I am a lecturer of a computer course in a university. Two months (almost 20 hours) of lectures have already finished. Very recently, I planned to get some feedback from my students on my lectures.

  • I asked a couple of questions such as 'how motivating the course is ...', 'how do you rate yourself on topic X', and many more.
  • I also asked them to fill a comment box that would improve my teaching.
  • This feedback is open to all the students registered for the course that also includes those guys who never attended a lecture.
  • I used a Google form for the process and made the responses anonymous.

From the multiple-choice feedback questions, I learned a lot of things and actually, I got to see a few strengths and weaknesses of my lectures. However, the comment section of the feedback has made my life difficult for last few days. I am really disturbed after going through and thinking over a few comments.

Here are some examples of comments:

You do not teach what is in the book. Plus, you ask very difficult questions in the test. What do you want to prove?

Who recruited this guy to this university?

One should learn how bad to teach from this faculty?

At the same time, other comments look like the following:

He is the best in the field.

He explains the most difficult concepts in a very simple and clear way.

The students (all are undergrad) are pretty straight-forward and have been really not-so-formal about it. I don't want my frustration to reflect on my lectures. I am new to teaching and that is why I wanted to get feedback.

How should I deal with this? Is it normal for an early-career academic?

Update:

After going through the comments (discussion) on this question, one may find out that the students are confused, probably during the discussion. However, there are two more points one should consider:

  • Since the feedback is anonymous, it is difficult to track a student and personally talk with him/her regarding his/her confusion.
  • If the students that have given such comments just came for one or two lectures, and they are judging the faculty's strength just based on that, then it is unwise.
  • If the above (second) point is true, then the concerned instructor should not take seriously those comments.

Is it a good summary?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Mar 10 '17 at 14:20
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    Some students think that the best teacher is the one that follows the book, does little work and asks easy questions in the test, so that they don't have to work at all to pass the exam. Others (like me) think that the best professor is the one that covers more than the book, and challenges you to learning the subject (which usually requires hard/non-standard tests). So it does not matter what kind of teacher you are: you will always be the nemesis of at least a few students. – Bakuriu Mar 11 '17 at 8:54
  • For something to add to the question statement, how did the students rate you relative to other instructors in your department in the numerical categories? It seems like that relative ranking compared to other instructors would be a prime metric for evaluating your relative performance as an instructor, as comments are far more subjective and open to speculative interpretation. – Nat Mar 12 '17 at 2:38
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    The only criticism you've described that's more substantive than "I don't like him" is evidence that you're a good teacher. Keep it up! – JeffE Mar 12 '17 at 16:27
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    "One should learn how bad to teach from this faculty?" Is this comment verbatim? – Pharap Mar 13 '17 at 4:46

12 Answers 12

up vote 122 down vote accepted

Could I get some suggestion on how do I manage in such time? Is it normal for a early-age academia?

No, this is common for academics of any age. Anonymous evaluations are notoriously a valve for students to express their dissatisfaction without having to be reflective, fair, or even truthful about it. If you ask for anonymous feedback, you will need to be prepared for things that you don't want to hear. This can include very harsh judgments of your teaching quality, ad hominem attacks, or even tangentially (if at all) teaching-related comments to your person, your appearance, etc. Browsing Ratemyprof will give you a good idea what kind of statements students are willing to utter about their professors.

How you "manage" is by keeping in mind that (a) what you read is likely not the opinion of the silent majority of students, (b) that even the students that actually post hurtful feedback will often not really feel like this about you, but rather be frustrated because of a bad grade, a bad experience with your school in general, or just a difficult time in their life, and that (c) in reality, most teachers get a wide range of feedback from very bad to very good.

Also note that especially in smaller classes there can be tremendous differences between years, so having a bad evaluation in one year can still lead to a better evaluation in the following. Further, I have taken to basically ignore any feedback that has been mentioned only once or twice, and only start to take a specific complaint serious if it becomes a pattern.

TL;DR: In short, you will need to learn to not take the feedback personally.

