How to respond to student evaluations

It helps to put them in the proper perspective.
By Samiha Khanna

Allen Blay, CPA, Ph.D., calls his first semester teaching college students at the University of Florida 25 years ago a “relative disaster.”

“I tried to mimic someone else who was much funnier than I am,” recalled Blay, now director of the accounting doctoral program at the Florida State University College of Business. Student evaluations of his course offered him several pointers he took to heart.

“One: ‘If you dressed better, people would probably take you more seriously,’” he said, recounting comments from his student evaluations. “Two: ‘Stop trying to tell jokes. You know your stuff, you just aren’t funny.’ Three: ‘There’s so much material here it would be much easier to pay attention if you gave us the notes in advance.’”

As these comments reveal, student evaluations can be a mixed bag. Reading them, faculty can uncover valuable feedback alongside irrelevant — and sometimes hurtful — comments about their personality or appearance. And the fact that Blay recalls remarks from his first evaluations so clearly 25 years later underscores another point about the annual ritual: Helpful or not, students’ comments can become seared into your memory.

Still, evaluations are required for many accounting and finance faculty, and thus learning how to deal with them is a necessary part of the job. Blay and other professors offer advice on how to put student evaluations into perspective and how to process and respond to criticism.

Get past your gut reaction. Anyone who has received negative feedback knows criticism can stir up emotions ranging from disbelief to discouragement. But it’s important not to let your initial reaction cloud your view of an entire class or keep you from taking anything positive away from evaluations.

“It can be just one or two students who provide negative feedback while the rest of the class provides positive feedback,” so try not to focus on the critical comments, said Bruce K. Behn, Ph.D., professor of accounting and associate dean for graduate and executive education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He recommends putting the evaluations away and revisiting them a few days later, after the initial emotion subsides, to “see if there is something constructive you can change.”

The biggest mistake a teacher can make is to dismiss a poor evaluation without thought, advised Jay Thibodeau, CPA, Ph.D., a professor of accountancy at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

“There are some people who say, ‘If the students don’t like my style, tough,’” Thibodeau said. “It’s really important that the professor take a step back and have an honest self-reflection about what they’re doing in the classroom. Be deliberate and think about changes in your style that might make a difference.”

Consider the context. After more than 30 years as an educator, Robert Ricketts, Ph.D., director of the accounting department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said he can easily detect feedback from students who might be retaliating due to a poor grade or who are just complaining the class is too hard when, truthfully, it’s their study habits that need improvement.

“But if they’re telling you, ‘Gee, I spend 40 hours a week on your class, and I’ve got five other classes,’ that’s something you have to think about” — how to accomplish what you need to without asking students for more work than they can deliver, Ricketts said.

Some evaluations may seem unusually positive or unusually negative. In such cases, you may want to mentally set aside those outliers and focus on comments that touch on recurring themes, several professors said.

“Everyone has opinions and preferred methods of learning,” Blay said. “However, when multiple students say the same things, it is worth listening to, if only to change the way you sell or present the materials.”

Another point to keep in mind: Research on teaching evaluations has suggested students’ feedback can be influenced by the grades they received, and that they tend to favor male professors. According to a 2014 survey of more than 9,300 instructors by the American Association of University Professors, anonymous evaluations can even encourage students to take on a bolder or even bullying tone.

Seek teaching advice if you need it. If you’ve received several negative evaluations, consider reaching out to a master teacher in the department and observing his or her teaching style, as well as asking that person to observe you at work and offer suggestions. Most colleges and universities devote resources specifically to helping junior faculty improve, Ricketts said.

Professors who get off to a rocky start are not doomed, Thibodeau assured.

“Most Ph.D. programs have no formal training on how to teach,” he said. “[New faculty] know how to research, but most don’t have any formal mentorship or apprenticeship. They probably just need some training on the basics — what to do as a presenter and facilitator.”

Get feedback more often. Just like midterm exams help instructors gauge students’ learning, getting midsemester teaching feedback can help educators course-correct while there’s still time to adjust, Thibodeau said.

“I usually say, ‘Tell me one thing I’m doing well and one thing you’d like to see me do differently,’” Thibodeau said. He then collects these anonymous written comments from students and takes a few minutes in class to respond to them.

It’s essential to act upon any feedback you solicit, he said. “If you ask students for their feedback and you don’t do anything based on that feedback, the students are going to be really annoyed.”

Show students you care. Learning how to be a great teacher can take time and patience, but faculty members all mentioned that showing students a sincere desire to help them flourish is at the core of success.

“When you work as a professor in 2019, so much of your job is to motivate students to take action, both in your class and outside it,” Thibodeau said. “The student of today is different. They just don’t have the same attention span as they did 20 years ago. The best professors are adapting to the differences in their students and tailoring their pedagogy to those new student groups.”

Demonstrating your commitment to your students often results in good evaluations, Blay said.

“If you are teaching well and your students know you care, you can still get outstanding evaluations and useful feedback even if you are a super difficult teacher,” he said. “If you take the evaluations seriously, and take your students seriously, they are willing to give you the touch feedback you need and often it doesn’t even hurt your ‘numbers.’”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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