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So I gave out midterm evaluations today to get some feedback on how things were going...apparently they aren't going real great.  I got a handful of very positive reviews, and a handful of very negative ones, with the majority being pretty middling overall but with low scores in surprising places.  There are a few changes I can try (and will try) to work out, but I don't really know how to fix some of these things--like the number of students who apparently think I don't care about how well they learn the material.

 

I'm mostly just trying not to get too down about that handful of very poor reviews, though.  One person put down that I know what I'm talking about, but not how to teach, several think I'm wasting their time on easy things (which are the only questions being asked in class, though), and one "dislikes" me "very much" and hates everything about the class and how I do things.  That last one was extremely harsh, but the student also expressed that they were only there for a grade and revealed that they really shouldn't be in the class at all (they should have taken a higher level course but did not listen to that advice), so I'm trying to convince myself that it isn't my fault.  I have another group tomorrow, and expect those results to be worse since I can't ever seem to get them involved and a group of them has been fairly open about just not liking me.

 

Anyone else have evaluation anxiety, horror stories, etc?

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It may not be what you're doing but your tone of voice and body language while doing it that is leading them to think you don't care about the material. That would be my guess, rather than all the exa

Oh my God, don't feel bad. These are the type of evaluations that a lot of TAs get. I assume you're TAing a big lecture class? Then this kind of response is pretty expected. You're bad cop. You do all

I read once a statistical claim on Chronicle of Higher Education (and I apologize that I don't feel up to digging the claim up as proof) that the two main things that make a difference regarding evalu

First thing I thought after hearing you describe the range of evals is, they're normally distributed! 

 

I think I would have been more worried with reviews that tend to pack on either extreme; sounds like you're not a nightmare, and you're not spouting rainbows. I think your plan to make some small changes is a good one. Have you spoken to a mentor?

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I'm not really worried, just a little disappointed--it would help if students gave feedback outside of a brief, anonymous survey.  I can tell when things aren't really working, but without student involvement it's hard to adjust things.  I just handed out and got back the evals this afternoon (these are nonofficial, so we just collect them ourselves instead of going through the office), so I haven't spoken to anyone yet--we have weekly TA meetings, though, so it will come up then.  There are a few small things that I'm going to talk to the other TAs about before then to see if they're doing something different than I've been based on the guidelines we were given, and a few things I can just do (find a way to avoid making people just sit there when they finish a quiz early but class isn't over, somehow give an option of working examples on the board for those it helps or working alone for those it annoys, etc)--I just have to get creative because there are such varied needs and a discussion class of almost 50 students is pretty hard to work with effectively.

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I'd try not to take the comments personally. The students will all probably have different ideas what a "reasonable" evaluation score is, some will be saying [i hate everything about you] out of their own frustration. I reckon that most of them won't be viewing their evaluation as a useful tool for helping their TA to improve, nor will they necessarily put a lot of thought into how they score you. 

 

Regarding the 'ArrowFletch doesn't seem to care how well we learn the course material' comments. There might be something in your attitude that the students are viewing as apathy/impatience/distance (especially if more than one student is remarking on it). The way you talk to your students and deal with their problems is something that can be modified, but you first need to figure out what's really going on.

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The way these evals work, it isn't a written comment, just a score assigned to a provided category.  I honestly don't know where they get it from at all, though--I always ask for questions, I try to explain things in multiple ways if they don't seem to be getting it, I always try to make sure that they are prepared for their quizzes, etc.  Due to the extremely basic level of the course, there are some questions I just can't answer without delving into much more complex material, and there are some things that really do just need to be memorized.  My best guesses are that's the type of material they mean, that something I've said has been misconstrued (though I don't know what), or that they want a more personal connection that I don't know how to provide in a 50 minute class with 50 students who don't come to my office hours.  If that last is the case, it actually concerns me less because I can understand it--but if they feel that I don't care how the class as a whole is doing, then something has gone terribly wrong.

 

Most students don't bother with written comments at all, of course, which makes it harder to understand the scores they gave--of those that did, only one is actually bothering me (not the harshest one, which I honestly decided not to take seriously for several reasons).  My brain just hasn't been in a real good place lately, so even though the logical part is okay with mediocre and making plans, the rest has decided to be down in the dumps over it.