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    I disagree with a lot of this, having just come out of school and had a bad prof who taught a large percentage of classes in my area of study. While I suspect he was a nice guy, he had a tendency to get defensive if we didn't understand his explanation of what was taught in lecture. He also designed his classes so that answers (or any information at all) could not be found in any resources besides the book he wrote to teach the class. Anonymous feedback was the best way to let him know how frustrated I was without him being mad at me, and I know my opinion was the silent (and vocal) majority. – EvSunWoodard Mar 8 '17 at 17:42
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    I have certainly used anonymous feedback to vent my feelings about a class or professor. Knowing that anything I said would have few repercussions allowed me to say things I normally never would have—which is the entire point of anonymous feedback. So I agree with EvSunWoodard, in that if you're students are saying it, there's probably a reason why. But I never stopped to think about how de-motivating my words might have been for the professor, so I have to say, too, that don't take it personally. – user61733 Mar 8 '17 at 19:53
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    @EvSunWoodard: so what is it, exactly, that you're disagreeing with? It seems like you're saying more or less the same thing. – tomasz Mar 9 '17 at 1:19
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    Also worth mentioning that positive feedback also isn't always truthful. As an undergrad, I had a 'blow off' class that was an easy A. At the time, I gave that guy top marks. I'm pretty sure the majority of my classmates did the same. We all seemed pretty happy about his hands off approach. In hindsight, I learned nothing. The time and money spent in class, collectively goofing off, wasn't beneficial to myself as a student, or to the instructor, if he had intentions of improving his craft or continuing on as a professor. – Rob P. Mar 9 '17 at 2:48
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    Also, my experience is that students tend to overestimate to what extend their and their friend's feelings represent "the majority of the class". This is of course not to say that there are no courses where most students are dissatisfied ... – xLeitix Mar 9 '17 at 7:12

I have a different view on such feedback and here is how I deal with it.

First of all, the anonymous comments are a great feedback and they are generally true.

Second, students, especially younger ones, are pretty bad at wording their thoughts on paper. They tend to exaggerate, be offensive or aggressive, focus on seemingly irrelevant things, draw wrong conclusions, etc.

To get the most value out of anonymous comments, I learned to ask very specific questions. My favorite ones are "What did you like the most about my class?" and "What do you think can be improved about this class?". No matter how ADD your students are, this will focus them dead on point.

If you ask anything general like "What do you think about my class?", students will get so creative and off-topic, they will blow your mind. 60 people watching you for half a year will know A LOT of things about you, you yourself don't know. If you want to learn more about yourself, go ahead, you will rarely get a better opportunity. As for me, at the age of 30 I already have a long list of things I want to improve about myself and don't want anything added to it. I especially don't want to hear about things I can't or don't want to change, like my receding hair, accent, or fashion preferences (lack of thereof).

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    "60 people watching you for half a year will know A LOT of things about you" .. That is what really happened probably. they included every possible weakness that they have observed till now. In stead of focusing on my strengths, they went for that given the feedback was anonymous. (+1) – Coder Mar 8 '17 at 14:41
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    I just want to add, to Arthur's response, that the comments on the instructor's appearance, outfit, accent, etc. are not exclusive of younger students. I TA for MBA students in their late 20s but mostly in their 30s and it's terribly recurrent too. – Anna SdTC Mar 8 '17 at 16:44
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    Not sure why ADD has anything to do with it. – user10033 Mar 11 '17 at 5:16

In the examples you gave, one stood out as maybe actually useful; I hope to use it as an example for my suggested approach:

You do not teach what is in the book. Plus, you ask very difficult questions in the test. What do you want to prove?

This isn't the most well-constructed feedback, and certainly isn't polite, but I think there is a useful criticism you can extract from it. My translation:

I was confused about the importance of the assigned textbook versus what you taught in class, which made it difficult for me to prepare for the tests.

Does that sound like feedback you can maybe use? I am making some assumptions about what the student's actual complaints were, but I think you can take from this "I could make some improvements to my syllabus; maybe I need to specify more specific sections of the textbook for emphasis. I could review the textbook I am assigning and make sure it fits with how I am presenting the material, otherwise I should consider assigning a different textbook or assigning standalone reading." None of this is an indictment of your teaching ability, just a reflection that anyone can improve their teaching, and students' needs will vary. The magnitude of the changes you make should probably correlate with how common a given complaint is - if this is the only student that complained about textbook/classroom differences, probably you do not need any major changes.

In summary:

Extract useful feedback from the comments, try to ignore the emotional content as if you are a third-party observer, ignore everything else that is just rude. Most of it probably comes from your students frustrations with themselves that they have decided to direct towards you - that's mostly a sign of their own immaturity (not that all grown adults are masters of self-reflection, either). Good luck! Just being concerned about your teaching can make you one of the better professors your students will have.

