December 8th, 2014

Cruel Student Comments: Seven Ways to Soothe the Sting

By:

Reading students’ comments on official end-of-term evaluations—or worse, online at sites like RateMyProfessors.com—can be depressing, often even demoralizing. So it’s understandable that some faculty look only at the quantitative ratings; others skim the written section; and many others have vowed to never again read the public online comments. It’s simply too painful.

How else might you respond? Here are seven suggestions for soothing the sting from even the most hurtful student comments:

1. Analyze the data. First, look for outliers: anomalous negative views. In research, we would exclude them from our analyses, so you should do the same for uniquely mean-spirited or outlandish comments.

Next, find the ratio of positive to negative comments to get an overall picture of student impressions. Better yet, categorize remarks: Are students responding negatively to your assignments? The course readings? A particular behavior? Identifying themes will help you determine whether they warrant a response. If multitudes of students note that they didn’t know what was expected of them or that you were disorganized, you’ll want to reflect on the area(s) identified. What might have given students that impression? And what steps might you take to improve or to alter their perception?

The recent New York Times piece “Dealing with Digital Cruelty” offers additional ideas for responding to mean-spirited online comments. Some of those suggestions are woven into numbers 2-5 below.

2. Resist the lure of the negative. “Just as our attention naturally gravitates to loud noises and motion, our minds glom on to negative feedback,” the article explains, adding that we also remember negative comments more vividly. This finding itself is comforting. If we catch ourselves dwelling on students’ negative feedback, we can consider: Am I focusing on this because it’s “louder,” or because it’s a legitimate concern? If it’s the latter, revisit the ideas in suggestions 1 and 3. Otherwise, skip to 4 and 5 below.

3. “Let your critics be your gurus,” suggests the New York Times piece. It explains we often brood over negative comments because we suspect they may contain an element of truth. Rider University psychology professor John Suler advises us to “treat them as an opportunity.” Ask yourself, “Why does it bother you? What insecurities are being activated in you?” “It’s easy to feel emotionally attacked,” adds Bob Pozen, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and senior research fellow at the Brookings Institute, “but that doesn’t mean your critics don’t have a point.”

4. Find counter-evidence. When you encounter a negative comment, look for (or recall) comments that contradict it—whether positive feedback from other students or a colleague. “Disputing to yourself what was [written]” can make “harsh comments… feel less potent” (Rosembloom, 2014).

5. Dwell on the positive ones. Because “it takes more time for positive experiences to become lodged in our long-term memory,” (Rosembloom, 2014) we should devote at least as much time to students’ positive comments as their negative ones. Plus, remembering your teaching strengths can motivate you to continue exhibiting the trait or design your courses a certain way. These positive sentiments, often heart-warming and gratifying, will also help you maintain a positive outlook toward students.

The New York Times article proposes another strategy, in the brief article segment about student evaluations. Psychology professor James O. Pawelski jokes that “bars would make a killing if at the end of each semester they offered ‘professor happy hours’ where teachers could bring their evaluations and pass the negative ones around.” He cautions that “Nobody should be alone when they’re reading these things.” That advice leads us to our next tip.

6. Read them with a friend. Whether a departmental colleague, relative, or a trusted center for teaching and learning staff member, a more objective party can help you make sense of or notice the absurdity of the comments because they’re not as personally invested in them.

7. Be proactive, especially if these comments will be the primary data used in decisions about your hiring, re-hiring, promotion, etc. In this case, revisit suggestion 1 above. If you don’t conduct this analysis yourself, you’ll be at the mercy of whomever is charged with your evaluation—and they probably won’t be as thorough. They too may focus on negative comments or outliers. Also, take the time to provide explanations about any off-the-wall student complaints, so that your reviewers don’t draw their own conclusions.

Ultimately, all parties involved—particularly academic leaders—should remember that, important as they are, student comments offer only one perspective on teaching. Thorough evaluation of teaching effectiveness requires that each of us reflect on our practices, examine artifacts from our courses (assignments, syllabi, etc.), and look closely at what our students know and can do upon completion of our courses. The proof, after all, is in the pudding.

Reference:
Rosenbloom, S. (2014, August 24). Dealing with digital cruelty. The New York Times.

Dr. Isis Artze-Vega, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Florida International University.


  • Perry Shaw

    This sort of reminder is always very timely – especially at this time of year as courses are finished and student evaluations come in. Thank you Dr Isis. I particularly appreciated the first point about "outliers": the genuine assessment is in the body of results – not in the extremes – and many schools now chop off the top and bottom 5-10% of assessments before delivering results to faculty.
    Actually, in light of the questions raised in the research about the limited value of student evaluations I am struck by how affected I am – but like others I am only human ( 🙂 ). It is good to keep in mind the research that has found that while SEFs are relatively consistent, high SEFs have also been found to be linked to grade inflation and style more than substance. Those who seek to function with integrity – particularly in giving meaning to grading processes – too often suffer at the hands of SEFs.
    May we all seek excellence in what we do, and SEFs can be helpful – but only when taken with major doses of caution.

