Empathy is a major part of my personality. I often find myself trying to put myself in another’s shoes, and I work hard to try to understand why people do and say the things that they do and say. Admittedly, I’m not always good at it, but I do, in all sincerity, try. Yesterday, I read my teaching evaluations from my first semester as an assistant professor. I had anticipated that with teaching a new subject for the first time, I would likely get some negative feedback, and having taught for many years, I expected that most of the really negative stuff would come from students who, big surprise, did not do well in the course. I was pleasantly surprised to get generally positive and even some constructive feedback with the expected turds sprinkled among the comments.
When I go through the inevitably soul-sucking task of reading evaluations, I find myself channeling my inner Ze Frank and thinking of some of his words of wisdom from his video An Invocation for Beginnings.
“Let me remember that the impact of criticism is often not the intent of the critic, but when the intent is evil, that’s what the block button’s for. And when I eat my critique, let me be able to separate out the good advice from the bitter herbs.”
Bitter herbs, indeed. While I, unfortunately, do not have a block button for students, I, fortunately, do not have students with evil intents. Just bitterness, anger, and maybe even depression; all projections of their own perceptions regarding their performance in my class. Some recognize that they should have done things differently, but all too often they blame me for their inadequacy in the classroom. Their failure shifts to my failure, which is somehow easier for them to swallow than is self-reflection and ownership over one’s own learning. Nonetheless, I am left to do my own self-reflecting on my work last semester and the impacts that it had on my students.
So, there I was…sitting in my pajamas staring at this judgmental laptop screen telling me that I didn’t do enough. Malicious words attacking my ability to teach without actually providing feedback on ways to improve or even specific areas to work on refining. Beyond the sparingly dispersed useful critiques were the expected contradicting statements and whiny diatribes about how hard it was to be my student. Oh, never was there a story of more woe…
“The lab quizzes are really hard it is almost impossible to pass with a B.”
–Student who apparently did not get the “B” that they wanted
“There is no material to help us prepare for tests other than just studying.”
–Student who missed all supplemental resources posted in CSC Online
“Dr. Morrow posted lots of resources for us to use.”
–Student who saw and used supplemental resources posted in CSC Online
“We should be learning about major arteries and vessels but not the entire structure.”
–Student who knows how to be underprepared for a professional program, redundant with their language (arteries are vessels…), and unclear in their meaning all at the same time
Sort through the bitter herbs, I told myself as I became increasingly defensive and shot poignant counterpoints into the ether. Once the dust had settled, I was able to find a few things to do differently. To my surprise, the students’ suggestions were mostly things that I had already considered during my own reflections on what to do in 2018. I was a little taken aback by recurring “don’t read off of the PowerPoint” comments. I knew that I did this a little bit…after all, I was new to teaching the material and would refer to my slides to keep pace and make sure that all of the content was covered. However, I felt like I had spent enough time explaining things that were bulleted on the slides to be considered as having not simply read straight from them. I’ll try to be more aware of this in the future.
I have always thought it interesting that we ask the least qualified among those in academia to evaluate our effectiveness as educators. Sure, there is some value in deciphering student raging and rambling to dig out any constructive criticism there is to be had, but I put much more stock in the evaluations of my peers and empirical assessments of student learning rather than in student perceptions of learning. For me, and probably many other professors, the impacts of our courses will likely not be felt by students until many years from now, if they are ever truly recognized by our pupils.
Bearing all of these things in mind, I sought to get a better reflection of my first semester with a series of data collection techniques. First, I had my students all take a pre-test and an identical post-test to empirically show improvements. The results were exceptional. One of my classes improved by an average of two letter grades, while the other by an impressive three letter grades. Secondly, I asked my dean to observe one of my classes and offer feedback, which I put to good use during the semester. Finally, I had my student reflect on their learning throughout the course using little CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques) that I picked up from NFO (New Faculty Orientation) meetings and conversations with my dean. Additionally, my final assignment in my courses was for students to write a 1-2 page reflection on their learning with specific points to address. Honestly, I learned more about how I was doing reading those essays than I did in going over my evaluations OR reading through the supplemental SurveyMonkey data that I collected in addition to the standard CSC evaluations.
