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Student Evaluations

Making Sense of Student Evaluations

Greg Reihman, Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning

What is the best way make to sense of student evaluations of your teaching? What do these evaluations mean and what role can they play in the improvement of your teaching? There is a diverse body of opinion about and research on the validity and usefulness of student evaluations of teaching.  However, in this posting I set aside these broader questions and offer instead some advice for reading and reacting to your own set of instructor evaluations. Although no measure of teaching effectiveness is perfect, we teachers can nevertheless gain a great deal by taking our student evaluations seriously. To that end, I offer some suggestions for how to get the most out of student evaluations.

Suggestion 1: Prepare to change one or two things about how you teach

The fundamental purpose of these evaluations is to help you identify what is working well in your teaching and what could be improved. Ideally, they will help you decide where to focus your improvement efforts. With that goal in mind, prepare yourself to read the evaluations as honestly as you can and to fairly determine which data is worth reacting to and which isn't. If you find yourself either uniformly dismissing or uniformly endorsing the feedback you have received, you may wish to pause and revisit the feedback at a later time or ask a trusted colleague to review the forms and help you interpret them.

Suggestion 2: Read your evaluations openly, but with thick skin

In general students tend to be constructive in their feedback but it is not uncommon to receive an insensitive, rude, or even vulgar comment. It is difficult to absorb feedback if you feel defensive or insulted so, if you want the evaluations to be of use, it may help to prepare in advance for such comments. If you receive such an inappropriate comment, or a particularly harsh score, try not to let it detract from the overall message of the evaluations as a whole. It may help to bear in mind that no one has trained students in how to give this sort of feedback tactfully.  Students are conveying their own lived experiences as learners, not an expert's opinion on your teaching.  In some cases, you may be justified in dismissing a rude or inapproriate comment completely; in other cases, you may want to consider what to do next time to detect and mitigate such frustration or hostility earlier in the course. Here, too, if you find yourself unable to read the evaluations without getting upset at the coarser comments that may be among them, you may wish to ask a peer or a friend to read them for you and translate the comments into more constructive language.

Suggestion 3: Look for general trends and overlook the outliers

While you may learn something through a close reading of each individual evaluation, the best approach is to look for the general trends. What are the recurring observations made by students? What do the numbers and the comments in these trends reveal about your strengths and weaknesses? As for the outliers, bear in mind that even the greatest teacher in the most highly successful class may get one or two evaluations that contain comments or ratings that don't match up with those of the other students. Although in some cases these outliers may reveal something to you about your teaching, in most cases you can safely ignore these and look for broad trends indicated by the class as a whole. Note that this applies both to unusually positive and unusually negative outliers.

Suggestion 4: Seek explanations, but don't explain away all the data

Some studies have shown bias in student evaulations and so you may be unsure how to interpret your own evaluations.  For example, some studies have shown that a required course will likely have lower average evaluations than an elective, so if your scores in a required course are low, this 'requirement penalty' may be a factor. Other studies have suggested a gender bias in evaluations.  Until such biases can be removed from evaluation, do what you can to recognize and correct for the bias, then look at what you can nevertheless learn from the ratings and comments. 

Suggestion 5: Focus on the elements of the evaluation that matter most

If there's something you're already working on in your teaching, pay particular attention to the question on the form that will help gauge how that work going.  The other questions may help you fill in the details of your teaching efficacy, but sometimes focusing on a subset of the questions can help you best see whether changes you are making are working for students.

Suggestion 6. Decide if it's appropriate to focus on student perception

If, after much soul-searching and consideration of other evidence, you are convinced that the ratings just don't match the reality of your teaching, you may want to focus your efforts on correcting the perception that generated the ratings. For example, if you give a lot of feedback but your students rate that item low, then you may need to clarify for students what feedback looks like in your course, how students can best use the feedback you offer, etc.  Or, if students think your teaching methods are not contributing to their understanding of the course material, it may be helpful to clarify your pedagogical approach and explain why you have adopted it, so students can better understand the role you intend to play in their learning. In each of these cases, student perception matters and has an impact on how they learn.

Suggestion 7. Chose one or two areas and commit to improving yourself in those areas

When you have identified the general trends of the evaluation, corrected for potential biases, and persuaded yourself that the trends accurately reveal something about your teaching, focus on one or two substantial things to work on. You can't change everything about your teaching overnight; in fact, trying to do so may do more harm than good. Meet with a peer, a chair, a colleague, or someone in CITL to discuss ways to make these improvements.

Suggestion 8. Respond to student feedback

Encourage your students to participate in the early-semester and end-of-semester feedback process.  Doing so will increase participation rates and improve the amount and quality of the responses you get.  After you have reviewed the early-semester feedback, let students a few things you have learned, tell them what you have decided to change (and why), and inform them what you have decided to keep the same (and why). Communicating about the process reinforces the idea that you take the process seriously and affirms to students that they have a voice in their learning--this approach will likely enhance the feedback you get on the end-of-semester evaluations. You may also want to follow up later in the semester with follow-up questions to your students based on what you have learned--perhaps focused on something you are working on, some new assignment, method, or technology. Doing so will help you assess the effectiveness of any mid-semester change you have made and will also remind students that you are responsive to their perspectives.. 

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Greg Reihman

Lehigh Unviersity Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning

Contact: email grr3 at lehigh.edu, 8-6840, 752 Fairchild-Martindale

First Published, Summer 2004

Updated, Fall 2021