Coarse Evaluations of Course Evaluations

Professors consider students’ complaints about their college courses.

Posted Jan 20, 2017

It was course evaluation time in our department today.  We were not administering them; rather, we received the evaluations that students completed at the end of last semester.  I haven’t opened mine yet.  Instead, I spent the day writing this blog so I don’t have to look.

But I did spend some time talking to my colleagues who have looked at their course evaluations.  As usual, the overall evaluations were very good. (I have very good teachers for colleagues.) However, that doesn’t mean that students’ complaints don’t sting; my colleagues did a little complaining because their students did a little complaining. 

What did the students complain about on their course evaluations?  The usual things:  Too much work, too much group work, too much writing--you get the idea.  Some students also offered specific comments and suggestions.

Of course, student complaints and other negative comments can teach us a lot (even though the research has not demonstrated a relationship between student course evaluations and actual learning). Some of the student comments and suggestions were substantive, and they offered some specific suggestions for improvement.  Minutes after reading their evaluations, my colleagues were considering some great tweaks for next semester. 

However, some student complaints seem to represent a fundamental mismatch between what students and faculty expect and what they experience in their courses:  Students are expecting to memorize information (mostly from hearing it), and instructors are expecting students to learn how to think, write, compute, collaborate, present, etc. (mostly by doing them).  I argue elsewhere that professors perpetuate this mismatch by not being transparent and clear enough in their syllabi, course descriptions, and other communications.

Yesterday I visited the classroom of a colleague, Dr. Vivian Shyu, who is teaching a senior seminar for psychology majors in which this disconnect is not likely to happen.  Dr. Shyu has designed the course, and all her communications with students, around the APA Guidelines for the psychology major. These guidelines focus a lot on skills, and from the first day Dr. Shyu's students know what they’re going to be doing—and why.

When I came into the room about 30 minutes into the first class, Dr. Shyu was just finishing her discussion of course goals.  She was about to have students look at the psychology courses they’ve taken and consider the skills (skills employers really value) they developed in those courses.  To help students understand the kinds of skills Dr. Shyu was talking about, I said to the class,

How do you know what skills employers will be looking for?  Just look at what you’ve been complaining about during your whole college career!

Students laughed immediately--they knew exactly what I was talking about!  Almost in unison, we all started listing the complaints:  “I hate having to work in groups!”  “I hate having to write papers!”  “I hate having to work with numbers!”  "I hate having to compare and contrast!"  “I hate having to think critically and integrate!”  “I hate having so much work!” 

The research shows that many students do not appreciate how important all these skills will be in their professional lives.  Yeah, perhaps we can make some aspects of our courses easier.  But until we explain more carefully why we’re asking students to develop their professional skills, we’re going to continue to get these types of comments on our course evaluations.  And I’m going to continue to write blog entries on the days we receive them….


Mitch Handelsman is professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.  With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).  But here’s what he’s most proud of:  He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.

© 2017 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitch Handelsman
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