Is this really how to get high student evaluations?

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Are you evaluated by your students? I am, and it is something that leaves me in a constant state of wonder. Despite the fact that my evaluations are generally positive – and I’m being modest, actually, they’re usually pretty good – I genuinely don’t know if I like the whole notion. There are several reasons for this, of which I’ll describe one in some detail. I think a good illustration of everything that worries me about student evaluation of my performance would be the time that I taught two classes for eight hours each per week. I’d contrived a situation whereby I’d teach one class on Mondays and Thursdays, the other on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I’d also contrived to be able to deliver the same eight hours in terms of lesson plans to the two classes. The way the classes fell meant that I’d teach one four hour block with ‘class A’ and then again with ‘class B’. I’d then do B first and repeat the four hour block with A. Apart form minor details like teaching one of the classes first thing after the weekend, they were pretty evenly matched in terms of what I taught them and when. Given all this, I’d imagine that my evaluations from the two sets of students would have been fairly identical. This, most emphatically, was not the case.

So, what affected their evaluation of me? Would it be a huge surprise to learn that the class in which more students failed was the one from which I received the lower evaluation? This perhaps sums up my concern at getting students to use an objective set of criteria to make such subjective decisions about their teacher. Nevertheless, this is the situation in which I find myself and which you might too during your career as a language teacher. Indeed, this was an issue raised by Naturegirl321, an English teacher in Korea (not China, oops), on the ELT World discussion forum. She describes her reason for raising the subject: ‘Mine weren’t what I expected, so I’ve been talking to teachers and trying to get some tips. Here’s what they’ve told me. Some are obvious, some aren’t. Some are just odd.’

The 16 point guide to getting good student evaluations

1. Dress up when you go to class.

2. Tall, handsome guys seem to get better evaluations.

3. Start class on time.

4. End on time or even a couple minutes early.

5. Don’t tell students their grades before they give you their evaluations.

6. Offer extra credit points.

7. Have student leaders.

8. Play a couple of games every once in a while.

9. Don’t play too many games.

10. Cancel classes the week before mid-terms so they can study.

11. Give students your cell and email so they can contact you.

12. Give an end of the semester speech on how they’re the best students that you’ve ever had.

13. Motivate them with candy, prizes, no homework, bathroom passes, etc.

14. Make small talk during the lesson so that you show interest in their lives.

15. Don’t be a hard grader.

16. Don’t take points off for the nitty gritty stuff.

As someone who is evaluated on a regular basis by a similar age group to Naturegirl321 (‘I teach uni kids, ages 18 to 23 mostly,’ she points out), a lot of the things on this list really upset me. Could the success of my evaluations really be based on such factors? Well, these factors might not be entirely universal, at least if some of those who responded are to be believed. Furiousmilksheikali, an English teacher in Japan (more on cultural context later), attempts to debunk some of the items on the list:

‘I think it will very often depend on the students. One thing I never want to do is to grovel before the students and I think that is a great way of losing all respect. Telling students that they are the best class you’ve ever taught might be fine if they genuinely are but if they aren’t then such obsequious lies are unlikely to get you in their good books and hopefully won’t do.

I’m sure there are also some students who will be happier the less work you give them, the earlier that you let them out of class and the freer the teacher is with giving them high grades. But if students are interested in their class, they might be annoyed at having less work or if they are paying for a lesson might be angry at being short-changed with five or ten minutes off here and there or the obvious corollary that handing out good grades to everyone devalues the grade.

Most of the things you have listed sound to me like they are applicable to students who don’t care about their subject and aren’t bothered about wasting their time or money. In which case, absolutely tell the students that you will give them an excellent grade on condition that they show you their evaluation of you first and it’s to your liking.’

So, while there might well be some students among those we teach who may base their evaluation of their teacher on the list given above, it appears that not all these factors are universally applicable. This cheered me up greatly. While I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who does what Shuize, another teacher in Japan, suggests, ‘You want good student evaluations? Try this: “I’ll be writing and grading your exams with these evaluations in mind … ha, ha… just kidding.”‘ I do consider myself a fair teacher who doesn’t set out solely with the intention of extracting a good evaluation from my students.