  • Perry Shaw

    This sort of reminder is always very timely – especially at this time of year as courses are finished and student evaluations come in. Thank you Dr Isis. I particularly appreciated the first point about "outliers": the genuine assessment is in the body of results – not in the extremes – and many schools now chop off the top and bottom 5-10% of assessments before delivering results to faculty.
    Actually, in light of the questions raised in the research about the limited value of student evaluations I am struck by how affected I am – but like others I am only human. It is good to keep in mind the research that has found that while SEFs are relatively consistent, high SEFs have also been found to be linked to grade inflation and style more than substance. Those who seek to function with integrity – particularly in giving meaning to grading processes – too often suffer at the hands of SEFs.
    May we all seek excellence in what we do, and SEFs can be helpful – but only when taken with major doses of caution.

  • DLF

    I would also mention that we do student surveys for a reason- to give students a voice. I would add:
    Think carefully about what students are saying- can you improve your course based on what they have to say? They may not be as articulate as we hope in expressing what they are concerned about and their comments may sound like "hate mail" but it just may be that the student has a valid point that is worth considering and has yet to develop the professional skills required to express their concern well.

    A good department head should pay attention to negative student comments and would sincerely appreciate your honest consideration of student complaints and either your reasoning about why that is not a valid complaint or your plan to revise your course to respond to student needs.

    • MMM

      Your last paragraph seems punitive in nature – perhaps because of how it is written. I don't know of any colleague who does not give consideration to student comments and their needs within reason. Say an instructor has indicated what is important to know and understand through out the semester and suggested the students highlight and/or include it in their notes. Is s/he to be admonished for not providing a detailed study guide for the final, but instead doing a general review and reminding them to look over the text and notes?

      • DLF

        🙂 I agree with you- in fact, a good department head would applaud and defend an instructor who does exactly as you described and then during their annual evaluation said- I read the student evaluations and they complained about policy X and here's why I believe policy X is a policy which meets the goal of the course and is a policy which provides the best learning experience for the students. (or, of course- the students complained that I did not do…, but I feel that is not an appropriate way to handle… because…)

        I mainly wanted to comment that though it is important not to take harsh student comments personally, it may be that students don't yet know how to express what they are concerned about and we should delve into their comments to try to ferret out whatever facts could be useful to us.

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  • Beatrice Tucker

    Student comments are a source of anxiety for some academics who believe anonymity within online student evaluation systems supports unacceptable student communication behaviours. At a large Australian university, we have conducted two studies of student comments. The second investigation of over 30,000 comments taken from over 17,500 surveys revealed that very small numbers of comments are abusive (0.04% of the sample) and less than half of these comments are directed at the teacher. Most of the comments related to the students’ teaching and learning experiences. Student comments were identified as unprofessional in 0.14% of the sample however most were comments about the unit. This research has been published and may provide reassurance to academics that very few students use evaluation surveys as a vehicle to offend and be unprofessional. I would welcome further research in this area to see if the findings are consistent in other countries.

    Reference: Tucker, B. (2014). Student evaluation surveys: anonymous comments that offend or are unprofessional. Higher Education, 1-12. doi: 10.1007/s10734-014-9716-2

  • Corvus Music

    When I was in academia, I never received negative comments from students. It was the negative comments from colleagues entrenched in leadership positions (some self-appointed) that did damage.

  • Gary

    The proof is not in the pudding. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Unfortunately, administrators do focus on the negative. I've experienced this myself. Why do we give credence to students who only know what they like/don't like? As one prof put it, why is it the only regular evaluation we getcoes frochildren?

  • Rich M

    I'd add another suggestion—-encourage mid-semester feedback. You can eliminate surprises and remediate many concerns before it is too late by implementing and responding to midsemester feedback. A simple three question prompt such as—-1. What works for you in this class? 2. Is there anything, in my control, that I can do to improve your classroom experience? 3. Are there any topics that we covered so far about which you'd like more explanation or a review?

    • Rob C

      I agree with the mid-term evals and then making changes (to a degree) based on them. What I ran into trying this approach, is because I made changes, some students complained and commented "Prof C always changed things…I did not know what to expect"; or "Prof C is disorganized…he did not follow the syllabus"; I could give more. I have been a full-time professor for about eight years now…the students we had when I first started are different that the ones today. There is a lack of critical thinking, a lack of respect, and some students are lazy. There are good students, don't get me wrong, but the "challenging" students seem to grow in numbers every year. This all leads me to ask, "who are the professors? Who is supposed to know better"?

  • "Pascal says: while a lame man knows he limps, a lame mind does not know it limps, indeed says it is we who limp. Yet these forms invite the limpers to judge the runners; non-readers, the readers; the inarticulate, the articulate; and non-writers, the writers. Naturally, this does not encourage the former to become the latter. In truth, the very asking of such questions teaches students things that do not make them better students. It suggests that mediocre questions are the important questions, that the student already knows what teaching and learning are, and that any student is qualified to judge them. This is flattery. Sincere or insincere, it is not true, and will not improve the student, who needs to know exactly where he or she stands in order to take a single step forward." Platt, M. 1993. “What student evaluations teach,” Perspectives In Political Science 22 (1), 32.

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