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It may not be what you're doing but your tone of voice and body language while doing it that is leading them to think you don't care about the material. That would be my guess, rather than all the examples you've given as to what it might be. It's probably something you don't notice but that they pick up on, in part because it might be really different from what they get in the class before or after yours. Regardless of the level of the material, you should make it sound and seem like you're interested in it in tone/attitude, as well as in what you actually say.

 

As for the comments that you don't know how to teach, I hate to be a downer here but it's probably true. How much teaching experience have you had? What kind of pedagogical training have you had? I think this is one area where academics actually fail to act like academics. They don't seek out the experts (university teaching center) or follow the best practices identified in the research. There are entire journals dedicated to teaching, many of which focus on higher education. For example, College Teaching, Journal of College Science Teaching, Journal of College Teaching and Learning, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, and so many more. If you don't want to reach out to the teaching center (which you and every grad student should, especially if you will be teaching in the future and/or will be pursuing academic positions), then start by looking through these journals for ideas on how you can better handle what the rote memorization or other less fun/interesting parts of class. More generally, consult Google too for tips on how to make those just as fun as everything else.

 

I hope this helps. The truth is that grad students aren't given much training when they're thrown into the classroom. I know I wasn't. And, it was only after taking my university's college teaching course (note, I'd already taken the departmental course long before this) that I realized how insane it is that we'd totally reach out to the expert on X in our department but we don't reach out to the experts on teaching on our campuses. These people have years of experience, Ph.D.s in teaching, and lots of collective experience (gathered from talking to those that seek them out), which you can and should take advantage of!

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It's not that they don't think I care about the material, but rather how they are doing with the material, which I think is more concerning.  Whatever it is, I'm not seeing the same trend in the evaluations from today's group, at least not the ones that were handed in already.  These were more what I expected, and the lower scores are mostly in categories that I completely agree I need to work on more.  Granted, I only got about half of them back today since we ran out of time, so we'll see--the disappointed students may well be the ones who took it home with them.

 

Honestly, I didn't find the workshops put on by the teaching center here to be very helpful--we attended several days of them before classes started, and they were very repetitive and usually not very applicable to this type of class.  I've only taught for one semester before this, at my undergrad, and the general vibe was very different there.  Not to mention that I had a class about 1/3 the size, so I was actually able to interact with them.  Now that my own things are settling down a bit, though, I'll be able to work on improving things--that's not to say that I haven't been putting an effort in, just that it's very hard to make the time to really think about how things are working and problem solve when I'm also trying to set up the path for the next several years of my life.

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There is something you should remember when it comes to students evaluating the teacher, particularly in terms of how useful things in the classroom. They really can't judge some of the things they're asked to judge. My previous institution had the evals solicit student comments on homework. I don't remember the exact wording, but the student was, essentially, asked to judge the efficacy of the homework in instruction. I had a few comments about "make work" assignments and dithered over that for weeks when working on my next syllabus.

 

How do they know I assigned "make work"? What did I assign that was "make work"? I couldn't think of a thing. I had a purpose for each assignment. It turns out that it's less to do with whether or not the assignments actually were make work or inappropriate for the course. The students are learning the subject, they aren't in a position to judge how much and which types of assignments best facilitate learning and evaluate student progress. Only another person who knows the subject well enough to teach it can do that. How can a student discern the purpose for an assignment and agree that it's appropriate? If it's not because of familiarity with the subject, it must be some other cue. So, I did the same assignments, but I situated their position in the course when they were assigned. That's all it took. They needed to know that I understood the purpose and had a reason for what I asked of them, particularly assignments that didn't have immediate, logical connection to what they already knew about the subject, such as turning in an annotated journal article discussing something in their major.

 

I had one that told me that the student would have learned more about composition in a conversation with a goldfish than s/he did from me. The only student who didn't improve over the semester was the one student that was mostly not there, including teacher evaluation day. So what did that mean? That s/he didn't learn anything? Or that s/he believed s/he didn't learn anything?

 

There will always be the few "I can't stand her!" evaluations. If there are a lot of those, that's another story, but the one or two can be ignored as unhelpful. The trick is to decipher what the situation really means. If a student offers criticism or suggestion that will improve some aspect of the course, the question is first, is this an aspect they can accurately evaluate? If so, what needs to be changed? If not, what is the real problem and what needs to be changed?

 

I like the way my university does things. Evaluations aren't returned until the next semester so there's no way the evaluations can alter the teacher's behavior toward the class. Sometimes it might be a good thing, but usually, that's a ethical problem that doesn't need to happen.