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    I will say that the response you focused on isn't even always a bad thing. All of my favourite teachers in high school and professors in university asked non-standard questions that we couldn't find exact analogs for in the text. To me it showed that they wanted to make sure we understood the material, and didn't just regirgutate formulas. The courses were difficult, but the understanding gained was hard to match. The key point I'm trying to make is that the OP getting that feedback doesn't mean he should change his style. It could be as easy as telling students he asks tough questions. – JMac Mar 8 '17 at 20:41
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    @JMac Totally agree. I don't think hard questions are a problem, and I echo what you suggest about expectations: let students know "you aren't going to see questions exactly like the textbook." Even better, use homework or something similar to establish that in a more comfortable setting before the pressure of an exam: give questions that test understanding to a similar degree to what is on the exam, rather than giving only formulaic questions and then adding an unexpected surprise to the exam. – Bryan Krause Mar 8 '17 at 20:47
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    I would add another take-away to this particular comment. Perhaps the OP doesn't need to change what they're doing in terms of assigning specific sections or changing the textbook, but perhaps the OP needs to be more clear about expectations. Try to make it clear to what level you will be teaching along with the textbook and where you're going to deviate, for instance, on the very first day of class or in the syllabus or along the way. Make it clear what the purpose of the textbook is. Etc. – march Mar 10 '17 at 20:06
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    @march I agree with you on this as well: I said vaguely "improve syllabus" but thank you for some explicit suggestions of what that could look like (including setting expectations that may not be explicitly on the syllabus but still form the framework for the course). My overall point was really just that there are little pieces of useful feedback that might be buried in a student's unnecessarily rude/poorly worded evaluations. – Bryan Krause Mar 10 '17 at 20:13

In situations I asked for anonymous feedback, I rejected the extremes (praise or hate) and concentrated on the middle-ground, which usually had the most constructive, pragmatic comments.

Do not worry about the "I hate you" ones, do not inflate your ego with the "I love you" ones either, just learn from the "you speak too fast" or "you explained A, B C just great and I lost you at D and E"

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    That is quite true. Just considering the extreme would not make much sense. That is what many people here are suggesting. Thanks. – Coder Mar 9 '17 at 12:10
  • Excellent answer to throw out both extremes of feedback and concentrate on the middle constructive ones. Good approach to look at the comment set as a whole and not dwell on +++ and --- ones. – chux Mar 10 '17 at 23:01

This is the sad reality of anonymous evaluation.

If you give them the choice to rate something on a scale, they will be more or less honest. But when it comes to comments, students will say the nastiest things about you.

The only thing that helps is to force yourself to think that only constructive feedback is feedback you consider. Personal attacks or insults should not make you feel bad.

Difficult questions in the test is not necessarily a problem, so long as the questions are genuinely a good assessment of the student's understanding of the course.

The more worrying assessment is that they think your teaching is going outside the course notes, which of course means they'll be examined on something they can't easily revise for. That feels like something I'd be concerned about.

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    My experience from Mathematics is that the students ability to judge what is part of "course notes" or "has been taught" is often very limited. Essentially unless you give questions which come straight from the homework with numbers changed some tend to claim it's going beyond the course notes. – DRF Mar 10 '17 at 13:59

Think of it as the results of a experiment with a lot of outliers. Ignore anything too far away of the mean, in both positive and negative sides. And, as said by @ian_itor, ignore all purely destructive comments.

Keep in mind that those "outliers" regions are more represented than the average, because they are more motivated to speak than the students that have nothing to say and believe that everything is ok.

I usually make available this kind of anonymous "say what you want" feedback. Sometimes I even encourage them to say nasty things so they can get it out of their system. I replicate all the meaningful comments into a public page, with my answer/comment for it, so everyone can see it. Once the first wave of nasty things subsides, they mostly use it to point out things they didn't understand, potential errors in the material, ask for extended deadlines, this sort of stuff....

  • Yes sir. Majority of experienced academia are suggesting for extracting positive from negative comments. But, at a first glance it is difficult as we are human being. However learning continues. Thank you very much for a good answer. – Coder Mar 8 '17 at 18:50
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    @Coder IMHO, teaching (and researching) involves having/developing thick skin. Most of what we do involve judging or being judged by people, and people are weird. Sometimes a nasty comment a student left you has less to do with you/your class and more with some personal situation. And the best thing you can do is just ignore it, if you draw attention to that, you risk worsening the students' mental state... – Fábio Dias Mar 8 '17 at 20:52
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    @FábioDias, Your approach takes guts. It also seems your approach allows for continuous anonymous feedback and not just for feedback at the end of the course. I think this is actually a fantastic way to do it! If students are frustrated, it's far better to address their concerns (or correct their misconceptions) as they arise and while they are still taking your class. – Stephan Branczyk Mar 9 '17 at 4:12

I deal with it in this way:

  • They are always true. Anonymity will let the students tell what they really think.
  • If they fail in the exam, they will think negatively. If they succeed, they feel great and praise you.
  • The feedback will be focused on the end of the course. You should ask it before exams, because after it they will focus on the exam.

