there are actually many positive things about my teaching: I am kind, engaging (the participation rate has been consistently high, there was a morning class at 8 that over 50% students spoken up voluntarily), passionate, knowledgeable, and thorough in answering questions. And I should feel proud of these things, even though there are other things that sunk the evals.

My sleep has been better:)

So again thanks everybody!

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