Thoughts on a negative course evaluation | Jonathan Perry-Houts
Jonathan Perry-Houts

Thoughts on a negative course evaluation

I initially wrote this as an external processing exercise to think through my reactions to a negative course evaluation, and to reflect on the 2019-2020 academic year. I later decided to post it online, because I expect I'm not the first person who's experienced this, and it strikes me as one of those things I wish we learned about in grad school.

I would guess that the reason we don't hear much about this is that it typically happens to early career educators who are at a precarious point in their career as they prepare for tenure review. Speaking candidly about students who think you're bad at your job is probably not a good career move, especially when you have so much at stake.

Technically, I'm at an even more precarious point in my career right now. I'm working my way through postdoc limbo at the moment, and don't even have the immediate prospect of a tenure-track position. But on the other hand, that also means I don't have anything specific at stake yet. And to be honest, if publishing this hurts my chances at a job, I probably wouldn't want to work there anyway.

I think it's not controversial to say that there are a ton of aspects to being a professor for which grad school does not adequately prepare us. Even teaching itself is something most of us are expected to just pick up as we go. Teaching evaluations are a bit different, because they are not something we need to learn to do, as much as they are something we're expected to deal with.

There are numerous studies demonstrating that student evaluations are unreliable indicators of the quality of a course. Women and people of marginalized identities tend to be judged more harshly, and easy classes tend to receive higher evaluations than higher quality difficult classes. At their best, the existence of student evaluations seems to communicate a sort of customer service attitude about the educational system. And yet, they receive a significant weight in tenure review.

But at the same time I always look forward to them because they give students an opportunity to speak honestly about their experience, which can be hard to elicit any other way. Even ungraded anonymous surveys discourage honest responses because they will be seen by the instructor before grades are entered, and nothing is truly anonymous in a small group.

Of course it's not surprising that negative course reviews exist. Education can feel like a high stakes environment for students, and the whole system of grades and degrees is in many ways antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge. It makes perfect sense that there will be disgruntled students, and especially when evaluations are administered just before final exams, chances are high that students are not in a position to reflect neutrally on their experiences.

I received a negative review as a teaching assistant in grad school (you can see that one on the "Teaching Evaluations" page). As a teaching assistant it was jarring to read that, and forced me to reflect on the circumstances around that course, but ultimately I didn't bear too much responsibility for the course, which made it easier to move on. It's a much different experience as a sole instructor, where every aspect of the course is unambiguously your personal responsibility.

I just received my evaluations for intro geophysics, and I have to say I'm finding it difficult to shake off this one negative comment. I want to lay out and discuss some of its content here, not because I think it deserves a response, but because I want to process my own reaction to it. I hope that by writing this out I might find something useful in my reaction that I can learn from. You can read the review here:

What went wrong

Before I say anything else, I don't want to gloss over the negative comments, and I hope to avoid defensiveness to whatever degree is possible. After all, there was obviously something wrong to make this student so upset. Their comments have hints of helpful feedback, enough to lend credibility to the numerous exaggerations and misrepresentations that underpin the rest of the evaluation. But I think the kernels of truth are what make the comments so hurtful. If this were just a grumpy student it wouldn't be such a big deal, but instead my first reaction is regret and guilt that through my own shortcomings, I failed to provide adequate support to this student.

Specifically: I did get backlogged on grading; I did release lecture videos on a rolling basis throughout the term, rather than front-loading them as I had intended; and the course did not move along as quickly as I'd planned. I'll elaborate on each of those in the following section, but I want to isolate those details from the rest of the review, and accept responsibility for the parts of the class I should have done better.

The one criticism here that I respect, but disagree with, is that the programming components of the course are indeed challenging, especially for students without coding backgrounds. That was also a controversial subject among students in this class during winter term. However, none of these criticisms about the way I teach programming highlights a flaw in the course.

I'm not dismissive of that concern, but I consider it part of a bigger challenge that I am already actively engaged with. While it could certainly be better, I strongly reject the implication that any of the work required in this class is unfair. I have a lot more to say about teaching programming in geosciences, unrelated to this student, which I'll save for another time.

What didn't go wrong

I acknowledge the three shortcomings I mentioned above, which all relate to delays that were under my control. The reality is that teaching online turned out to be much more work than I ever expected, and it took me longer than usual to grade assignments, write group activities that could be completed online, and produce lecture videos. I take full responsibility for those delays, and I genuinely wish I had done better.

I don't want to make excuses for those problems, but I do feel compelled to put in context their magnitude, and their ultimate effects on the students.

First, I only got significantly backlogged on grading once, and that happened because a student-requested deadline extension piled multiple assignments on me at the same time. Work that was submitted to me at the beginning of week 5 was returned to students during week 7 (2.5 week turnaround), which is much longer than the 1-week promise that I made in the syllabus. The comment in the review about "work from week two" is referring to homework 2, which was originally due in week 3, but for which I pushed the deadline back to week 5 to allow students more time, and to better align its outcomes with other modules. I never asked test questions on a subject which students had not received graded feedback at least one week prior.

Second, I also got backlogged on lecture videos, such that they were released on a rolling basis to correspond with the next module. I would have liked to have posted them all at the beginning of the term, as I did with the homework assignments. But, as with graded feedback and exams, I never requested an assignment be due less than a week after the corresponding lectures had been posted. That required extending deadlines on several assignments, which had the cascading effect of pushing subsequent assignments back to avoid bunching up deadlines less than a week apart.

