courseevalsI wrote a post last month that contained more quantitative data about my student course evaluations than you would ever want to know and promised to follow up with another about the qualitative data.

When I first started teaching at Mississippi State, instructors supervised each other’s in-class course evals, completed with pencil and bubble sheets, about two weeks prior to final exams. My current university requires students to complete an online course evaluation before they can access their final course grade. I’m not sure which approach is better; both seem to produce the same types of comments, which range from the absurd to the helpful.

The types of comments I’ve gotten since 2004 tend to fall in one of the following categories, with accompanying (unedited) examples where appropriate:

1. Just gimme my grade: These comments are simply random letters or numbers that fulfill the requirement that a student provide an answer to access his/her final course grade.

Examples: None needed.

2. Dirty=cool: These comments include some variation of profanity or ribald humor. Thankfully, these comments have never been directed at me personally, at least not explicitly.

Examples: Use your imagination for the rest, but I still laugh about this one: “Batman himself could not pass this ****ing course.”

3. Complaints: These comments are very clear: the student has a bone to pick with me, usually centered on having to work too hard, read too much, or spell correctly. Sometimes, the focus of the complaint is something out of my control.

Example 1: “I seemed to learn a lot about the class, but the grading scale for the class, I dislike immensely.”

Example 2: “In previous history courses I felt that I perform excellently and was accommodated in some as a great student, not in this course. Dr. Cheathem in this course has put grammar and writing skills paramount to actual knowledge learned through the course. As a freshman this was extremely difficult given that I was learning how to fix the problem in a paper required by this course subsequent to its due date. According to quizzes, papers and the midterm I excelled in the knowledge portion but lacked in the aforementioned writing skills. I feel that Dr. Cheatham should given less weight to grammar and writing and focus on students learning about American History, which he clearly has a passion for.”

Example 3: “I felt I failed this course because he was not grading us on our knowledge of our History but as a grammer teacher would grade our papers. Every assignment we had that counted towards us having a grade was always a paper and he graded brutally.”

Example 4: “Extremely strict, teaches his class like its the only class you are taking and like its an upper level History Class, not a general core class.”

4. Constructive criticism: These comments are actually the most useful. Instead of simply complaining, students point out a weakness in the course and suggest alternative ways of addressing the issue.

Example 1: “Rethink your policies on absences and grading, try be more understanding of people and not such a miserable sod.”

Example 2: “Good class, wish we used a text book though.”

Example 3: “Try and be cool and social before class.”

Example 4: “Try to engage all students, not just those who are history majors.”

5. Praise: These comments declare that I am the best.professor.ever or my course is the cat’s meow. (No one has ever actually used either description, by the way, but one can dream.)

Example 1: “Being a first time student of Dr. Cheathem I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, to my surprise and delight, he inspires students to want to know more about the subject and to search outside of class curriculum. I have very much enjoyed his class and look forward to many more.”

Example 2: [Course name redacted–mc] was my most demanding yet most rewarding class this semester. I’m happy I decided to take the course.

Example 3: “Dr. Cheathem is very knowledgable about the subject he teaches. He always comes to class prepared and presents the information in a timely manner. The schedule was rarely altered and any instructions for assignments were clearly found in the syllabus.”

Example 4: “This has probably been one of the best classes that I’ve had since coming to [redacted–mc]. It was a very fun class, but was still pretty well informative.”

Example 5: “One of the best things that I have seen this semester from Dr. Cheathem is that he has become more personable, and more approachable. He is still one of my favorite Professors.”

What’s my approach to comments on student evaluations?

1. I read them all as soon as I get them the following semester. Some professors wait, but if I’m doing something wrong, I want to know ASAP so that I can fix it.

2. I take them with a grain of salt. It took me a long time to understand this, but it’s better to maintain a balanced approach to both extremes: I’m neither the best nor the worst professor.

3. I try to listen to constructive criticism. Students aren’t pedagogical experts, but they can often identify significant weaknesses in professors. For several years, I received comments about my rudeness and off-putting demeanor. I finally altered some things about my approach to the class and students, and it has improved my classroom environment.

4. I appreciate the comments that proclaim my unending awesomeness. They’re rare, but they’re good to read after a bad class or semester.