Focus on the Positive

I just finished my first semester as an assistant professor here at UWGB. I’ve been told that the first year in an academic position is the most challenging. There are so many demands—new course preps, getting familiar with students, meetings, maintaining an active research agenda…the list goes on and on. One of the things that I think is a primary concern for many new faculty members like myself is the question of what students think of you and your courses. One of things that I was most looking forward to during winter break (of course, the chance to catch my breath from the hectic first semester was at the top of my list) was the opportunity to see what students thought of me on my teaching evaluations. Did students find me to be an effective teacher? Did they like my teaching style? Were the group activities that I planned useful to students?

In talking to people about teaching evaluations, I’ve come to realize that people react differently when they receive their teaching evaluations at the end of a semester. Some put them aside for a few weeks (or months) and then dig in when they’re in the right mindset or when they have more time. I do not fall into this camp. When I see that stack of orange envelopes sitting in my mailbox, I feel a bit like Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” felt right before he opened his presents…I can’t wait to find out what’s inside!

One of my favorite components of teaching evaluations are the open-ended comments that students provide. Of course, I spend a lot of time looking at quantitative information that comes with teaching evaluations (I’m a data junkie, so I love numbers), but I really like to read what students have to say about my courses and my teaching. One of the most satisfying elements of reading student comments is coming across the positive ones—the ones where students comment on your helpfulness, your ability to help them understand the material, or your enthusiasm about the material. Who doesn’t like a good compliment, right? The one thing that I’ve noticed about myself when I’m reading teaching evaluations is that even if the majority of student evaluations are positive, I get hung up on the one or two negative ones. In fact, often times I will let one or two negative comments out shadow all of the positive ones I received. I obsess about them.

Mimi & Eunice, “Glass Half Empty” by Nina Paley

Mimi & Eunice, “Glass Half Empty” by Nina Paley

I’ve talked to a few other faculty members about this and my sense is that this is not an uncommon experience. Psychologists have a name for the idea that we often give more weight to negative information than positive information. They call it “negativity bias.” According to studies in psychology, “The brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.” Recognizing that we respond differently to positive and negative information is an important first step in thinking about our reactions to the comments on teaching evaluations. But, it doesn’t necessarily make handling negativity easier.

One of the things that I am working on when it comes to dealing with student feedback is trying to focus on the positive—the comments that affirm that you are achieving your goals as a teacher and the ones that offer constructive criticism (e.g., “Be careful not to let group activities go on for too long”). It’s important to recognize that every class is going to have a few people who just aren’t going to like your course. And, that’s okay. But, it’s important not to allow a few negative comments to “cramp your style.” This is not an easy thing to do—at least for me it’s not. I want students to like to me, to learn a lot in my courses, and to develop an interest in my field. When you’re invested in your courses, it can be hard not to be offended when students don’t respond with high levels of enthusiasm. But, I think that focusing on the positive comments is likely to be much more productive.

Aaron Weinschenk Aaron Weinschenk,
Assistant Professor,
Public and Environmental Affairs

2 thoughts on “Focus on the Positive”

  1. Thanks for the article. My wife is a professor and has the same issues. My opinion however is that neither the positive nor the negative feedback matters much without constructive suggestions for improvement. That in my mind is where the real value is. Just my two cents.

  2. Aaron – great attitude on evals! I, like you, look at them right away, even though I KNOW BETTER. This year, our evals were emailed to us on Christmas Eve. Yes, Christmas Eve. And like the fool I am, I read them. Then obsessed about the one or two comments that were negative. It is really hard to overcome that. But I remember PEA faculty telling me that if you didn’t get at least a few of those, something else odd must going on in your class – as a few negative comments are the norm. I generally look for themes across several comments…is there something I can tweak, do differently? Was there something that was complete fail?

    Congrats on getting through the 1st semester and good luck this spring!


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