And lastly, because of the delayed lecture videos, the course did move more slowly than I had planned. The result was ultimately that the due date for the last homework assignment got pushed back to the end of the term, and I made the corresponding problems on the final exam extra credit.

In the end, most of the last assignments and the final exam became optional because ongoing Black Lives Matter protests deserved our attention more than geophysics, but that doesn't figure in to this review one way or the other.

While I regret the cumulative week of delays over the course of the term, no graded topic was skipped or shortened, no deadlines were compressed, and nothing was delayed more than a week behind the schedule laid out in the syllabus. Because of the online format, I actually have records of all that.

So, what happened?

Clearly, I had a student this term who seriously disliked me, and hated the course. They initially tried to succeed in the class, but consistently received low scores on assignments, despite numerous one-on-one study sessions. On several occasions, we worked through specific problems together, and I would still receive wildly incorrect answers when they submitted their work. They were understandably frustrated with that outcome, and we talked several times about how challenging they found the content. Those conversations led to more frequent individual and group study sessions to work through homework problems.

There was a tipping point around week 7 where they turned their negative experience around, and decided that I was personally responsible for making the course impossible to succeed in. They stopped interacting with me directly at that point, and only commiserated with their friends about the things they disliked in the course.

Their two primary friends both earned near-perfect scores on every single assignment. As with all the students, I talked to the friends a number of times to check in on their feelings about the course. I found that they were generally positive, or at least helpful and constructive, but never negative.

From my perspective, what appeared to happen was that the friends were not comfortable admitting to this student they were not struggling, which validated and reinforced this student's grievances. I recognized that playing out over a couple of weeks in the second half of the term, but of course I was also not willing or able to discuss other students grades.

In order to maintain student anonymity, I made a number of class announcements along the lines of "some of you misunderstood this question prompt…", which this student interpreted literally to mean that there were others with the same issues. I never figured out a way to discuss that more bluntly, but also gently, and so this student continued believing that "at least half the class" (their words) was failing, and therefore the course was somehow rigged, or unfairly structured*.

* I should probably note at some point that this student finished the term with a B- equivalent, during a term where all classes defaulted to a Pass/Fail system, with no impact on students GPA.

My reaction

Even after parsing out the real from the made-up or exaggerated parts, it's still very hard to brush off negative comments, especially when they're so personal. I was teaching here on a contract, and have other plans lined up afterwards that don't involve teaching. This student knew that their evaluation wouldn't professionally affect me, which suggests that they wrote all this as a personal attack.

The opening sentence in particular is clearly not a genuine suggestion to improve the university's educational experience. Its only possible intent can be to tell me directly that I should not be an educator. And honestly, if I can't grow thick enough skin to brush off something like this, then maybe I shouldn't.

I don't say that as a way to pout about one ungrateful student. I put everything I have into this one course, and if I made someone this unhappy in the process, then I need to honestly evaluate why I should bother.

For what it's worth, I'm proud of the way I taught intro geophysics this term. All of the students really accomplished a lot, and I have no reservations about any of them succeeding in their degrees and careers. Three separate students reached out to give me unsolicited positive feedback at various points throughout the term, and ongoing constructive feedback through surveys and conversations helped shape the course in positive ways.

There are all kinds of things I could improve about the course, but the biggest thing I would change if I could go back, would be projecting more confidence in the course itself. I think that by soliciting lots of feedback, and posting frequent Canvas comments with hints and clarifications on assignments, I only fed into this student's perception that the course was poorly organized or not properly under control.

What now?

I can definitively say that I never want to teach online again, but much of the content I developed this term would translate well into a structured flipped class with face-to-face meetings and more engaged group activities. I plan to polish up that content, and post it online later this summer.

Before I accepted this job, I asked a number of people what they thought of "visiting assistant professor" positions, and I got a distinct split between people who saw it as a useful introduction to professor life, and people who worried that it would lead to indefinite adjuncting. I can't speak for everyone's experience, and this year was obviously anomalous by any standards, but I felt like my experience landed somewhere in between.

I got valuable teaching experience, but my research slowed down considerably. I worked with three excellent undergraduate researchers, and developed a legit research group before COVID-19 threw a wrench in everything. On the other hand, I could have done all that as a postdoc, with better pay.

Don't get me wrong, the department here is wonderful, and all of my colleagues have been warm and welcoming. The campus community is fantastic, and the location is spectacular. I'm not ungrateful for the opportunity to work here, even if only temporarily, but I wish I'd been more careful setting my expectations and goals.

I expected to come out of this having measurably improved, and feeling more confident in my abilities as an instructor and a researcher. Instead I feel just about the same as I did before. My weirdly strong reaction to this one student evaluation is a result of that mismatch in expectations. I put so much of my effort and emotional energy into making this term perfect that I set myself up for disappointment when it wasn't received the way I hoped it would be. That might actually be the only lesson I got from this year which I wouldn't have learned any other way.

As with student evaluations, it's probably not very meaningful to evaluate my experience until I see where it gets me down the line. Maybe I'll realize later on how much I learned and grew from this experience, but until then I'll just work on treading back towards where I was before, and hope I didn't permanently derail myself for the sake of this one lesson that I should have learned in grad school.

Written on June 17th, 2020 by JPH