The list of points generated great discussion, with some of the points causing more controversy than others. Many people offered corollaries to the original suggestions, to which I’ve added my own thoughts.

Corollaries

1. Dress up when you go to class.

‘Our students usually dress more formally than the teachers. It’s a generational thing (and possibly economic, teachers being paid generally less than their parents).’

spiral78 in Europe

‘[This] is a given. I’ve spent too long fighting against the backpacker image that EFL teachers have in some parts. I can’t get taller, or less ugly, but I dress for professional work.’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

Dress appropriately. I don’t feel comfortable teaching in jeans and a T-Shirt, but many of my colleagues do. I don’t wear suits every day, but I dress according to what feels comfortable to me. Some of the scruffiest teachers at my place get great evaluations, but equally some of the smartest dressed do too. Dress according to your situation and this won’t affect your evaluation.

2. Tall, handsome guys seem to get better evaluations.

‘Nope. Enthusiastic, prepared teachers who care about the success of the students prevail over lazy (albeit) handsome males or females. It’s all about energy, focus, and caring.’

spiral78 in Europe

I’m unable to comment on this one.

3. Start class on time.

4. End on time or even a couple minutes early.

‘Absolutely agree… important in the real world too!’

spiral78 in Europe

Don’t be confused by students arriving a few minutes late for class; they don’t like it if you don’t show up on time. This point makes me recall my unhappiest evaluation. Even though I got a high score overall, I couldn’t understand why only 80% of the class had given me a top ‘grade’ for my punctuality (this was specifically to do with arriving on time) during a semester when I had never arrived even a second late for any class. Perhaps I was being too punctual. Who knows?

5. Don’t tell students their grades before they give you their evaluations.

‘Holding back grades till evaluations are in is pretty much blackmail. It would probably work, but I still couldn’t do it.’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

‘Dishonest: if this changes things, it’s unfair. One of the best groups I had last year was made up of students I’d failed the year before. I asked them why in the world they were suffering through me again – and the response was that they wanted to (crazy guys). They were great in year 2 and they all passed genuinely.’

spiral78 in Europe

Horrible, horrible, horrible. I know of colleagues who adopt this approach and who get very good evaluations as a result. I’m not saying that they are bad teachers, far from it, but this is a bit too much like holding a gun to someone’s head to get the response you want. If you’re doing this, it probably means you feel there’s something wrong with your teaching.

6. Offer extra credit points.

‘For what? If it’s something legit, then fair enough.’

spiral78 in Europe

This is even worse than the previous point. There’s something seriously wrong with any system that would allow this sort of thing to happen. Fortunately, I’ve never worked under such conditions.

7. Have student leaders.

‘We have a student group discussion leader for every class. It’s a given, and a challenge for them, and no extra points.’

spiral78 in Europe

I don’t know how you’d decide on such a thing. What the purpose be in terms of getting a better evaluation?

8. Play a couple of games every once in a while.

9. Don’t play too many games.

‘No games… ever. I’m no fun and avoid situations where I’m expected to entertain.’

spiral78 in Europe

I’ve had a recent run in with this issue and have commented in detail here. Basically, if you use GLALL (game-like activities for language learning), make sure explain exactly why you’re doing it so that your students understand the benefits.

10. Cancel classes the week before mid-terms so they can study.

‘They don’t have to study for your class too?’

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spiral78 in Europe

‘What do their other teachers do? If they do, I would probably too.’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

I think that this is simply a case of following policy. You can’t go canceling classes willy nilly, so make sure that you’re not doing something that could get you into serious trouble just to try and curry favour with your students.

11. Give students your cell and email so they can contact you.

‘Never in a million years. I give students my work email, but never ever my cell number!’

Sherri in Hawaii

I also feel that the million-year mark is one that I could easily reach without ever doing this. I have colleagues who are happy to share such information with their students and good luck to them. I’m available enough at my place of work to negate the need for this and I email them so often from my work address that it drives them mad anyway.

12. Give an end of the semester speech on how they’re the best students that you’ve ever had.

THAT would be a cheap lie and I’d never mislead students like that – except in the rare instance that it’s genuinely true that they are among the best I’ve ever had. Then kudos are real, and I always give them.

spiral78 in Europe

As with withholding grades until they’ve given you a good evaluation, there’s something about this which, if you don’t actually mean it, is just dirty. Unlike the way that the president of the Olympic committee always announces at the end of any games that it has been the best ever, I end my time with any given class by thanking them for the time, effort and commitment without overdoing it. Sometimes I’ll go a bit further if we’ve bonded above and beyond the norm, but I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with over praising a group for my own reasons.

