A quick Facebook comment from a fellow professor made a very good point in a permanently ongoing discussion among teachers: can we learn from student evaluations? His point was that he could very easily create a course that would make the students happy and ensure good evaluations, but he didn't feel it would be an ethical act. Why? Because he would not act according to his standards of good teaching, but according to the format for the evaluations used at his University.
One of the discussants in that thread pointed out that high scores in evaluations depend on managing expectations. If my friend had made a standard course, according to the expectations of the students, the score would quite likely have been very high. A standard course makes students feel safe, it helps them deal with the insecurity of being in a learning process. For good reasons students abhor insecurity. They know they will be graded according to their performance, so they need to minimize the risk for bad grades. And so they have learned strategies for this, by learning how to score well on certain standard tests, how to learn well in certain environments, and how to study by using certain tools. When they are asked to use new tools, they react very negatively, and try to control the situation by managing our expectations. And their main tool for managing our expectations is the evaluation: if we are bad teachers, them failing will be our fault, not theirs.
I find that students who are stressed and afraid give much worse evaluations than students who feel reasonably secure. Also, students who have a wide range of experiences, and know that they can learn in very different environments, give much better evaluations when they have to relate to something new, than students who have only experienced a narrow range of teaching/learning styles. Whether or not the students are used to doing well, if they can expect to do well, or if they eventually do well doesn't matter, it's their experience of stress at the moment which influences the evaluation they give the teacher.
One term I taught the same course in three different classes. That gave me three different evaluations to read. One class was extremely negative in their evaluation, and several of the comments were pure character assassination of me and the other teachers (there were three of us). One class was critical, but not personal, and while they didn't all love the course, they didn't set out to trash the professors either. One class loved the course, loved the topics, and loved the teachers. All three classes had received the exact same lectures by the exact same teachers. The difference between them was in the dynamic in the room, how the students related to each other.
In the negative class, when we discussed something there would be two responses: The loud, main one was a demand to change things, mainly the teaching, in a way that they liked better. My experience from several years of trying out what would work didn't matter, their experience with what made them feel comfortable was more important. In the same class, several people who never spoke in class would later come up to us and say: "I love the way this is done. You are all great teachers. Don't change things just because of this. It works for us." The group obviously had an internal dynamic that was killing the openly spoken diversity. Some strong voices made the others feel afraid of speaking up, and when I did not submit to their pressure, it made them increasingly aggressive. Now I made a few errors with them - rather than saying "no" to the changes they wanted, I should have let them know that if I did what they wanted, I'd have to stop doing something else, which I knew they also wanted. I didn't have the resources to do both. Instead I just said "no, not going to happen." That was bad management of their demands, from my hand. After that, they didn't see the changes they wanted that we did make: they were all convinced I would never listen. Interestingly, the same group decided among themselves that a letter did not contain what to them was vital information, and afterwards they were not able to read that information when they read the letter. I had several students make the claim that they had not been told A, and then, when we read the letter together, I could show them where the letter said A. This kind of selective perception is interesting, and quite daunting when such a large group suffers from it. It does say something of the power of self-deception inherent in group dynamics, and the power of the negative thinking I was unable to break up.
In the fairly neutral class, the students were outspoken, vigorous and active, they took charge of the tasks they were given and approached them with a positive attitude, and worked hard at making things work. They tested out new things, asked questions, participated in discussions. When they came up after class, it was to talk about examples, ask questions, be to-the-point. They didn't think we were god's gift to teaching, but it didn't matter, they managed, they responded and they helped each other figure things out. The main characterestic of that class was that they were not afraid. They were not afraid of laughing, being laughed at, being sanctioned by each other. Their group dynamic was positive and generous, and they also addressed each other while in class, and not just us.
In the extremely positive class, they were all very quiet, but it was a contemplative silence. This group took it all in. Their questions were reasonable. They read not just the readings, but also the emails and the material describing the course. They smiled when they talked to us, and they approached us with questions about what they felt was unclear, rather than with demands to change things the way they wanted it.
So, how can I get a better evaluation, based on this experience? Obviously, the main errors were made with the negative class. I should have managed their demands better, given them a feeling of influence rather than saying "no". But both cases of "no" were based on my previous experience. The first was due to several years of positive feedback to how I presented the readings. If I was to do it the way this class wanted it, I'd have to give up the way I was doing it, a way I knew worked from several previous evaluations and conversations. The second was due to experience with student results. When I had previously done things the way these students wanted it, certain errors were a lot more prevalent than they ended up being. Sticking to my experience helped the class as a whole to maintain their focus on the correct task at the time, rather than mixing up the tasks, as bad timing had caused earlier.
I was in a situation where I knew that not giving in would make the students annoyed, but giving in would cause their results to deteriorate. At that point I chose to get a lower score on their evaluation of me, in order to ensure that they performed better in the long run.
And this is the reason why my friend on Facebook doesn't want to design the "perfect score" course. While the students are experts on what makes them feel they control their individual learning process, we, the teachers, know a thing or two about how to manage courses. Sadly, some, like me, also have a temper, and will in a stressed situation answer directly and honestly, rather than pause and consider how to make students feel good about what I am about to tell them. And this is actually a bad thing for a teacher, because students are genuinely nervous, with good reason. They are in a tense situation, and I need to address that fear as much as I address my own truth. I need to make them feel that I am on their side, and my choices are made to help them, not to make their lives more difficult.
Sadly, that doesn't always work. But all I can do is to try again. Redesigning the course to get a good score on the evaluation of me is not going to happen. Everything I do is intended to make sure the students get a good grade, and that, in my experience, they do. If it means they have to be angry with me to do it, well, so be it.