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Student Evaluations of Teaching Aren't Perfect, But Here's One Way to Use Them

Photo of a pencil on notebook by Free-Photos (CC0)
Photo by Free-Photos (CC0), pixabay.com
How do you know whether things are going well in your class? And whether students are learning anything? Do they like your teaching style? Does your course meet their needs? These are questions that thoughtful college teachers and other educators often ask of ourselves.
As we approach the end of the spring semester, I find myself thinking back to last fall, when I was teaching a new class at LaGuardia CC, and asking myself these same questions.
Student evaluations of teaching are one way to answer these questions, but many of us feel nervous about evaluationsI know I do. That’s understandable. Year-end student evaluations feel high stakes because they are summative evaluations of faculty teaching. They are linked, to varying degrees, to the renewal of contracts for adjunct and contingent faculty, or tenure and promotion. These kinds of evaluations quantify and purport to measure teaching effectiveness and the overall learning experience of students through the assignment of numerical values to students’ perceptions. For some educators, they are the primary—if not only—form of feedback they may receive about their teaching.
It can be nice to receive high ratings on student evaluations at the end of the semester, but even in that best-case scenario, these ratings rarely tells me what I’m doing well and what I could improve to guide student learning.
At this time of year, there is no shortage of thinkpieces about whether, why, and how student evaluations matter, with some calling to end our reliance on student evaluations as a measure of teaching effectiveness, while others defend their value as “not the best, but the least worst” option. Student ratings and evaluations of college instructors are under growing scrutiny for their documented implicit and systematic biases against scholars who are women, people of color, and/or from other groups that have been historically marginalized and excluded from the academy. And rightly so. My stance on evaluations takes seriously these concerns and critiques the use of standardized evaluations by institutions to assess faculty teaching, while recognizing the formative value of student evaluations for educators when designed and analyzed in the context of the course and a holistic evaluation process.
In fact, teaching evaluations are particularly helpful in the middle of the semester, when faculty can still make changes to the course and respond to their students’ interests and needs.
For the last few years, I have created a mid-semester evaluation for the courses I’ve taught. However, I’m far from the only person who designs my own teaching evaluation form. Emily Brooks, a Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellow with the Humanities Alliance, wrote about the questions she asked of her students and what she learned from their responses in Reflecting on Student Reflections. Teaching and learning centers are also encouraging new, customized approaches to evaluation: At Berkeley, the CTL provides departments with a question bank to revise standard evaluation forms, while instructors and full-time faculty at Penn are encouraged to create their own course evaluations.
Similarly, instead of relying on an institutional form full of standardized questions for student feedback at the end of the semester only, I like to create multiple opportunities to gain feedback from students—from index cards on the first day of class and exit tickets to polls and forms. (On the latter, see On Checking In With My Students, where I describe this process in detail because I think it set the tone for subsequent feedback, including the teaching evaluation form I describe below.)
This year, I designed a mid-semester evaluation form to be completed online. This helped me learn how the class is going, and whether I can make any tweaks to the syllabus, lesson planning, tools, etc, as we continue to work together for the rest of the semester or quarter.
In the remainder of this post, I’ll talk about how I implemented a mid-semester teaching evaluation in the “Writing the Research Paper” course that I taught at LaGuardia Community College last semester.
It’s helpful to be open with your students about why you are doing multiple types of evaluations—and that it’s about making the course work for them. You can also explain the differences in kind and purpose between an evaluation designed by the instructor and an institutional form, which allows you to talk about institutional norms with your students, and how and why their evaluations matter. I discussed this openly in class, but I also stated the purpose of the evaluation briefly in an introductory paragraph:

This survey provides you with an opportunity to let me know your experience of this course, and what might be improved in future weeks. I will take into account your collective feedback as I plan the rest of our sessions. Your feedback also helps me improve in my teaching.

After reading this introduction, my students understood that their responses would be reviewed with the aim of improving the course, and they responded accordingly.
And when you’ve already asked students to complete a teaching evaluation in the middle of the term, they know what to expect at the end of the semester when everyone is rushing to fill out standardized forms in every class.

Photo of a blackboard by geralt (CC0)
Photo by geralt (CC0) at pixabay.com
I divided my evaluation form into four sections:

  • Feedback on the course: This section asked questions about the course requirements and goals, the professor’s speaking pace, workload, level of the course, and whether students know what they need to do succeed in the course
  • Feedback on the professor: In this section, I asked students to rate my knowledge of the course subject, preparation, communication, explanation of terms, helpfulness of teaching methods, encouragement of student participation and collaboration, assistance and consultation, and respectful treatment of students
  • Overall feedback about whether they recommend the course and the professor
  • Any additional comments (optional)

The first three sections of the form used rating scales or multiple-choice responses, while the last section provided a long text box to allow students to submit open-ended comments. Students were able to quickly and easily complete the form, since the format was similar to teaching evaluations they had completed in other courses. However, this evaluation form was designed for a continuing course, with questions asked in the present-tense. I asked fewer questions, and focused on questions about the structure of the course and how my teaching was meeting their learning needs and goals. Since I was able to ask questions that were specific to this course as it was being taught, the form yielded feedback that was more direct and immediately useful.
Whether you decide to make it optional or not, I strongly recommend designing your own teaching evaluation form. Once you have a basic outline, it’s easy to modify for subsequent courses you teach. And as I’ve outlined above, there are many benefits to doing your own evaluation mid-semester.
There is a bonus too: You get an inkling of what to expect in your teaching evals at the end of the semester!

1 Comment

  1. Can we now use our own specific student evaluation forms at the end of the course?
    That would allow us to really get helpful feedback on what we are actually teaching in each course, instead of a general document that does not allow students to write in their own words & express their individual comments on our courses.

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