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ArrowFletch, I didn't say anything about going to generalized workshops. I meant going to talk to them specifically about the class you are teaching, the evals you gave, and how you can respond to them. Get specific assistance from people that are experts in this. You will, in all likelihood, get insight into your teaching and your students that you would otherwise not get. You can even have them observe your class and give you direct feedback on your interaction with students and how to improve that.

 

I'm not surprised at all that different classes have different takes on your teaching. That is common and the first class of the week often gets short shrift since you then refine the lesson plan based on how it went with them. That said, I urge you not to ignore their feedback and just go with the other class that was more in line with what you thought. They are giving you feedback that could potentially be very useful. And, if you ask and then don't make any changes at all, don't be surprised to have students note that on your final evals (along with comments like "Why ask if you don't really care what we think?").

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I'm certainly not intending to ignore feedback, rising_star, and I've mentioned a couple times that I have several changes in the works already--I'm just allowing myself to feel good about how the second class reacts to me.  Small victories are important.  

 

danieleWrites--that's where I'm at right now: deciding what weight to place on things and what the real issues are.  There were definitely several categories that either are not in my power to fix or really just needed more communication--some things will be easy fixes now that it's actually been brought to my attention, for example.  It's helpful that these forms include ratings for the class in general, which involves multiple sections and teachers, so I can also see if they like class but not discussion, or dislike the entire class.  Official evals are at the end of the semester, and go through the office first, but these are just something that the professor likes to do.  It is really helpful since my students rarely speak up about issues directly to me--I never did either as an undergrad.

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That does sound helpful. English classes almost always require conferences throughout the semester, so I have the opportunity to ask the students, individually, how they feel the class is going for them and get immediate feedback without the whole you!suck thing. It's not as honest as an anonymous comment would be, but it's also stops the negative comments without explanation.

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  • 3 weeks later...

It's not that they don't think I care about the material, but rather how they are doing with the material, which I think is more concerning.  Whatever it is, I'm not seeing the same trend in the evaluations from today's group, at least not the ones that were handed in already.  These were more what I expected, and the lower scores are mostly in categories that I completely agree I need to work on more.  Granted, I only got about half of them back today since we ran out of time, so we'll see--the disappointed students may well be the ones who took it home with them.

 

 

If your second section doesn't have problems with you, then take the negative evaluations with a grain of salt and move on. Honestly, you shouldn't beat yourself up about evaluations. Most negative ones are from disgruntled students who think you should make life easier for them or behave like you're their employee. And if the class is a required one, then you're just generally going to get a lot of people who don't want to be there, and they're going to project their own annoyances onto you. (I always find it interesting that my most enthusiastic students are the ones who say that I'm enthusiastic, and my clearly put-out students say that I obviously didn't enjoy teaching them. There's probably truth to it--I don't enjoy teaching students who are clearly resistant or "too good" to come to class--but I also think that there's some major projecting going on.)

 

Don't take evaluations personally. I would advise just not even reading them until you absolutely have to.

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I wouldn't worry about it. It's probably just a projection of their own anxieties in life onto your evaluation. Lots of college students are anxious/sad/confused people, and rightfully so - they're trying to figure out how to live. That's kind of a stressful situation.

 

So yeah, there will usually be a handful of people who unload their negativity into a teaching evaluation. They might be comparing you to another teacher who set the bar really high - but that would be unwarranted. They don't realize that just as there are many types of students, there are many types of teachers as well. Not everyone can use the same approach to teaching and have the same success. If it works for you, just keep doing what you're doing.

 

I don't know about you, but I'm not trying to be a 5-star TA. If I'm just "decent" to "good," that's fine with me.

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I wouldn't worry about it. It's probably just a projection of their own anxieties in life onto your evaluation. Lots of college students are anxious/sad/confused people, and rightfully so - they're trying to figure out how to live. That's kind of a stressful situation.

 

Well said! I had a student email me in a snippy tone this week regarding a missing grade that was due to a Scantron error, & after the initial wave of rage about the rudeness, I realized they were probably still at a stage of life/academia — one they may never leave — where they blame everyone else for bumps in their road. Obviously, it also wasn't the students fault, but they probably assumed it was a human error on my part, hence the knee jerk reaction of pointing a finger at me. I imagine this is partly the case with your students.

