You Are More Than Your Course Evaluations

It’s that time of the year.

What time of year is that, you ask?  A time for reflection and optimism as a new class of college graduates toss their caps into the air?  A time for renewed commitment to research and manuscript writing?  A time for office spring cleaning?

No.

It’s time for end-of-semester course evaluations.

Across the country, faculty will be receiving the results of their students’ assessment of their teaching. . . Perhaps it’s more accurate to say some will receive evaluations of their teaching.  Many more will receive evaluations of their personality, wardrobe, voice, sense of humor, kindness, and physical attractiveness.

Female professors especially receive comments that are unrelated to their teaching and harsher evaluations than male professors.  According to Ben Schmidt, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University, men are rated as funnier, more intelligent, and just cooler than women (check out his interactive chart that lets you visualize gendered language in student evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com).  And this isn’t limited to the United States.  Scholars in the UK, for example, have made similar complaints.

For those not in higher education, this may seem like nothing more than the complaints of ego-bruised academics.  But there’s a lot riding on these student evaluations.  At most colleges and universities in the U.S., student course evaluations are a primary artifact used in tenure and promotion decisions.  But when only a portion of students complete these evaluations (typically those who either adored or loathed the professor), “all pretensions to ‘validity’ are rendered dubious” (AAUP).

student course evaluations cartoon about only remembering the few negative comments instead of the many positive ones.

The Problem with Student Course Evaluations

When I first began teaching, I agonized over my students’ ratings.  I can still quote some of their comments ten years later.  While some made me feel like I could soar:

“Jessica is the best professor I’ve ever had. She’s so knowledgeable and helpful. She’s professional but is really easy to talk to. This class was also extremely interesting and I’ll never forget what I learned from her.”

Others crushed me:

“Honestly found her unbearable to listen to.  She’s also extremely ignorant and will butt into your conversations with stupid comments.  Her lectures are really long and boring and you are forced to attend.”

Gee, thanks.

I’ve since learned to take student course evaluations like these with a grain of salt.  There are just too many flaws that make these evaluations an unreliable measurement:

  1. Typically, only students who feel strongly will take the time to complete the evaluations, thus skewing the data.  They either love you or hate you, it seems.
  2. Comments within a single class often dramatically contradict each other.  This makes it very difficult to determine what changes should be made to the course.
  3. Comments often have little to do with teaching or course design, and instead focus on personal flaws and virtues.
  4. Evaluations are administered at the very end of the semester.  This is problematic for many reasons.  First, human memory is notoriously unreliable so student recollections may not be accurate.  Second, the end of the semester is when student stress peaks (which could result in venting negative feelings).  Finally, students’ opinions can only be used to change future courses rather than being used to improve the course during the semester.

Despite these weaknesses, student perceptions matter and it’s important to provide a platform for their voices to be heard.  Other than changing the culture of academia and its often misguided approach to performance evaluation, what can we do as individual instructors to better assess student learning and satisfaction?  I believe the simplest and most effective solution is to administer student evaluations throughout the semester.  This is sometimes called “Informal Early Feedback.”

How to Incorporate Informal Early Feedback

Gathering students’ opinions in momento solves many of the problems associated with end-of-semester evaluations.  Also, responding to students’ comments by discussing them in class and making changes as appropriate can have a powerful and positive impact on the classroom culture.  Here are a few ideas to incorporate into your classes:

Exit Tickets:  These are quick formative assessments that allow instructors to check students’ understanding and identify areas of struggle.  They’re called exit tickets because they are typically administered at the end of each class period.  They can take any form and ask any question.  For example, some instructors simply ask students to write responses on scrap paper.  Others incorporate instructional technologies, such as Poll Everywhere, Socrative, Plickers, or Google Forms.  These are two of my favorite exit ticket prompts:

  • 3-2-1:  Ask students to list three concepts they learned, two ways they contributed to today’s class, and one question they still have about the material. This allows the instructor to compare the learning outcomes he/she set for that class with what students are actually retaining.  It also provides insight into how students perceive their participation as well as identifies concepts that students may need further help understanding.
  • Muddiest point: Ask students to identify the most challenging concept discussed in class or in the readings.  This provides a safe way for students to communicate what they’re struggling with so you can determine if additional class time is warranted or if individual interventions are needed.

Tweet What You Think:  If you’re using Twitter with your students, you could provide your students with a prompt at the beginning of class that serves as both a review of content and a discussion starter.  This is one I used in my business communication course:

Improving the process of gathering student's perceptions of course effectiveness by implementing informal early feedback like Tweet What You Think

Keep, Stop, Start:  Ask students to write on a Post-It note one thing they wish would remain the same, one thing they wish would stop, and one thing they wish would start happening.  For example, a student may comment that they like the flipped classroom structure, but they wish the weekly quizzes would be eliminated, and instead be replaced with journaling.  I ask students to not write their names on the Post-It and to stick them to the wall on their way out.  This helps to ensure anonymity and, therefore, more honest feedback.

Improving the process of gathering student's perceptions of course effectiveness by implementing informal early feedback like using Post It Notes

Describe Our Class:  Around midterm time, ask students to describe the class for a friend who is interested in taking the course.  This includes how each class period is typically structured, how I interact with students, what types of readings are assigned, what types of assignments are completed, what he/she is learning, and whether or not he/she is enjoying the experience.  This exercise gives me fantastic insight into how students’ perceptions compare to my own.

These are some of my favorite ways to gather student feedback throughout the semester.  I will often use a combination of these, but sometimes I only conduct mid-semester evaluations.  Choose a method that works best with your course structure and your own approach to teaching.

And Now, Your Monday Mantra

It’s easy to allow student course evaluations to distress us.  When so much of our identities is connected to teaching, it’s painful to be criticized or even attacked.  But remember that these evaluations are often biased or skewed to the extremes.  If you receive negative evaluations, seek out the counsel of your Department Chair or ask a colleague to observe your teaching.  And instead of relying only on this one snapshot to assess your teaching, consider implementing informal early feedback throughout the semester.  I’ve found that these exercises have actually improved the quality of my end-of-semester evaluations.

I am more than my student course evaluations. The Peaceful Professor Affirmations

Do you incorporate informal early feedback into your classes?  What strategies work for you?  Please share!

And for more affirmations, guided meditations, and research on mindfulness, visit The Peaceful Professor!

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About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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