• Nick Miller

Reflections on Course Evaluations: Fall 2020

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Course evaluations are strange. It has been well-documented that they do not reflect student learning, and that they are often biased against those who are most vulnerable in higher education. Yet they remain the gold standard for evaluating teaching at most institutions, often used to justify personnel actions when questions about tenure and promotion come up. So, you can probably guess that my relationship to them is rather fraught—as it rightfully is for so many of my colleagues and peers. And these fraught feelings toward course evaluations are only amplified alongside a pandemic.

That said, I still take my evaluations seriously. I have a copy of every set of evaluations I have ever received as a teacher, and at the end of the semester I tend to print them out and annotate them: I look for patterns or responses that help me to think about adjustments that I might make the next time I teach a particular course. I will also admit that I am emotionally invested in my students' responses every year. Although my evaluations have largely been positive over my career, reading them is always an anxiety-inducing experience. Although I know it is totally irrational, I am easily convinced that I have let my students down by just a single comment. Even at my age, it is hard not to take certain comments personally.

This semester, however, was an exception. I felt minimal anxiety while reading through my evaluations this morning, even though I was teaching an overload schedule online during a pandemic. While I know that this semester did not represent my best teaching, I did accomplish the one thing that mattered to me in 2020: my students knew that I cared about them as people, not just as learners. Indeed, the most meaningful comment this semester may have been this simple one: "I am glad Dr. Miller treated me like a human." With so many students struggling physically (with COVID-19), emotionally (caring for loved ones or worrying about the state of the world), and financially (my students are often low-income even when there is not a pandemic)—what they needed most this semester was for their professors and peers to recognize and acknowledge the complexity of their lives.

So, even though this semester is not one that I want to repeat (for so many reasons), I am feeling incredibly proud of the work that I did. My students learned content, sure, but they also learned empathy, collaboration, and how to simply make it through the bad times. And, honestly, simply surviving 2020 is an education unto itself. I am really proud of them.

I want to share just a couple of the comments that I received on my course evaluations this semester. This may be bragging (sorry!), but I think it is important to sometimes celebrate ourselves when we overcome challenges and accomplish something meaningful.

"I could write a book about how wonderful Dr. Miller is. He genuinely cares about each of his students, and he possesses a passion for his career which he passes onto his students. His attitude about the importance of education influences his students' desire to learn. I would take him again and again and again if I had the chance."

"What Dr. Miller did the most to help me learn was care. I think he is the only professor I have had that actually cared about his students. He emailed back fast, posted assignments weeks before they were due, and posted videos every week to keep us engaged. I would take this class ten times just to have him as my professor again."

"I can confidently say that I have never had an instructor that showed so much care and consideration towards all of their students as Professor Miller did in this class this semester. I appreciate his dedication to helping students succeed and he truly made an effort to connect with each of us. He encouraged us to perform well, but also to prioritize our health and well-being above anything else, which I appreciated during such a challenging semester. When asked by other students for recommendations of which instructors to take classes from, I will definitely encourage them to take any of Professor Miller's classes."

"I felt more engaged in this course than most of my others, even though it was online. I felt like Prof. Miller cared about not only my success, but my well-being, which is obviously directly related to how well I am able to perform. I'm just upset that I don't have enough empty course spaces left to be able to take another one of Prof. Miller's classes."

"He does a really good job of making the class accessible. He is one of the few professors that actually handled an online class correctly during COVID. There was still a good workload, but it was not anything that was too much, which is something that was common this semester. He wanted you to learn but he also wanted you to do well. Honestly, if there were more professors like Dr. Miller, this semester would not have been so detrimental to so many students."

In other words, I may not have been the best teacher that I have ever been this semester, but I do think that I was the best human I could have been. And I will always settle for that.

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