 

If you have the chance to do so, I've found that asking my students for anonymous feedback about my review sesssions has helped immensely, in terms of my performance as a TA, & their performance on exams. They write what they liked, what they didn't like, & ideas for future review on slips & turn them in after a review. Anonymity helps with the honesty, too. I act on their feedback to the best of my ability, & they seem to appreciate it. Having reviews every few weeks about their perceptions of me will probably reduce the surprises in my end of semester evals.

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I gave some more thought to this. Your second section likely gave you better evals because you actually do a better job teaching. Think about. When you write something, is the first draft awesome? Is your first practice conference presentation awesome? No, right? So, there's ample reason to believe that you are actually doing on-the-fly improvisation and fixing things that didn't work in the first section when you teach the second section. When I used to teach discussion sections, I always felt bad for the first one of the day because based on what didn't work in that section, I'd teach the subsequent sections differently. My friends who teach several sections of English 101 say the same thing about their first class vs class two.

 

All of this is to say, maybe you could reflect on what you do in the second class that is going over well with the students and then try to bring that into the first class somehow.

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  • 2 months later...

Just got my evaluations back. They were almost all good -- Trying not to let the few nasty remarks bother me.  One student wrote that my passion for the subject does not come across (a lot of them wrote the opposite, thankfully).  I wonder why this one student felt that way?  A few others marked me down for stuttering and not making good eye contact, while another said that I couldn't tell if people didn't understand something.  As for the first issue, yes, these are things that could be improved, but I've never taught before so, come on!  And as for the second issue, how am I supposed to know if they don't understand if when I ask 'Does everyone understand?' no one says anything!  Should I read their mind?  Sometimes, I think these undergrads have expectations that are too high. 

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I gave my own mid-semester evaluation sheets with the usual rate on a scale of 1 to 5 questions and then "What did you like?" and "What didn't you like?" questions. I got some really positive feedback which helped boost my confidence since it was my first semester and I got some very useful critiques. Before I gave it to them, I gave them a little speech about how evaluations help teachers improve and so they should not brush them off at the end of the semester but take a few minutes and, whether it's positive or negative, at least write something substantive. Anyway, my final evals were excellent and 2 even mentioned that I had done the mid-semester evals and had fixed any problems. 

 

On the two class thing, I had the opposite experience. My first section was consistently fantastic and my second was just okay. At the start, I thought it would be like the poster above, i.e., the second one would be better because I would know better after having done the first. But what I found was that the section was as good as the students in it. My first section was full of excellent students and so it was a fantastic section. The students in the second section were often unprepared and/or less engaged and the section was less useful to them because of it. We're not miracle workers and to a fair extent we can only work with what the students give us. 

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Just got my evaluations back. They were almost all good -- Trying not to let the few nasty remarks bother me.  One student wrote that my passion for the subject does not come across (a lot of them wrote the opposite, thankfully).  I wonder why this one student felt that way?  A few others marked me down for stuttering and not making good eye contact, while another said that I couldn't tell if people didn't understand something.  As for the first issue, yes, these are things that could be improved, but I've never taught before so, come on!  And as for the second issue, how am I supposed to know if they don't understand if when I ask 'Does everyone understand?' no one says anything!  Should I read their mind?  Sometimes, I think these undergrads have expectations that are too high. 

Seriously, don't beat yourself up over evaluations. Don't obsess about the bad ones. If the majority are good, then you can write the bad ones off as sour grapes. Certain people are predisposed to never be happy about anything.

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As for the first issue, yes, these are things that could be improved, but I've never taught before so, come on!  And as for the second issue, how am I supposed to know if they don't understand if when I ask 'Does everyone understand?' no one says anything!  Should I read their mind?  Sometimes, I think these undergrads have expectations that are too high. 

I don't think most undergraduates understand exactly what a TA is - ie, someone who has been thrown into teaching a class with no prior training (their teachers up to university level had degrees in education, they assume that their "professors" have a similar background, I think). I was fairly upfront in telling my students "this is my first time teaching" and I think they were understanding of that. 

 

Don't let TA evaluations bother you - they are like, the least important part of your TAing. Course organisers understand how subjective they are. A TA who is viewed as "nice" is not necessarily the most effective one: while an unpopular TA might really push their students to do well in the course.  

