ADJUNCT SUCCESS & How to Learn From (and not get discouraged by) Student Surveys.

By Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 11/29/16.

I’ve been teaching students at Indiana Wesleyan University for 22+ years.  And that means for over two decades I’ve been reading student surveys. I often find that adjunct instructors teaching my classes can become discouraged after reading a few student surveys. Below are my eight tips, gleaned from over two decades of how to get the most out of them, without letting them get to you.

Step 1: Ask yourself if more than a handful of students have complaints.

Every course is going to have a few students who didn’t like how the course was organized or taught. But, unless you have a majority of students with similar complaints, you probably are hearing from just a few students. A strategic attribution error is to take outliers and attribute to them a majority perspective.

In every class there’s going to be some students who would prefer things to be handled differently. Don’t get too wrapped up in the criticism unless the majority of the responses are citing the same shortcomings. Thus …

  • If just one or two students are critiquing the same thing, go to the next step.
  • But, if it’s the majority saying the same thing then sit down and have a hard look at your teaching and curriculum to make adjustments. Then go to step two.

Step 2: Recognize that research indicates you will remember negative comments longer than positive comments.

I’ve often noticed that though there may be dozens of positive comments, it’s the one or two negative comments that bother me for days. In fact, research indicates that our brains are actually wired to remember negative comments in lieu positive ones. (See this article: CONFLICT & The Biological Reason Why Negative Comments Stick With Us So Much Longer Than Positive Ones, https://churchhealthwiki.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/conflict-the-biological-reason-why-negative-comments-stick-with-us-so-much-longer-than-positive-ones/).

Thus, you can’t let a few negative comments begin to obsess and worry you. Because of this, you should take them for what they are: comments with probably a grain of truth at their core. But don’t retain a focus on the negative comments and let them wear you down. As I mentioned above, research shows that negative comments stay with us longer and disturb to us longer than positive ones. Thus, the few negative comments are going to harass you and the good comments you’re going to be quickly forgot.

But there is a way around this. The Bible gives us the answer in Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message):

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

So, read back over the positive comments. Take the positive comments to heart too. I found that you need to read them 2 to 3 times as many times as the negative comments just to keep them equally balanced in your mind.

Step 3: But, don’t dismiss the negative critiques because they are outliers.

When you get negative comments recognize there is probably a kernel of truth in each. Look for the truth and the things you can change in the negative comments. Take them to heart and see if they reoccur in other courses. It could be that they are minor critiques, whose accuracy won’t come out until after a series of courses.

Step 4: Don’t take to heart personal insults.

Sometimes negative comments can come from out of left field. Amazingly, students sometimes utilize the anonymous nature of a course survey to be rude and cast insults. The reason I think this happens is because students who are struggling can become frustrated. And, if they have developed a coping mechanism of projecting the problems on others to take the focus off of themselves, they will often take the end of course survey as an opportunity to criticize others. And you may be the first in their sight. So look for the grain of truth that set them off but don’t let insults or name-calling stay in your heart. Go back to step 2 if you are struggling with a particularly mean comment. (Note: if the comment is hateful speech and you feel yourself or others might be threatened by it, you must alert myself, your faculty supervisor, and the dean.)

Step 5: Don’t judge comments’ authenticity by their length, for good comments are usually short and critical comments are often long.

It is been my experience that students who are doing well in the course in enjoying it usually feel a couple short words of thanks and praise are sufficient. But those who have something regarding which they are concern will go at length to describe it. So don’t take the length of the comments as equal to their authenticity. Remember students who had something positive to say usual say it very briefly and not do any depth. Is the students who are frustrated and shared links who often fill out the faculty survey in detail.

Step 6: Pray for your students.

You should be praying for all of your students. But when because of the power of the negative comments you start to dwell on that negativity, then set aside time to pray even more for the student. Remember if it is clear the student is an outlier and still sharing negative comments or blaming you, it could be because they’re trying to take the focus off of their own frustrations. They may be frustrated with their performance in class, the finances involved in taking the degree program or the pressure they are feeling from balancing family, career and education. So take it as a prayer reminder when you receive such a negative comments to be praying for students that are struggling. And you should be praying for all students, but especially so for those who you know are struggling.

Step 7: Read the end of course survey when you are alert and not tired.

Being tired can make you susceptible to discouragement and depression (read the research from the Harvard Business Review article: “ETHICS & Why In the Afternoon, the Moral Slope Gets Slipperier at https://churchhealthwiki.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/ethics-in-the-afternoon-the-moral-slope-gets-slipperier/). As an adjunct faculty member you may feel like giving up because you’ve worked so hard teaching a course. Then you think you will read the end of course survey for some encouragement, but you are reading it when you are tired and/or it is late at night. In such environs, the negative comments loom large and the positive comments seem to disappear.

So read the faculty survey at a time when you have energy to digest all the details and take to heart corrective steps. That way a negative comment won’t add to the discouragement that comes from lack of sleep, tiredness or low energy. Always read the comments at a time when you have energy to do something about them.

Step 8: Everybody gets bad comments, almost every time.

I’ve literally read hundreds of student surveys as well as hundreds of adjunct and colleague surveys. And even the most exceptional speakers/teachers will get negative comments every single time. It is the nature of graduate school students to critique and suggest improvements. And you already know from reading their papers that the young graduate school student may lack some tact in their enthusiasm for finding areas for improvement. So expect their negative comments to arrive, but handle them in the above 8-step matter and they won’t bring you down … but they will propel you forward.