This is common practice at most universities, and it often creates terror in the hearts of many faculty. I've known colleagues who have never read their teacher evaluations for fear of what their students might say, and I've known others who can still recite word-for-word some of the cruelest comments made by students over 20 years ago.
I've received my share of poor evaluations, especially when I was a new teacher. It took me a few semesters to get the hang of teaching, and now my evaluations are generally good (not great, but typically a little higher than the average Harding professor).
What I've found over my 10+ years of teaching is that some students give really helpful comments that can help you improve your class next time around. "I wish we could have spent some time discussing how to apply some of the new principles we learned to our project." Some students are going to really like you and let you know it. "The professor had good teaching skills, was responsive and helpful to questions, and was very knowledgeable."
Other students... well... you have to take their comments with a grain of salt. You have to realize that some students are not going to like it if you require them to work hard (many students think they should receive a B just for attending every lecture). Some students are just poor at evaluating others' performance. Others have yet to realize that they are responsible for their own learning. Occasionally a student is going to be having a bad day, and you're anonymous evaluation is going to be the perfect target.
What really helped me was learning how to properly interpret students' remarks and judge whether the criticism has merit or not. I think learning this skill is important to any new faculty member, otherwise you'll be crying yourself to sleep after reading your evaluations.
Here are a few comments I've received over the past couple of years along with my interpretation of said comment and response.
- Student 1: The projects expected a lot from the students.
Student 2: Smaller, less-brutal projects would not be a bad idea.
Interpretation: I thought this class was supposed to be easy!
Response: If computer science was easy, we wouldn't be getting paid like we are, and everyone would be doing it. The projects are tough because I'm preparing you for the far more difficult and complex projects you'll encounter when you enter the workforce. You'll thank me later.
- Have different projects that we can choose from instead of making everyone do the same project.
Interpretation: I like my classes like my Burger King - my way!
Response: I always entertain ideas for new projects, but it's unreasonable for any teacher to spend hours coming up with a menu of project choices to cater to every whim. In a software development job, you are unlikely to have a boss ask you which project you'd like to work on... you'll work on what needs to be completed.
- Instead of making us use the programming language you want us to use, let us use one we are already familiar with.
Interpretation: Learning something new is highly overrated.
Response: If you graduate from Harding being comfortable with only one or two languages, you should get your money back, because we haven't adequately prepared you. You'll need to learn new languages all the time as a working professional.
- Disable the Internet on the classroom computers so that we can only access web sites are necessary for class. Remove Solitaire, Minesweeper, Hearts, etc. from the computers.
Interpretation: Save me from myself!
Response: I appreciate this student's honesty. I asked our lab administrator today to remove all games. There's going to be some very disappointed students next Fall.
- Student 1: The fast pace of the class made it difficult to fully learn concepts.
Student 2: It felt like sometimes you paced the classes very slowly.
Interpretation: The pace of the class is perfect!
Response: If roughly the same number of students complain that the pace of the course is too fast and too slow, I know I'm covering it at just the right pace.
- You try to cover too much material for a semester. Your previous classes didn't have to learn as much as we've had to. :-(
Interpretation: Curse you ever-evolving technology!
Response: One of the enigmas of higher education is that the consumers (the students) are often happier to receive less for what they are paying for (education). Can you imagine the same student being upset if McDonald's gave him a large order of fries for the price of a medium? Harding should fire me if I quit trying to keep my classes current and just teach the exact same stuff every semester.
- Don't give us really hard assignments, and don't expect us to have them done by the next class period... we do have other classes and lives!
Interpretation: I'm serious about "me" time.
Response: You should schedule 2-3 hours of outside-class time for each hour you are in class. (This is a universal rule that applies to all your major courses, not just mine.) So if I give a homework assignment on Mon and expect it due Wed, you should have already allocated 2-3 hours (at least) to getting the assignment finished. If your assignments are taking much longer than that to complete on a regular basis, that's a sign that you need to start getting some extra help and adjust your schedule accordingly. Remember that half of the class thinks we're going too slowly (see #5 above).
- Weaknesses of the instructor: Calvinism
Response: "Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism - he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: 'I don't believe in Beatles - I just believe in me.' A good point there. Of course, he was the Walrus. I could be the Walrus - I'd still have to bum rides off of people." - Ferris Beuller
Inspired by Jordan's comments, I have added a little to my original post.