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Reading this thread has helped me a little. I just went through three courses worth of evaluations, from last Spring and last Fall, and I put together a list of the *only* time my name is mentioned. Right now I am struggling to get out of bed and to see the point in going forward at all. I don't know what to do or how to change my behavior. To give you some context, the courses are in a relaxed 1 credit or 3 credit format within a living-learning program (College Park Scholars) and the grade distribution for all of them is 90% A's and a few B's. I am Joanna, of course.

 

Spring 2013 evaluations
 
222 - 3 credit course
 
 
Joanna takes everything too seriously
 
The TA (in response to: “What aspects of this course need attention?”)
 
Get rid of Joanna.
 
The TA was not a great addition to the course. Her attitude was unfavorable.
 
(…) and I did not like Joanna as TA.


Fall 2013 evaluations
 
118J - 1 credit course
 
Teaching Assistant graded too harshly. This is a class where if you put in enough effort, it should be an automatic A.
 
The TA is not engaging nor are they personal.
 
The graduate assistant, Joanna Nurmis was very rude to students.
 
Assignments were graded extremely unfairly.
 
Some of the assignments given are unspecific and I was confused on what the assignment was asking.
 
The TA graded papers rather harshly which felt inappropriate for a 1 credit colloquium course.
 
 
218J - 1 credit course
 
(…) Dr. Chadha is a fantastic leader for the program; it felt as though Joanna, however, was “forced” upon the class to provide something relative to an actual class workload, which consisted of assignments and materials that were largely random.
 
Joanna needs to be replaced. She assigns way too much work when Chadha sets the mood much lighter. Joanna also doesn’t realize one credit is ONLY ONE CREDIT! NOT TEN!
 
The TA (in response to: what aspects of this course need attention?)
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I think sometimes your evals are completely appropriate based on how well a given section does.  I can almost predict if I am teaching two sections of a lab course which one will give me great, helpful reviews and which will give me sour grapes.  It happened two semesters in a row - predictably.  One section was more engaged and more involved (regardless of grades) and the other one had tons of behavioral problems in it.  Each semester this was the case.  I tried not to read too much into it.

 

My biggest problem was being taxed by a syllabus I did not design to do TOO much in one semester.  In my second semester, I made my own schedule and  I got much better reviews in regards to how much stuff we had to cover in a given lab.  I focused more on applied stuff that mattered to the assignments and exams over random stuff the prof who had set up the syllabus found important.  He had his reasons but he also wasn't teaching the labs with remedial students.  As this was a required class, some students would take it 3 or even 4 times over to graduate and they usually just refused to do the work or really were just not up to the standard of the department in terms of studying and paying attention to detail.  It slows you down.  My reviews reflected that.  PhD Applicant, you make an excellent point about reading.  I read a lot of blogs I find on twitter and InsideHigherEd, which asks a lot of questions about how we are dealing with our undergrads.

 

Every semester is something new.  I used all I had learned to help make my syllabus work for me this semester again.  I put more short articles on than long readings to generate debate - hopefully something that will come up (good or bad) on the reviews.  This is how my classes looked at Indiana and I found it much more entertaining and manageable as a freshman.  It meant that even though I may have been bored by the book that week, the short articles would be interesting.

 

If you find yourselves ever feeling lost, you aren't alone. Faculty members teaching new courses or grad students tell me the same things apply even years into tenure.  And, honestly, it could be worse.  I had a prof in charge of the course I am teaching now in charge of me last semester who had less teaching experience than I did.  Experience does bring wisdom and if you don't do things less-than-ideally, you will never find a better way.

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Reading this thread has helped me a little. I just went through three courses worth of evaluations, from last Spring and last Fall, and I put together a list of the *only* time my name is mentioned. Right now I am struggling to get out of bed and to see the point in going forward at all. I don't know what to do or how to change my behavior. To give you some context, the courses are in a relaxed 1 credit or 3 credit format within a living-learning program (College Park Scholars) and the grade distribution for all of them is 90% A's and a few B's. I am Joanna, of course.

 

Spring 2013 evaluations
 
222 - 3 credit course
 
 
Joanna takes everything too seriously
 
The TA (in response to: “What aspects of this course need attention?”)
 
Get rid of Joanna.
 
The TA was not a great addition to the course. Her attitude was unfavorable.
 
(…) and I did not like Joanna as TA.