13. Motivate them with candy, prizes, no homework, bathroom passes, etc.

‘About candy… they’re adults. They can buy candy at the store across the street, same as I can, which makes me think that “candy in class” isn’t really about candy exactly. Is candy just a slightly more tangible form of praise? Or a way to make a game a little more fun and competitive? Or is it like context, a way of sharing? I don’t know. I don’t do candy. But I’m not opposed, if I thought it would improve the learning experience in my class. (From time to time. I am NOT spending a lot on this.) I really can’t believe it’s as simple as “today I brought you some chocolate,” and then they like you. There’s gotta be more to it.

Justin Trullinger in Korea

‘What ages are you teaching? NOT applicable in all cases! Mine have never had any interest in candy or bathroom/washroom/toilet passes (and in what case would a teacher withhold a pass to the toilet – assuming that a pass is needed!) ‘

spiral78 in Europe

I often bring candy into my classes and receive the odd jibe from my colleagues for doing so. My reasons are clear, though: with my classes starting at 8:40 in the morning, by about 11:00 my students are starting to flag and sometimes I see the need for a little sugar rush. I make it clear that, although I may frame the dishing out as a reward for asking a question, I’m merely trying to give them a little boost to see them through to the end of a four-hour block. As far as I’m aware, this has never swung an evaluation in my favour.

14. Make small talk during the lesson so that you show interest in their lives.

About small talk… some cultures are “high context” [and] some are “low context” (labels that refer to how much “context,” or peripheral information, is required to build relationships). I come from the US, which is relatively low context. (Looking back on college, I had a lot of profs that I knew NOTHING about… married, kids, hobbies? No idea.) Korea is fairly high context in comparison. People tell each other stuff. The need for context seems, to me, to be increased when dealing with someone as new and fascinating as a “foreigner.” They don’t see so many, you know? So it goes against that grain for me, but I do ask students about their lives (kids, hobbies, vacations) I also make a point of telling them an anecdote or two about my life in Korea or elsewhere, or mention my wife…they seem to need to know things like this, and to be more comfortable with me when they know them. I don’t disclose secrets, but….I’m married. No kids. Like cats and guitars. Hate shopping and getting haircuts. There’s nothing confidential in any of this. Nothing I need to share, but if it helps, I don’t mind.

Justin Trullinger in Korea

‘I’m not a counselor! Personal lives are off-limits except in the most general (or necessary) of terms.’

spiral78 in Europe

I’m not a great one for overly sharing my life with my students, but I’m happy to chat with them about any subject they wish to engage me in. As far as I’m concerned, if we suddenly break into conversation during a break about a subject they’re passionate about, great… what an opportunity for speaking practice. Do I go beyond what I feel comfortable discussing? No. My students are all my friends on Facebook (exploit this if you can) but I don’t suggest becoming their best friends for the sake of getting a good evaluation.

If you’re doing this just to get a good evaluation then you’re an evil, evil person. I chat with my students during breaks on whatever topics come up, but no more than I would in any equivalent social situation.

15. Don’t be a hard grader.

‘Ours have to fall within the median for the course. If one teacher’s marks are much higher (or lower) than everyone else’s, foul is called, and rightly so.’

spiral78 in Europe

‘Well, it depends. I don’t give free rides, but it’s important for teachers to stay within the expectations and norms of the situation they’re teaching in. Are you a hard grader? How do your grades compare with other teachers? If you’re failing more students on average, or given lower average grades, than most of your colleagues, well then yes. You probably want to consider how to rectify that. (If students are getting lower grades for a similar amount of work than in their other classes, or in other English classes they’ve taken, you’re going to be unpopular. Find out).’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

The first thing I lay down as the law of the land with my students is that I grade according to the criteria I’m provided with. If you start messing around with this you deserve to lose your job.