And to the concrete part:

  • Find patterns. If many say about something, then that will be a problem or a good point to keep.
  • Find contradictions, did you meet your target market. In your case the people that learned seem to be happy, while the ones that did not are frustrated to you. Did you mind every different kind of students when teaching? In math, there will be some finance people. They do not care about the beauty of the proofs. Same goes to intuitive visual mathematicians that like to get an intuition and see things. Did you deliver value for those people? Like show them visuals, tell them examples of applications and such.
  • If the personal thing is not your fault, then do not mind. They can be, as in one of the answers there was about barbie car. Using toys can feel belittling, university students are adults. Of course feeling offended by a barbie car is not mature, but the students can still be in that age where they still feel the need to compensate for their youth, by playing stereotypical adult.
  • "If they fail in the exam, they will think negatively. If they succeed, they feel great and praise you." -- Is it always true? If a student gets an A in my course, then I am best in his/her eyes? Funny though! There should not be correlation between knowledge sharing and numbers (marks). – Coder Mar 9 '17 at 7:34
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    @Coder Almost always it is. Success feels always a bit good. The feedback is true in the sense of what they are thinking. If they feel good, they are blinded by that and will be biased. Depends on their skill to self-criticize how biased they will be. – user3644640 Mar 9 '17 at 7:46
  • Sir,if that is true, then can we say that all those instructors who get 8+ feedback are by chance/choice by setting easy papers for test. I understand that we can't generalize it, but, might be in some instances. – Coder Mar 9 '17 at 10:06
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    Yes, I have noticed that the courses without exams are loved. Even if there is compulsory attendance. Not because exams are somehow bad by a nature, but because exams make it harder to get A. When the students age the things change as they learn to value learning and self-criticism. But an examless course for freshmen and you will be praised. – user3644640 Mar 9 '17 at 12:25

It's not uncommon to get a few negative comments for even the best instructors. Some of the comments I've gotten have been so bizarre that it made me wonder about the sanity of those students.

One student, in particular, went on a 3 paragraph rant about how it offended him that I used a Barbie car to demonstrate inertia for my physics class. (I tend to use a lot of toys.)

In another case, I got one very negative evaluation and in the comments the student said that I wasn't good at teaching C++. Since I teach physics and not programming, this was more than a little strange.

So don't sweat it.

If you want to take the feedback seriously, one thing you can try is running a problem from the chapter for each class. This can hook in the use of the book, and give the students some traction when running the rest of the problems. This is something to try anyway.

Additional: One of the tricky things is to bridge the gap between 'how' and 'why'. Some lecture instructors will only explain the overarching concept (the 'why') and leave the detail work of running the problems for the students to figure out (the 'how'). But this often leads to a disconnect, so the students will spend a lot of time spinning their wheels, trying to see what the lecture has to do with the actual problem sets that they are asked to work.

With physics and math (the topics I typically teach) it's possible to construct problem sets for most topics that include the 'why' in the 'how'. That is, the procedure for doing the problem involves a conceptual approach to problem solving. Making a connection between the big concepts that we talk about in lecture and the problem solving strategies that the students have to develop for their homework sets is key

  • Can you explain the part in the last paragraph more? It sounds intriguing but I didn't understand your idea. – aparente001 Mar 9 '17 at 3:51
  • This is great. Can you add it to your answer? – aparente001 Mar 10 '17 at 21:28
  • Yep. It's done. – David Elm Mar 10 '17 at 21:47

If you have a supportive department chairperson, or other trusted colleague, it may be helpful to have him or her review the comments with you. From there that person may be able to give you some good advice on a plan to improve your teaching. Note: I am not assuming your teaching is bad, but we all have room for improvement.

  • @Coder - Or better yet, if you are the sensitive type, ask a colleague or friend to read the responses and pre-digest them before sharing them with you. – aparente001 Mar 9 '17 at 3:52
  • Yes sir. I asked one of my good colleagues to sit in my lecture sometimes. That should definitely help me. – Coder Mar 9 '17 at 18:50

He explains the most difficult concepts in a very simple and clear way.