Fall 2013 evaluations
 
118J - 1 credit course
 
Teaching Assistant graded too harshly. This is a class where if you put in enough effort, it should be an automatic A.
 
The TA is not engaging nor are they personal.
 
The graduate assistant, Joanna Nurmis was very rude to students.
 
Assignments were graded extremely unfairly.
 
Some of the assignments given are unspecific and I was confused on what the assignment was asking.
 
The TA graded papers rather harshly which felt inappropriate for a 1 credit colloquium course.
 
 
218J - 1 credit course
 
(…) Dr. Chadha is a fantastic leader for the program; it felt as though Joanna, however, was “forced” upon the class to provide something relative to an actual class workload, which consisted of assignments and materials that were largely random.
 
Joanna needs to be replaced. She assigns way too much work when Chadha sets the mood much lighter. Joanna also doesn’t realize one credit is ONLY ONE CREDIT! NOT TEN!
 
The TA (in response to: what aspects of this course need attention?)

 

 

Oh my God, don't feel bad. These are the type of evaluations that a lot of TAs get. I assume you're TAing a big lecture class? Then this kind of response is pretty expected. You're bad cop. You do all the grading and give all the assignments. You do the grunt work. The professor gets to breeze in and seem like a smart, elusive expert. You're the one who delivers the bad news--that they have a quiz, a paper assignment, that they have to actually read and discuss the assignments (oh, horror), or that they got a bad grade (and these days that's anything lower than an A-).

 

Being a TA in a large class is the worst of all worlds. You literally have no control over anything. You don't get to set the agenda or teach what's interesting to you. You have to do what the professor says, and then you get blamed for all the ways the undergrads are failing to live up to their end of the bargain. The TA is always an easy scapegoat. You're the messenger they love to shoot. If they succeed in the class, it is because they are awesome, special snowflakes who are naturally brilliant and didn't need your assistance at all. If they fail, then it's all your fault, you miserable human being, you. You made things "unfair." You had it out for them, of course. You sat around in your apartment thinking of ways to make their lives so difficult.

 

The things they're complaining about here? These are the things that whiny, entitled undergrads love to complain about. You're grading too harshly and assigning too much work. (waah) You, gasp, actually take everything too seriously. (Yes, you take your job seriously. Good.) You teach a class that should be an easy A--"everyone knows" this should be an easy A. (No class in college should ever be an easy A.) You made them work. (cue the violins)

 

As I read through these evaluations, a very interesting picture of you emerges: you actually take your job seriously, expect them to learn, and hold them to standards. You didn't give out A's like candy. Maybe you didn't give out candy, either.

 

And, oh yeah, they want you to smile more. Soften your approach. Be nice and sweet. Perhaps they want you to be more ... sisterly. Motherly. Feminine. This isn't surprising, either. A strong current of sexism runs through a lot of undergrad evaluations. Other people have documented this much better than I ever could:

http://www.policymic.com/articles/66641/why-students-judge-female-professors-more-harshly

http://www.awm-math.org/newsletter/199009/koblitz.html

 

Are you an international student? Undergrads don't like people with accents, either:

http://h11.cgpublisher.com/proposals/111/index_html

 

Finally, I noticed that you're located in College Park. I assume that you teach at the University of Maryland. These large state universities are sometimes the most difficult to navigate in terms of undergrad culture--especially if you came from a different type of school (more demanding, liberal arts centered, higher standards). Even if you didn't come from a different type of school, you probably had different aspirations and didn't brush up against that culture too often. I've been teaching at my large R1 state school for years, and I still sometimes find myself at odds with the anti-intellectual sports-obsessed bro culture. You just have to remind yourself that a lot of the students aren't there to learn. They're there to 1) party, 2) get a credential so that they can get a job as middle-management at the big area financial firm and makes tons of money, and 3) find someone attractive to possibly marry. They aren't there to cultivate a life of the mind. They want you to make things as easy as possible and not slow them down with all that thinking stuff.

 

Anyway, you've got a few ways to go forward. You can 1) embrace your teaching persona for all the ways they might find it problematic (fuck 'em) and just ignore your evaluations, or 2) soft-pedal a bit--make things easier, smile more, grade easier, don't ask much of them, praise them, be understanding when they want to turn in late work or do something over again.

