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First, I'd like to offer the op kudos for giving their response to the evals serious consideration. Evals can be very helpful when done correctly, by which I mean actually thinking through how your comments will be received by the instructor and not just whizzing through them or using them as an opportunity to spleen-vent. Would that more undergraduates adopted op's stance...

As an instructor, the main thing I look for in the evals is an indication of what was and was not pedagogically effective. This probably seems obvious to instructors, but, surprisingly, many students don't seem to take this as the central consideration in the evals. To my mind, a lot of student feedback is less about pedagogical efficacy and more about personal preference (indicated by the frequent use of "I liked" or "I didn't like"). Try to frame your evals in terms of what helped you learn, and why it did, or what didn't help, and why it didn't. "Glowing" evals might feel nice to get, but if the reason for them is that a student's preferences happened to align with your practices, it's not super constructive pedagogically.

Also, while I am not advocating for treating early-career instructors with kid gloves, I would keep in mind that (1) student evals can hold a lot of weight for tenure, (2) many early-career instructors may not have tons of experience teaching (at least not of grad students) and so may feel less confident in their teaching than more advanced career academics, and (3) most are probably trying their best to be great pedagogues. So, while being hones, don't be unduly harsh, and try to word criticism in the way you would like to receive criticism. I wish as a graduate student I had been more charitable and tried to see how hard some of my professors were trying, even when I really didn't like their pedagogy. It wouldn't have changed my opinion (which I still think is well-founded), but it would change the way I approached the evals.

anon #2

I agree with the first anon. Whether it's bad, good, or glowing, I think the most constructive way to write an eval is to talk about how anything that happens in class affects your learning and then give an example. So, something like "the class discussion helps me think methodically because of the way the instructor guides the discussion through a series of thoughtful questions". Even if an evaluation is negative (e.g. "the weekly reading responses were not helpful because they were too free-form and I didn't know what the point was), it would be constructive.

Again, to echo the first anon: What most students write end up being very generic and feeling-centered. "The instructor is very nice and cares a lot." "I really like this class." They are nice to hear but don't contain much information.

(I should note that even the generic thumb-up ones are better than "you could do X" ones from students. Please please do not give teaching advice on student evals, no matter how good/bad the overall eval part is. Not saying that OP would, but I want to just throw it out there.)

Ultimately, using evals to assess teaching is an absurd practice, given the mountain of evidence against it in all aspects (not just the bias, but also that they don't correlate with how much students actually learned). I stopped reading my evals for this reason. But many people still do, so I hope your thoughtfulness is adequately felt by your instructors.

a stitch in time

Maybe easier said than done, but it's amazing when pedagogical feedback can come before the end of the semester. I provide opportunities for students to do so (and I get that it's tougher if others don't). What is LEAST helpful is to get a barrage of comments at the end, with silence in the middle. This is especially true because different methods will help different learners.

If there's something that would help you learn better in a class I'm teaching, I hope you can feel comfortable letting me know early on so I can try to accommodate!

anon #3

I'm surprised, anon #2, by your categorical rejection of teaching advice on student evals. Could you please explain why you think that this is never warranted? At my institution, at least, it is very common that instructors ask students (especially grad students with a lot of experience) to offer comments on what we could do differently. To me, it seems to be one of the more useful ways to approach student evals as repositories of alternative teaching methods.

Prof L

Teaching evals are in fact very helpful for professors, and can be used to improve teaching.
What's most helpful in that regard, as others have said, is "X was effective" and "Y was not effective".

What's most helpful from a tenure/evaluation/job application standpoint is specific examples. "Prof gave excellent handouts" or "The diagrams she drew helped me to get my mind around some difficult concepts" etc. Also helpful (from an outside perspective) is giving a sense of the course ... "Prof lectured with power point for a half hour, then we would often do an activity. This was helpful/not helpful.." etc.

(While sometimes no one reads these evaluations except the professor, other people might read them--tenure committees, search committees. I found I got more detailed and helpful evaluation comments when I told students what they were for and who would be reading them.)

It should go without saying, but you should definitely never comment on a professor's physical appearance or manner of dress. While saying a professor is nice is, well, nice, it's not super relevant and some people might think it involves yucky gender norms, and so it might do more harm than good. I would stick to your professor's responsiveness and availability, receptivity to new ideas, that they are accommodating while maintaining strong standards, or create a relaxed/friendly classroom atmosphere that leads to lively discussions. In other words, keep to things that are more directly relevant to the learning experience.

anon #2

@anon #3
If the instructor seeks out such feedback actively and thoughtfully, then I agree that it can be immensely helpful. The keywords are actively and thoughtfully, though. I really think that unsolicited & free-form feedback from student evals do not work. Maybe one in a hundred will be objectively accurate (as in: if you make the change, it will indeed make most students learn better) but the noise ratio is just too high. It's almost never adequately contextualized or mindful of individual differences. Plus I think it's not a useful mindset for students to go into every class thinking they have a good grasp on how whatever they don't like about the class should be done instead.

Ultimately: if you have good rapport with your students, know that they are committed to their studies and have put some thoughts into giving you good feedback, then I agree that soliciting advice-like feedback can be useful. However, in the context of the generic teaching eval form automatically sent to all students at the end of a term (which I think is OP's context), I categorically reject students giving unsolicited teaching advice.

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