You seem to have your good sides and connect to some students. You can't win them all. Everyone has a different learning style, need for audio, visuals, excercises. Try to add more variety. If it's all chalk on the whiteboard students will vote with their feet and go with the books. The most intelligent rightfully consider that a waste of their time.

Who recruited this guy to this university?

Lot of work for you to move a away from your predecessors 1960ies script maybe. Some people think lecturers should be up to modern teaching standards. not neccessarily your most experienced colleagues. Find and stand by your own way.

You do not teach what is in the book. Plus, you ask very difficult questions in the test. What do you want to prove?

Maybe going in the same direction. People manage their time by not intending to copy donw the whiteboard chalk and learn nothing from it. If you write fast to push the topics through, students can't focus on understanding. They try to pass your exam by using the books at home. Forcing them to attend via exam specifics questions that come up in last lectures Q6A is really unfair, self-serving and really direspectful of their time.

Having studied aviation engineering, being a renewables start up founder and working as self-studied IT freelance based on a part-time MBA, i can tell you any student with some brains will be totally disaffected by "chalk physics" w/o meaningful exercises or progress in deepening the understaning. I don't need to write down 2 pages of math to get to the last single useful line. 80% of classes is junk you never need. Get away from any self-serving academia image projected. Some students will bring work life experience to the table and may be really offended being misjudged as slackers.

From that part-time high-speed pro lectures in the MBA, I knew it can be done very differently using Power Point slides etc. to save chalk time. Sometimes it's ignorance or the professor who is the real slacker in the room. just telling from my experience here what digital natives may expect from you in IT classes.

One easy reccomendation is hand out sample exams early for the book readers that hold up to self-teaching and passing with a good grade. Everyone will know what it's about and has no excuses for wasting a semester. Keep in mind wasting big ressources and failing when trying hard is deeply demotivating. Don't assume anyone to be a slacker. They all have their own tough choices on a hairstring budget or very judgemental parents at home. Such frustration may result in a very personal or harsh critisism. Try to find the gold in it too. Some still have to learn organizing a study or not to take up too many classes in a semester. Some may have structural limits to take the full plate scheduled offcially or retrain basics from long ago or bad teachers in their high schools. Or have a night job in a bar.

You can only improve some way every semester. No past exams on the campus black market make it hard with any first timer.

Your university should offer an assistance programme aimed to improve and reflect on your teaching. They all do today for beginners and thats safely outside of asking colleagues. Actually being open for change is a very good move from you.

Maybe you take this as goals: "making it more motivating to attend for different learning styles" and "more accessible to take home and self-study to manage their own time or catch up after not attending" and "fair to pass by clear expectations reg the exam questions" and "dish out one or two small exercises / follow up questions" be careful not to overload on these and post them online too for people who missed out.

Does your administration offer an optional excercise tutor for your course? That may address some issues reg exams questions.

What I ask for is a lot of work and can only be improved gradually by carefully managing your time and get assistance where you can grab it from budgets.

Since the feedback is anonymous, it is difficult to track a student and personally talk with him/her regarding his/her confusion.

Someone already suggested more precise questions to get more constructive feedback but I wanted to clarify that you can still ask follow up questions to anonymous responses. You can reword the questions in the context of how you were criticized, and the person who wrote it to you will probably give more details for instance, and maybe even the better performing students will have details on how they're learning that you could use. It's hard to offer advice to criticism that isn't specific but in general I have some things I would caution against.

If the students that have given such comments just came for one or two lectures, and they are judging the faculty's strength just based on that, then it is unwise.

If the above (second) point is true, then the concerned instructor should not take seriously those comments.

If they're anonymous you may be jumping to conclusions assuming that the feedback is from those students though right? They may get more from learning outside of class also.

Also just because some students are learning well and others aren't doesn't mean that they have contradicted each other so I would be wary of concluding that you can brush off the criticism. There are a lot of variables to how people learn, from cognitive processing power, to financial stress. For example there's research on how the oldest students in a grade, born slightly after the cutoff date perform better throughout grade school because their brains are more developed. In practice your plan may work for the majority of students but you may need to create an individual lesson plan for some others. If you plan on doing this long term you will build up a toolbox for the special cases.

TLDR: Get better data on the struggling students to find out how they learn best. Attempt to emulate that learning environment for them while continuing to offer the same quality lesson to your other students.

protected by Massimo Ortolano Mar 9 '17 at 19:59

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