Teachers evaluation: you need an elephant skin

Not only students get sick to the stomach when they fail an exam. Teachers do, too, as it’s of great importance to score high on the subsequent student evaluations. Univers spoke with Tilburg University teachers about the anonymous feedback they receive from students after exams. “Some of the feedback can be quite a blow.”

The exam has been completed, all grades are now known. Students log in on Blackboard to view their results: a sense of relief for those who passed, overt disappointment for the ones who failed. But also for teachers, the closing of a course is an exciting moment. They, like all the students, have to log in to university systems to see how they’ve performed. “Even I still get nervous sometimes, when I get the results of student evaluations,” says Henri van den Hout, who started teaching at Tilburg University twenty-six years ago. “It’s sort of a verdict. And occasionally that can be quite tough on you.”


Van den Hout, who has been the Program Director of the Tilburg university teacher’s training course for several years now, gives an example. “I sometimes read feedback about me, like: ‘He doesn’t prepare his classes at all.’ But if there’s something I do, it is exactly that: preparing. At such a moment you can’t defend yourself, and that’s difficult,” he says. “But on the other hand, it does indeed make you think. Where and how did a student get the idea that I didn’t prepare my colleges? So I can also act on such feedback. I think you should learn that negative feedback is not a personal attack. It merely ‘attacks’ – so to speak – your role as a teacher.”

“Once, I got some criticism about my accent, like ‘he really speaks with a Rotterdam dialect’,” says lecturer in Personality Psychology Andreas Wismeijer. “Of course, I can’t put such feedback to any use. Yes, I actually do have a Rotterdam-based accent.” However, Wismeijer does think that the course evaluations and feedback from students are generally very useful. “Evaluations are important. You can use the feedback you receive from students to improve yourself as a teacher. It really helps when your shortcomings are clearly pointed out to you. But it does indeed require an elephant skin. You get a lot of criticism, and sometimes you’re just not able to do anything useful with it.”

The evaluation forms usually consist of a number of standard questions and a blank area for feedback. It is precisely that blank text box, in which students can write freely, that often contains valuable information, according to Wismeijer. “The standard questions, which require students to give a simple score, are very general. Evaluations from these scores don’t give really you an accurate picture of their opinion. As a teacher you can gain a lot more from the freely written students’ feedback. That sometimes causes a bit of a pain, but at the same time it’s quite nice if students take the time and trouble to write what they really think of your course.”

 Evaluaties Bas vd Schot

Looking foolish

How course evaluations are precisely conducted and what is done with the feedback thereafter, varies per faculty. At most faculties, teachers not only face their own evaluation scores, but also those of their immediate colleagues. This way, teachers know how well they function and perform, compared to the others. This may provide important information, but it also creates additional stress, says doctoral student Anne de Vries, who teaches the subject of Contract Law to bachelor students. “So far, my evaluation scores have been high, but I’m always quite tensed when reviewing the overall results of the evaluations. I think most teachers experience that same tension. You realize that you might lose face in the end. If you get insufficient scores, your whole team will see that. If you generally score low, you might be repudiated and look quite foolish, especially if you have a managerial role. That can be rather uncomfortable, I think.”

According to De Vries, some healthy competition can’t hurt, but it can also discourage younger teachers. “I can imagine that you might become quite self-conscious and insecure, if you’re the one who scores the worst of all,” she says. “Students’ feedback is very valuable, but it can also cause you to be a bit hesitative when it comes to doing less popular things. Recently, when grading an exam, I noticed that the Dutch spelling of many students was absolutely lousy. If students intend to work as a lawyer in the future, they’ll really have a problem if they master the Dutch language that poorly. I gave them a proper dressing-down, but other colleagues had warned me in advance and said: “Just don’t do it; your evaluation scores will surely plunge!” But if you can’t be strict anymore as a teacher, then something is clearly wrong.”

Popularity contest

Andreas Wismeijer shares these concerns. “The university does indeed give much weight to student evaluations. That’s not a bad thing, but you need to make sure that lecturers don’t change their style of teaching, just to get higher ratings,” he says. According to Wismeijer, there’s the danger of teachers concentrating too much on making education ‘fun’ instead of giving good education. “There will always be sexy subjects and less sexy ones. Sometimes I see Powerpoint slides from colleagues, that clearly show he or she has been going to great lengths to address the 18-year-old student. Fine, of course, but in that case you should ask yourself whether you’re doing that just because you want students to like your subject or to like you as a person? I think you should remain loyal to yourself and your expertise. I fully support course evaluations, provided they are used well: to improve the level of education itself. It shouldn’t become a popularity contest.”

But are you really able to put your course evaluations to use, in order to improve your style of education? There’s no scientific link between high evaluation scores and the true quality of a teacher. Good evaluations don’t necessarily make a good lecturer. Nevertheless, university professor and economist Ben Vollaard thinks that student evaluations do in fact give a pretty good picture of a teacher’s capabilities. “I think those scores are a statement indeed. My own scores have clearly improved over the years. Not because I’ve become a more likeable and fun teacher, but because I’ve been able to structurally enhance my courses. You learn what ways work well to get things across and what ways don’t. Lecturing itself isn’t that hard, but to really give something good to your students is way more difficult. For teachers, this is often a learning curve. And to see that learning process reflected in the increased quality of your own scores, is very satisfying.”

“I think it’s important for students to enjoy college, but as a teacher, you need to guard against it a bit as well. It’s impossible to always please every student,” says university lecturer Loes Janssen, who conducts research into consumer behavior and teaches the subject of persuasive communication. “I’d rather have a really good teacher than a funny one.”

The old-fashioned way

According to Ben Vollaard, there is, however, one big problem with course evaluations. “Only very few students complete them,” he explains. In most cases, after the exam, students receive an e-mail with the request to complete a digitalized evaluation. But the forms often get stuck in the student’s inbox. “The response is dramatically low. Therefore, you get distorted results. And even if only two students have completed the evaluation, then the average of those scores will still be calculated.”

Janssen also knows about this problem. “In my courses, the response rate lies around fifteen percent. That’s low,” she says. “I think students’ evaluations are very important and I gain a lot from them myself, but because so few students actually fill out the evaluations, it’s questionable how seriously you should take them.” Janssen has tried to increase the response in several ways, but without any success. Therefore, she also asks her students for feedback the old-fashioned way: “During the course, I try to get a bit of an impression of what students think of my class. If students would like to see something done differently, I usually grasp that quite soon. And I’m never afraid to ask students afterwards if they liked my classes, whether they had enough time for the specific assignments, or if they’d received sufficient feedback. I think those are the most important things to know.”

According to Vollaard, many students don’t fill out the evaluation, because they assume nothing is done with it anyway. “I also worked as a journalist at a newspaper. Most people who write an opinion piece to a newspaper have no idea what effect their letter may have in the end. Here, it’s more or less the same. Students often think their feedback is totally useless. But in fact, we do give great importance to it,” he says. “It’s even in our contract: you must score above average. If your evaluation scores are not high enough, this may mean your contract will not be renewed or that you’ll miss out on a promotion.”

Room for improvement

“Teachers with inadequate scores shouldn’t be written off too quickly,” Henri van den Hout thinks. “The bar is set high,” he says. “If, as a teacher, you score less than you would’ve hoped for, then that’ll be noticed and you’ll definitely hear about it. That’s fine, of course, but it would even be better if you consequently received assistance to improve your scores.”

The teaching job is a craft, Van den Hout believes, so anyone can learn it. “Not everybody can become a top lecturer, but at least you can transform any teacher into a good teacher,” he says. Provided that there’s enough room for personal improvement.

Translation  by Sogratext

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