16. Don’t take points off for the nitty gritty stuff.

‘What is ‘nitty gritty?’ Spelling / grammar? We take off points for incomprehensibility, but so long as it’s comprehensible and in an appropriate formal register, we note errors, but they aren’t fatal.’

spiral78 in Europe

Again, the first thing I do is make it absolutely clear that I grade according to the criteria I’m given. If they claim that so and so teacher does such and such to help them, I demand proof and show them the academic regulations to which I comply. The fact is that students who fail may well be more critical of your grading, but abandoning specified criteria is like laying a minefield for yourself that you’ll know you’ll have to walk through: one day it will blow up in your face.

So, while some of the initial list seems more viable than other, these suggestions look to be far from universal. This leads me to the question: are there any universally applicable factors that will lead you to a great student evaluation? Some of us seem to think so. Indeed, ‘some things are universal,’ according to Sherri, teaching in Hawaii:

1. Start and end the class on time.

I used to work with a teacher who thought that the students would like it if he went over time (giving them “extra” time). They didn’t.

2. Treat all the students fairly.

3. Give students a clear idea of what you expect at the beginning of the semester and keep to what you said… don’t change mid-stream.

4. Give clear instructions and make sure that the students always know the purpose of the activity and how it meets your aims.

5. Grade fairly.

6. Praise students when they do something well and explain why.

7. Give students feedback when they did something incorrectly and help them understand how to improve it.

8. Return homework promptly.

9. Always be prepared for your class.

10. Know how to operate equipment before you use it in class.

This list makes a lot more sense to me and I’d hope that such courses of action woıuld be appreciated by any group of students. spiral78 builds upon these suggestions: ‘I’d also add something about respect for adult students. I basically treat them like adults – as we all do here – and they respond positively to this. This means that…

1. Of course they have each prepared for class (done whatever research and homework they were assigned) and they arrive on time and ready to work.

2. Of course they are each going to participate in the process of the class

3. Of course they take the class seriously and understand its value to them

4. Of course they know clearly exactly what they must succeed at to pass the course (we go over this explicitly in the first class).

5. Of course they make effective plans at the end of each class to prepare for the next one.

6. Of course they all want to succeed and understand that this takes effort on their part!

One further theme emerged from the discussion and that was the idea that the use of students evaluations to make decisions about the success of a given member of staff seems, to many, to be quite unfair.

‘Student evaluations should not be used to determine pay and promotion… I am glad I don’t work at a place where these guidelines would be much use.’

Sherri in Hawaii

‘I aim never to teach in a situation where student evaluations are key to anything.’

spiral78 in Europe

I was aware of the system when I started my current job and accept that I will be judged, at least in part, on the results of my student evaluations. If this is something you’d find unacceptable, make sure you find out if such a system operates before accepting a job. I’d hate to think that some of the things on the initial list would be going through students’ minds when they make their evaluations and put faith, hopefully not misplaced, in the fact that the majority will base their evaluation on the ‘universals’ mentioned by Sherri. I’d like to round off with a quote from Glenski, a teacher in Japan:

‘How to get good evaluations? Be a good teacher. Show up prepared and on time. Be fair.’


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17 thoughts on “Is this really how to get high student evaluations?

  1. Great post and summary of a very interesting discussion… Oh, and by the way, I got completely distracted by Justin Trullinger posts – he’s an old friend of mine from Ecuador, say hey to him the next time you’re in forum world!

    But um, yes, I sometimes wonder about the nature of evaluations from students because like everything in the world, sometimes it does boil down to simply whether or not they like you.

  2. Wonderful post…I like you hope that many items on this list are not true because it will be a sad reflection on the state of education if it is. You may as well hire a street performer to juggle at the front of class…except of course you probably have to pay them more.

    1. Thanks, Malcolm. Do you happen to know the hourly rate for a good juggler? I’m quite proficient with three balls and not bad with four. Seriously, though, you have a good point.

  3. Probably because I wanted to go there, but the pay was so low. I worked in China before. Anyways, about these tips: not my ideas! :) These are just tips I’ve gotten from other teachers I work with. Take them with a grain of salt, some teachers swear by them and they’ve been working at this particular uni for years. Maybe this tells you something about the types of teachers who work in Korea, who knows? But I agree, a lot of the tips are weird. One teacher swears by bribing the students with candies.

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