 

I've experimented with both approaches over the course of my graduate career, usually depending on what mood I'm in that semester, or how much time I can devote to grading. Oddly enough, I sometimes find that things work out more when I'm honest and upfront with them and very blunt in my grading--as long as they know this from the beginning. Other times, I just find it easier to be kind and generous and easy-going. In either case, you have to set the tone really early on and then be consistent. You have to provide them with a syllabus that's very explicit about your expectations. You have to use grading rubrics to let them know how you're evaluating every little piece of their work.

 

No matter what approach you take, you're always going to have some students who give you bad evaluations. Remember that these evaluations say more about them than they do about you. They're really not about you at all.

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As I read through these evaluations, a very interesting picture of you emerges: you actually take your job seriously, expect them to learn, and hold them to standards. You didn't give out A's like candy. Maybe you didn't give out candy, either.

 

 

Hi, Hashslinger, thank you for your kind words. You're right, I teach at UMD, and this is a 83 person course. The professor lectures and shows up at social events and field trips we organize, and they love her (you wouldn't believe the number of ecstatic comments about her in the evaluations), they see her as a fuzzy-cuddly awesome smart mother figure. I however set up all the assignments and grade them, and provide feedback, which they really don't like. I think you are right that a lot of this is due to the set up of the course (I am the bad cop by nature of what I do) and that there is a severe entitlement problem (like you said, there shouldn't be automatic A's anywhere in college). So I think I will take the first option you suggested and just continue to be myself, ie. take them and their work seriously and grade it fairly. The one thing I can improve on though is to treat them with respect and kindness - because I think I have let myself be a little sharp/condescending at times because of the way they approach me (Why did I get only an A-? I did everything that was in the prompt!, etc.) sometimes. I think this is where I have to improve.

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Hi, Hashslinger, thank you for your kind words. You're right, I teach at UMD, and this is a 83 person course. The professor lectures and shows up at social events and field trips we organize, and they love her (you wouldn't believe the number of ecstatic comments about her in the evaluations), they see her as a fuzzy-cuddly awesome smart mother figure. I however set up all the assignments and grade them, and provide feedback, which they really don't like. I think you are right that a lot of this is due to the set up of the course (I am the bad cop by nature of what I do) and that there is a severe entitlement problem (like you said, there shouldn't be automatic A's anywhere in college). So I think I will take the first option you suggested and just continue to be myself, ie. take them and their work seriously and grade it fairly. The one thing I can improve on though is to treat them with respect and kindness - because I think I have let myself be a little sharp/condescending at times because of the way they approach me (Why did I get only an A-? I did everything that was in the prompt!, etc.) sometimes. I think this is where I have to improve.

 

I had the same issue when I first started TAing. I came from a very different place--I attended a really strict high school where unearned praise was not a common thing, and then I went to a college that was pretty much the same. TAing my first year in graduate school was the first time I ever bumped up against the "automatic A" culture. I was completely perplexed when students would flip out over getting a B (I got plenty of B's in college, and I worked hard for them too). And it was difficult to not be condescending when they would expect such high grades for work that was so lousy, or when they would expect to be treated with patience and respect despite not treating me or the class with any respect.

 

I'm not naturally a cheerleader type of person--and that's the kind of person the students at my institution really gravitate toward. Not to generalize, but my institution is in an area of the country where people really value the social, friendly, genteel personality type ... and especially in women. Beyond regionalisms, undergrads seem really like people who are sweet and kind and put them at ease. Often, they seem to put "likability" ahead of a person's perceived expertise. "Bedside manner" is quickly becoming the most important aspect of how a teacher is evaluated--my school's evaluations now include a lot of questions like, "How did you feel the TA respected the knowledge you brought to the class?" (this assumes that undergrads bring a great deal of knowledge to class), or "Rate how well the TA seemed genuinely interested in helping students learn" (this is often interpreted by undergrads as "How well did the TA bend over backwards to make me want to actually come to class to learn this incredibly boring/challenging material?" Answer: not well at all.). And I think that this approach is really doing students a disservice. TAs should, of course, treat all students with basic respect and kindness, but some of my own undergrad institution's most interesting and provocative professors wouldn't have done well in a personality contest. By allowing students to value personality and likability above all else, we're not exactly preparing people to negotiate the more "colorful" personalities in the workplace and in life.

 

Having said all that, I think there are some really minor adjustments you can make in order to come across as more likable and invested in their success. You can tell them upfront that you will be taking their work seriously and evaluating their work according to high professional standards--and then you want to make those standards crystal clear in the form of written expectations, rubrics, sample papers, etc.

