Learning from Student Evaluations

The end of the semester is looming and with it the specter of student course evaluations.There are three face emoticons--yellow neutral face on the left, green smilely face in the center, and red frown face on the right. A hand with the index finger extended is pointing in the direction of the viewer at the yellow smiley face. On the whole, instructors dread dealing with these. Many question the value of institutionally administered evaluations.  Some ignore them, others read them and weep. It’s hard to consider student evaluations and not feel personally affronted by negative comments. You’ve worked hard, done your best, and the students are ungrateful. But maybe there is a better approach. Rather than going on the defensive, how can faculty use these evaluations to improve their teaching, and ultimately, improve student feedback?

Maryellen Weimer, What Can We Learn from End-of-Course Evaluations? (Faculty Focus, March 8th, 2017) suggests developing an “improvement mindset.” “Rather than offering answers, [student evaluations] can be used to raise questions. ‘What am I doing that’s causing students to view my teaching this way?’ Such questions need to lead us to specific, concrete behaviors—things teachers are or aren’t doing.” Weimer suggests looking at the Teaching Practices Inventory developed by Carl Wieman, Professor of Physics at Stanford,  and Sarah Gilbert, Department of Physics and Graduate School of Education at Stanford, as “…a great place to start acquiring this very detailed, nuts and bolts understanding of one’s instructional practice.” Although the inventory was developed with the STEM disciplines in mind, it is easily adaptable for teaching in other fields. An article by Weiman and Gilbert, The Teaching Practices Inventory: A New Tool for Characterizing College and University Teaching in Mathematics and Science, [CBE Life Science Education. 2014 Fall; 13(3):552-69. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-02-0023], provides additional background and context.

There are other ways to improve teaching and thus evaluations. An underused resource to improve one’s teaching is classroom observation.  Weimer mentions peer observations in her article, but teaching and learning centers such as ours, the Center for Educational Resources, often provide this service for instructors. She also notes the value of formative assessment—seeking timely feedback from students during the course “…when there’s still time to make changes and students feel they have a stake in the action.”

For some solid, common sense advice that’s easy to put into practice, see David D. Perlmutter’s How to Read a Student Evaluation (The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 30, 2011). Perlmutter recommends “scanning for red flags”—the comments/complaints that a number of students make that, by paying attention and correcting, “…can help you head off longer-term troubles.”

He also recommends thinking ahead. Prepare yourself for the evaluations by taking the questions asked into account when designing your courses, and using them as a checklist for your teaching. Perlmutter also suggests how to tease out the qualitative data in open comments, and advises balancing negative comments against positive quantitative ratings. His take is to “…pay attention to student evaluations, try to understand them, and, equally important, communicate that you do not dismiss them as irrelevant.”

Finally, the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching offers a full set of resources, articles, and advice on their website page: Student Evaluations of Teaching. From talking with students, to making sense of evaluation feedback, to research on student evaluations, it’s all here in one convenient location.

Now there is no excuse. Prepare yourself and vow to use student evaluations as a means to improve your teaching skills. Better evaluations will await you in the future.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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