Sunday, June 3, 2012

Most Memorable Student Evaluations

Cleaning out my office at Michigan State University, I came upon a stockpile of Student Instructional Rating Systems forms (i.e., student evaluations). Over nearly 40 years of instruction (counting my time as a teaching assistant in graduate school), I accumulated thousands of these. Most were measured in tone, but some were glowing -- either glowing with pleasure at the course, or (more frequently) radioactive. Among those thousands of evaluation forms, three stand out in my memory.

Second Runner-up

A student (male, from the handwriting) once suggested to the administration that "Professor Rubin should be executed on public television". Left to the reader as an exercise: did he mean broadcast television generally (as opposed to cable), or the Public Broadcasting Service specifically? I'm not sure ratings on the latter would justify my sacrifice.

First Runner-up

This evaluation came in a freshman-level mathematics course I taught as a graduate assistant. As I recall, the course was populated mainly by juniors and seniors who had deferred it as long as they possibly could, and now had to face the music. The department evaluation form had a number of criteria on the front, with scores on a scale from 1 (excellent course/instructor) to 5 (terrible course/instructor). On the back there was space for an essay. The student (again, male based on handwriting) circled 5 for every question on the front, then wrote on the back "Best prof I've had at MSU!" Neglecting the minor discrepancy of calling a TA a "prof", this again introduces an element of uncertainty: did the student mistake the direction of the scale on the first page, or was he testifying to three or four truly horrid years of college?

And The Winner Is ...

My single most memorable evaluation has to be seen to be appreciated. It was submitted in a junior-level lecture course on quantitative models, required of all business undergraduates and populated primarily by seniors who had run out of room to procrastinate. Handwriting suggests a female author. The evaluation is actually quite lucid and rather well written. You can see by the author's use of available space that her response was rather impassioned (and prone to setting off Geiger counters).

One line from the first page clinches the trophy for this submission. The question asks for input on "Reading materials and written and oral assignments". The first line of the young lady's response: "Overhead packets [copies of transparencies used in lecture] were good but often times confusing as the formulas contained so many consonants."

I received this evaluation at the end of a fall quarter, and I was scheduled to teach the same course twice more that academic year. In the first class of winter quarter, amid the usual "welcome to the course" stuff, I mentioned that when I wrote a formula on the projector, students should treat 'Y' as a vowel. Unsurprisingly, most of them looked a bit confused at this.


There is one more anecdote to pass along about this. Years after collecting all three of these submissions, I was attending a social hour for MBA students and chanced to speak with a brand new student from Korea (the one with the functional economy). He suggested something -- I forget what -- that arguably would have enhanced learning in the core quantitative methods course (which I taught), but at some cost to students' peace of mind. I explained to him that if I tried to implement his suggestion, students would "rip me a new one" on the evaluation forms. He asked me what I meant by "evaluation forms", and I explained our system to him. At the end of my explanation, he looked me square in the eye and said that the system was "stupid".

I learned that, approximately a year later, his undergraduate institution in Korea implemented evaluation forms.


  1. If I could rewrite the evaluation forms I wrote, today or even just 1 year after my education, I 'd write something completely different than the originals.

    Students will always pick on the "hard" teachers and leave the "easy" teachers alone. But professionals will pick on the "easy" teachers because it's their fault why the professional is having such a hard time on that subject now.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Geoffrey. Mercifully, I no longer remember the evaluations I wrote (with one exception, which I recall only because the professor took offense at it and made me write an extra term paper). Experience does bring perspective, which can change a student's mind about a course.

  2. Paul, for some reason I could not read the evaluations :) I think this was a great fun post. Thanks for sharing this. i had a good laugh.

    1. The low resolution was to reduce the image size, not to hide the comments -- although it belatedly occurs to me that maybe I should have recopied all my SIRS forms at low resolution before submitting them. ;-)

  3. My is taking an adult continuing ed German class taught by a professor that also teaches undergrads at a local university. He came to her class frustrated last week by two student evaluations. The first complained that he required students to speak German in his German class, but the worst was the student who wrote that "the instructor disappeared for two weeks in the middle of the semester for no good reason"--the poor man's wife of 50+ years had died!

    1. The last part sounds really cold, but the more likely explanation is that this was one of those students who attends class infrequently and pays attention even less often ... and thus missed the announcement of the wife's passing.

      More than once I saw students come into our department office fuming because they had gone to class (or to an exam!) and the prof had not shown up. This might have been connected to the fact that the class/exam had been moved to a new time or location, which had been announced repeatedly in class. In one case we asked the student if anyone else had been with him in the room, and his answer was 'no' -- and there was still a delay before it finally dawned on him that if the other students had also not shown up, perhaps there had been a schedule change.


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