 

Additionally, I often have students into my office hours at the beginning of the semester for a little "stop and chat" to figure out how the course is going for them. These little conferences help them see you as a human being. They also know that you see them as a human being. By asking them to talk about themselves and articulate how the class is going so far, you're helping them feel like they have some kind of agency in the situation.

 

Related to that--try to learn their names as best you can, and then use them when calling on them in class. Using students' names seems to go really far at a large state school where everyone feels anonymous.

 

I also stress my availability, using every opportunity to remind students that I have office hours. (Most don't use them--but by constantly reiterating that you have office hours, you remind them that you're doing your job and "working hard" for them.)

 

If you can stomach it, grade a little easier. I sometimes go back over all the papers (before I give them back) to see if I can't make a few minor adjustments (raising the B-minuses to a B, for instance.) Think of it this way: it's not a big deal for you to make this small concession, but it might be a big deal to them to get that B+ instead of a B, or that B- instead of a C+.

 

But never adjust grades AFTER you've given them back, no matter how much they wheedle and beg and whine. I know it's difficult to not be sharp or condescending when they approach you with this attitude of egregious entitlement about a paper that was total crap, but you just have to smile sweetly, emphasize that the grade is final, and tell them that it's best to talk to you BEFORE assignments are due, rather than after, to avoid making mistakes. I absolutely refuse to enter into a debate with students about their grades. However, if students come to me with very honest and respectful questions about their grades, then I will sometimes allow them to rewrite for a different grade. (Then I look like a hero.)

 

There are also really small things you can do to show them that you're invested in the class. I occasionally drop little verbal cues about how much prep work I've put in (even if I haven't done anything), or how much I enjoy teaching them. ("When I was doing research to prepare this lesson, I knew you guys would probably find x, y, and z interesting because you seemed to like a, b, and c.") I also stress that "most people did well" on whatever quiz or paper or test I've just graded. If someone got a hundred on the midterm, I tell them that the highest grade was 100, and there were "many A's." The students who didn't do well know that they're outliers, then. If they didn't do well, then your teaching or grading isn't the thing to blame.

 

If most people didn't do well, then I don't tell them this. In a very neutral way, I outline some strategies for improvement.

 

When I write comments for papers, I use the "shit sandwich" approach. No matter how crappy the paper, I try to find something nice to say about it. Then, in very neutral language, I tell them what "didn't work." When criticizing, I always say "the paper," not "you." ("The paper's thesis sets it up to discuss x; the body paragraphs, however, all discuss y, and there is a lot of plot summary throughout.") Then I conclude with suggestions for writing the next paper. I resist the impulse to tell them how I really feel about their work, no matter how much they've disregarded the assignment, or how disengaged they are in lecture or class. (The texters really piss me off, and their assignments reflect their lack of attention. But I manage to swallow my discontent--most of the time.)

 

Finally, I found this article helpful: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1047

 

It has some tips on how to teach the millennial generation. I realize that most of us here are probably part of the millennial generation and might feel a bit miffed by the sweeping generalizations, but I do think that there is some good advice here: be aware of their heightened sensitivity, desire for structure, need for constant feedback and praise--and use these traits to your advantage. 

Edited by hashslinger
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Wow, hashslinger, those tips are super helpful. I do know their names (and some rather scary things about them from twitter feeds where they talk only about boys and looking pretty...) and I do try to stress my availability to them (nobody comes to my office hours, either). One thing I think I improved on this semester is that I provided a rubric out front for each assignment, where each letter grade has an explanation of what you need to do to achieve that letter grade. I must admit sometimes I am dumbstruck when I hear students being disappointed by an A- or a B+ when I know they have done the absolute minimum possible to satisfy the requirements of an assignment. One student last semester complained about getting 7/10 for participation, when in every class he would sit in the back and overtly spend the entire period reading the school newspaper, never looking up. I had to justify not giving him a 10/10, and the discussion ended very badly (he called me unprofessional, hateful, and hasn't spoken to me since).

 

... it's a long journey. But I will apply many of your tips. Thank you so much. I am French and did my undergrad in a "classe prépa" in France which is basically like a very intense bachelor-level study where people scream of joy if they get anything above 10/20 (the cutoff point for passing extremely competitive entrance exams at the end is usually around 12/20).

Edited by cicoree
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