Dear Mentor: What is the best way to handle negative feedback?

Dear Mentor,

I have been teaching for a while, but I still cringe anytime I get a negative comment from students in my course evaluations. Even if the overall input is positive, the one or two harsh comments seem to replay over and over in my head. Any suggestions on how to handle negative feedback?

From Dorothy Boorse

I feel your pain! The answer to this depends on if you are a teetotaler. If not, it might involve a strong drink. But actually, you’ve hit on a sore point for everyone in teaching. All of the faculty I know have had some painful experience with reviews.

I have a few suggestions. First, talk to other people who teach and get some great stories of horrible things others have had said to them. You’ll find even great teachers get some terrible reviews.

Second, write off the ones that sound immature or are just not helpful. “I hated it when she stopped the class to ask us questions,” one of mine said. “I liked the other person who just lectured.” That may be true, but it is a sign of an immature student, not a problem with me. One student told me the class would have been okay if I had not been the teacher. Okay, what do you do with that?

Third, consider the main trends. Ask the hard questions — is there anything true about the general trend of the reviews that shows a problem that needs to be addressed? The general trends probably reflect some reality. I am always described as being enthusiastic, but students may or may not appreciate my rapid pace. They like the length and fairness of my exams and the variety of non-lecture activities in the class, but sometimes think my PowerPoints are unclear. These are general trends I have seen repeatedly and probably reflect a central reality. As a result, I am working to slow down and make my lecture notes clearer.

Fourth, face the partially right but not really fair ones. Sometimes, the hardest reviews to take are the ones that you know are only partially true. Last year in a team-taught course, my colleague had a friend die. I was pulling everything together as well as I could, and we did not have a review sheet ready for one of the exams. We were eaten alive on the evaluations at the end because of this, even though we had apologized and been really frank about the difficulties we were under. They knew it had been a bad semester. Oh well. Don’t waste time re-hashing why they should have known it wasn’t all your fault.

Sometimes partially unfair reviews are still helpful. After gazillions of evaluations that rate me low on speed on handing back graded work, I have become explicit about my order of priorities. I tell my students very clearly that having a lecture, lab, review sheet, or exam ready rates ahead of grading past work, as does writing letters of recommendation, researching with students, and arranging internships.

Fifth, change the system. Anonymous reviews that are about your lecture style and exams don’t reflect how many courses work. If possible, I recommend writing your own evaluation forms. This works especially well for small upper-level courses such as seminars. When I do this, I include two types of questions, asking them what worked from a list of things included in the course and asking them about their level of effort.

I include the first type of question to remind them of elements of the course that may have been helpful but missed on the evaluation. For example, one time in a course I pulled off a class field trip even though my grandmother died and I had to leave town. This was difficult for me to do, and the students had raved about the trip. One had even written about it in the newspaper. But on the evaluations, it did not get a mention. The next time I had a chance I asked the students which of the following activities they had found most valuable and listed films, trips, special demonstrations, group activities — anything we had done. I got a much wider and more positive set of comments.

I also ask a series of questions about their own involvement. How many hours did they put into the course? Did they ever come to my office, meet with a TA, or go to the writing center? How many classes did they miss? What grade would they give themselves on different parts of the course and why? This works well in research courses with large, subjective projects. It highlights the reality that the success of a course is only partially connected to the teaching ability of the faculty member. I find that evaluations of the course and myself are more nuanced and positive when students have had to answer questions about themselves.

I will be the first to admit I am not immune to a bad evaluation. I don’t think any responsible teacher is. When difficult reviews come your way, which they surely will, learn what you can from them, keep up the good work, and if you like, enjoy that glass of wine.

From Kelly Aukema

Although I do not lecture and have never received teaching reviews, I have struggled at times with what I perceived as negative feedback on anything from seminar critiques to manuscript reviews. For the most part, I know myself well enough to already know my strengths and weaknesses, so I can usually anticipate both the negative and positive feedback. Strangely, I tend to glance over the positive feedback, while I dwell on the negative. This way of thinking inevitably leads me to question my abilities and, therefore, my calling. Although I have a hard time understanding why God chooses to use unqualified, weak people for his work, simply remembering this truth about God reminds me that I am totally dependent on him. Not my ability, but his faithful provision has sustained me. When I head into the downward spiral of negative thinking, I must remember that I am not working for the praise of my colleagues, but God’s glory and the advancement of his Kingdom.


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