I found myself going back in time to put myself in the shoes of an upperclassman during my undergraduate experience. What did I know? I remember always trying to be honest and helpful on my evaluation forms, which lacked some anonymity given that the professors spent a semester growing accustomed to our handwriting only to receive hand-written evaluations in the end. In classes that I loathed, I recall trying to point out to my professors what made it difficult for me. Still, the question remains: What did I know? I had never taken the course before, nor was I an expert in the subject matter, so who was I to say that it could or should be taught differently? How did I know that while some things didn’t work for me that it didn’t work for others in the class? What if I just didn’t spend enough time studying? It would have been entirely possible given that I did not become diligent at studying early and often until later in my college career. I rarely visited with my professors, so was I sure that I hadn’t missed something that they had said, perhaps even repeatedly? What did I know about pedagogy, a word I didn’t hear until I was working on my Ph.D.? What did I know about content retention, learning outcomes, or backwards design? Nothing. I knew nothing. And yet, there I was, surrounded by peers in the same position as we gave our novice assessments on instructor effectiveness. Maybe our feedback was positive, maybe it was negative, maybe it was thoughtful and constructive…or maybe we were just putting words onto paper that were utterly meaningless even if it made us feel like we were in some way authorities on the subject of teaching college-level courses.
This air of authority pervades student evaluations and is, quite frankly, a bit insulting to those of us who have spent years developing our abilities to be effective instructors. One of my students commented that I should not have been hired. Another was upset that I couldn’t answer all of their questions all of the time, which made me unqualified to teach my courses last semester. Others made it seem that they would have done a better job if only they had had a different instructor. Though I may have wanted to, I never, ever, ever would have told my professor that I thought they were incompetent or that they were the reason for my inability to earn the grade that I wanted. I get the temptation. I really do. It’s much easier to blame others for your mistakes than it is to own your mistakes, but smooth seas never made for much of a sailor. We can’t get better without constructive feedback, and I have some for my students: You decide your own level of involvement. (Okay, so I stole that line from Tyler Durden, but it applies in this case.) If you aren’t reading before coming to class…if you aren’t coming to class and paying attention….if you aren’t studying outside of class…then you are not involved, and I cannot help you to achieve your full potential.
As I sat there on my bed, emotionally exasperated, I decided to do a little counting, and you know what? The positive comments outnumbered the negative ones. I’ve heard it said that it takes nine positive comments to outweigh just a single, tiny negative comment. I tried to keep that in mind so that I could consciously devalue those negative comments and give myself some credit for the things that I did do well last semester.
The comments were clear. I was kind, fair, and approachable (according to the vast majority of students anyway). I was knowledgeable, but recognized my limited understanding of the content and would not pretend to know the answer to a question that I didn’t know. I was genuinely concerned about my students’ success and I set the standards high. Some students appreciated these things. Others didn’t, but the point here is that some of them did…they actually did appreciate the course and my role in it. Nothing exemplifies this more than the following comment, which, yes, gave me all the warm and fuzzy feelings after reading through the others.
“Dr. Morrow is learning with us. This is her first time teaching anatomy and I think she’s doing fantastic. A lot of people are complaining, but I think she’s holding us to a really high standard. I’ve talked to others in professional school and I think she is taking a lot from what she learned during this summer and putting it to good use. Honestly, she’s probably going to get a lot of bad reviews, but they’re from people who want an easy A. I don’t think I’ll get an A in this course, but I’m going to work towards one. I really appreciate Dr. Morrow.”
–Hardworking student who, I’m hoping, got that A
As I sit in my office now, writing this, reflecting on my performance, my students, and where to go from here, I can’t help but think about the professors that got me to where I am today. Did I ever tell them how important they were in shaping me? In preparing me for my next, big adventure? Do they know that I still remember nomenclature and understand major concepts because of things that I learned from their classes? Did I give them enough good feedback to help them get through the swamp of student evaluations and find something meaningful and useful to their own personal growth and development? Did I actually impact my professors in small ways? Was I giving anything back for all that I was getting from them? I don’t know, but I sure do hope so….and I also hope that I am giving my students what they need for their next, big adventures as well.