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Friday, June 9, 2017

Student Evaluations – Should We Pay Attention to Them?

The answer is YES!

Summer is a great time to reflect on the most recent academic year. Not only can you sit in the sun enjoying a refreshing beverage, reviewing your classroom activities and what went right and what might need some tweeking, you can and should also take some time to reflect on your student evaluations from the past year. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: As Summer Sets In, a Chance to Regard the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Student Evaluations, author Chris Quintana says, “Some of the weirder things students write in course evaluations can be fun to mock. But professors say they get helpful comments, too, and sometimes transformative ones that lead to improvements in how they teach.” Have you been dinged because of your accent or the way you dress? Quintana reminds us, “On the one hand, the students’ concerns can seem off-topic or mean-spirited. On the other hand, students’ unreserved criticism can be invaluable in improving a course.”
Sometimes we hear comments from students that are conflicting. Some students like projects, some students hate them. Some students like your jokes in class, some students think they’re stupid. What would you do with these comments? How would you take this information and use it to improve your course?


If you are one of those people who doesn’t really believe in the importance of student end-of-course evaluations or wonder if students are really “qualified” to evaluate their courses, you may ask why do we even do them? Betsy Barre, Associate Director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, did a study and was highlighted in an article in Vitae. She concludes that despite many issues around student evals (such as they are used for a multitude of purposes), she says they are still important and valuable. In fact, “studies showed a positive correlation between student evaluations and learning.” While they are an “imperfect tool,” we have few other instruments of teaching effectiveness. And remember, these are evaluations of students’ perception of their own learning.

Some recommendations from this article in Vitae include:

Take your time – look at the results as soon as they are available, but remember that these reports contain a lot of valuable information. So if the results aren’t what you were hoping for, put them away and go back a week later when you’ve had some time to process.

Do a deep dive - Many of us go right to the numbers. However, there are other parts of the evaluation report that are (in my opinion) far more important! Make sure you are paying close attention to how students responded to the questions on the evaluation that are most important to you.

Go back in time – When you are thinking about the evaluations that you will be doing in the future, plan, plan, plan. Then plan some more! Remember that checking in with students several times during the quarter (remember to do a PLUS/DELTA at mid-quarter!) will ultimately result in better connections with students and better evaluation results.

Put the evaluations in context – Unlike other types of assessments (and that’s really what student evaluations are) these are anonymous student feedback. However, because you are asking the students that you have spent the entire quarter with to complete the evaluation, they are not exactly random!

When you are reviewing your evaluation report, you know what happened during the quarter…the students in your class, how each of them did academically, the material you covered. There may be students who didn’t do well and may express some of those “concerns” in their comments. Try to keep these comments in perspective. I can remember having many nice comments from students, and then one that seemed like a “grudge” comment that got me down in the dumps. How to deal with that? Keep it in perspective! We cannot make every student happy every quarter. It may be a comment from the student who didn’t show up every day and/or didn’t complete work, and who chose to be disengaged. Sometimes we have to admit we cannot reach all students.

So, in the end, with our refreshing beverage and a sunny day, the big take-aways from a review of student evaluations include: look for trends, look on the bright side, and look for ways to improve next time around.

Happy summer!



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