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Meeting with Department Director Over Improving Course Evaluation Rating

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Hi,

I finished my first semester of TA and graduate school this past fall semester. I held two recitation sections on an experiment design course that help students write a research paper as a semester-long project. Recently my department Director of Undergraduate Studies requested to meet with me and follow up on the course evaluations I received from the fall semester, regarding how I "might improve the ratings." I am both appreciative and defensive over the meeting and the course evaluation at the moment.  I could use the meeting because it is true that some feedback was very constructive and that on two or three student evaluation questions my average rating was below neutral, but the rating and feedback from different students are notably variable, even conflicting such as suggesting prepared/clear vs. not at all prepared/clear. Furthermore, there was no TA training at the beginning, and I sometime have to refer to other TAs' progress to clearly see what the appropriate weekly goal would be; we did not have any other materials or guideline in addition to those that our students also have access to.

To mentally prepare myself for the meeting, I would appreciate any input on whether undesirable ratings often happened, and/or how serious a situation this type of director meetings would imply...Any other thoughts or comments would also be helpful. Thanks!

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I wouldn't take it so defensively. Part of graduate education is to prepare you to teaching. It is nice that the DUS is devoting some time to help you chew through the evals and give you tips on how to improve them (probably not because they are low, but because evals are important for the job market later on). I sense this is more of a meeting from more experienced to less experience colleague on how to bump up their numbers effectively so that you have a good teaching portfolio when the time comes. 

I would expect/ask the following:

* Precise examples on how to improve your weak points. Eg: if the feedback was that your voice is too soft, tips to improve projection.

* Differentiation between you as a person and you as a teacher. 

* Suggestion on how to read between the lines students' evals

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A professor of educational psychology explained to me that undergraduates are often like "abused children" and unfavorable evaluations that are outliers should be read in that light.

I recommend that you follow @AP's guidance and that you bite your tongue when you have the urge to say anything in your defense. Not being defensive is hard. But being defensive sends a message with a greater negative impact than all but the most hostile evaluation. Conversely, taking criticism and guidance with a good attitude will work to your benefit almost every time.

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Thanks @AP and @Sigaba for your suggestions! Like you said the meeting did go well and focus on specific steps I could take to potentially improve the outcome. Once the action steps are clear it becomes easier to handle.

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I'm glad the meeting went well for you but ... I'm sort of dismayed that your low evaluations were such a point of concern for your department, as it's your first semester teaching, and student evaluations are problematic in ways that I can't even begin to go into. First of all, evaluations are oftentimes lower-than-average when you're TAing a recitation (you're the one who gives the grades on student work, I assume, so of course you're bad cop), and they're definitely going to be dicey if it's your first semester teaching. And of course you're almost always going to have a few students who hate you regardless of how long you've been teaching--probably because they just don't want to be in the class.

Having said that, the best way to "improve your outcome" is to just give higher grades, as cynical as that sounds. If having high evaluations is such a big deal to your supervisors, I'd advise you to just inflate grades. If they're looking for the bottom line (higher numbers on your evals), then just give it to them. Like, as a point of comparison, no one ever cared very much about our student evaluations where I went to grad school, because they recognized that of course students are always going to complain and of course they are going to complain about a TA or instructor who teaches a required class that most students don't want to take, and who has standards and doesn't give everyone an A. 

Edited by Bumblebea

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11 minutes ago, Bumblebea said:

I'm glad the meeting went well for you but ... I'm sort of dismayed that your low evaluations were such a point of concern for your department, as it's your first semester teaching, and student evaluations are problematic in ways that I can't even begin to go into. First of all, evaluations are oftentimes lower-than-average when you're TAing a recitation (you're the one who gives the grades on student work, I assume, so of course you're bad cop), and they're definitely going to be dicey if it's your first semester teaching. And of course you're almost always going to have a few students who hate you regardless of how long you've been teaching--probably because they just don't want to be in the class.

Having said that, the best way to "improve your outcome" is to just give higher grades, as cynical as that sounds. If having high evaluations is such a big deal to your supervisors, I'd advise you to just inflate grades. If they're looking for the bottom line (higher numbers on your evals), then just give it to them. Like, as a point of comparison, no one ever cared very much about our student evaluations where I went to grad school, because they recognized that of course students are always going to complain and of course they are going to complain about a TA or instructor who teaches a required class that most students don't want to take, and who has standards and doesn't give everyone an A. 

I would have to disagree with some of your points. I agree that student evals can be problematic, but grades is only one part of it. Negative evals can signify that the students feel the information wasn't related as effectively as they think it should be. I taught for the 1st time last semester (because I have a master's, my program let's us be the professor of record rather than TA). I definitely did not give easy A's. Actually, very few students got A's and my evals were very positive. This is similar to the experience of several of my program-mates, and this is a diverse state school. 

If you really want to improve your evaluations, you need to examine where your weak points are. Usually evals have multiple questions covering specific topic areas and you want to focus on those that have the lowest ratings. Also, you can create your own eval. I like to give my own short (like 3 questions) evaluation in the middle of the semester that asks what they like about the class, what they don't like, and anything they'd like to see more of. 

I think your view of "students only like you if you give them an A" is simplistic and, as you stated, cynical. There will always be a few students who don't want to be there, but there are plenty of other students who do want to be there and want to learn. Aside from certain circumstances, most students are there of their own volition and made the choice to go to school and to pick this major/class/etc. I try to appeal to their sense of why they are there and how the subject I'm teaching is relevant to their interests. 

Of course, everyone's experiences with teaching/TAing can vary, and that is especially dependent on the college/department culture as well. But making a blanket statement of "the only way to get good evals is to give easy A's" can be a dangerous viewpoint for people to take away from a public forum. 

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