There are good reasons colleges conduct student course evaluations, though you might be forgetting them as you skim through your results. Were these students in the same classroom as you? How should you understand the comment that describes your delivery as “strict”? And what importance will college administrators attach to the finding that 22 percent of your students are less interested in the course subject matter than when they enrolled?
Research shows that course surveys are often designed poorly and used inappropriately.1 But this ignores important criticisms2 about the institutional use of student course evaluations and takes an entirely pragmatic approach. Given that course evaluations will be with professors for the foreseeable future, let’s talk about how to achieve better results.
1. Promote participation in course evaluations
Most students dislike course surveys. The majority are not motivated to complete them unless prompted, with the notable exception of students who are resentful, angry or have an axe to grind. These are the people who will want to “complain to the manager” about your course—maybe they are disgruntled about the grade they earned, the request you denied, or the late penalty you applied.
How to curb this? Ensuring you have the silent majority of your classroom putting their opinions on record means that you will have some balance and ballast against any students who, for whatever reason, have developed a vendetta against you and decide to take it out on you in the course survey.
Also, the higher your response rates, the more accurate the survey data. Your administrators aim to make use of the data—they want to see high student response rates and dislike having to throw out data from courses that achieve a too-small sample size.
2. Use direct student evaluations earlier in the course
Designing and using your own formative student assessments, and addressing the data they provide, is an important way you can impact student satisfaction and get better results in your later course surveys. Before the end of term, give your students at least one opportunity (ideally more) to provide you directly with feedback about their experiences in the course. Based on this early feedback you can make adjustments.
Formative feedback allows you to be proactive and address or counteract what might have otherwise ended up as a record of student dissatisfaction and negative comments on course evaluations. And regardless of what you find out from these early surveys, the activity of directly seeking feedback is generally satisfying for students: They will have proof you actually care about what they have to say, since you have asked them personally and you’re not just going through an institutionally-mandated exercise. Plus, it’ll show that you’re willing to address their needs and suggestions in a way that could benefit their own classroom experience.
3. Be upfront about student and teacher bias
Try using the course survey as a teachable moment for your students that may also pay off in better course survey results. Before the survey, let your students know about the scientific evidence that shows that white, male professors typically score higher on college course evaluations3, and have a discussion about why this might be the case.
Talk about the role that grade expectations play in course evaluations. Help students to consider how their interest in the course subject relates to their appraisal of the course. Ask them what factors are legitimate influences on a course assessment.
You might worry about your course survey data, but your students will often have little to no idea about its importance. The idea is to engage them in some critical reflection about judgment.
And in terms of the narrow, pragmatic goal of improving your course survey scores, you’re staging the activity so that students may be better equipped to offer meaningful and conscientious feedback.
4. Be explicit about your expertise
To help students make unbiased (or less biased) judgments about your abilities, supply them with information in the lead up to the survey. Otherwise, all they may have to rely on when asked about such key things as your “knowledgeability of the subject area” are potentially vague or fleeting impressions. Or worse, the sort of biases mentioned above. (Yes, they have been attending some classes, but let’s not overestimate students’ abilities to draw inferences from your lessons.)
Talking to a captive audience about your accomplishments, credentials or publications can feel uncomfortably like self-promotion. Be encouraged to think of it from the student’s perspective: he or she wants to know a lot about the person entrusted to educate them. So don’t be shy to let them know about your expertise in a genuine, factual way.
5. Let them eat cookies
As ignoble as it may seem, providing your students with a treat every once in a while can really boost their enjoyment of the course. One recent study4 showed that those students who received (and ate) cookies during their lessons scored the instructor higher on the course survey results.
Despite the sugar, there’s a larger point, here. Having fun makes something more memorable, satisfying and genuinely transformative? Best practices for effective teaching already ask us to build in things like humor, fun and play so that learning can be enjoyable.
It stands to reason that students who find their course experience enjoyable will rate that course better than students who don’t. If you bring the fun, your students will benefit, and so will your evaluations.
Chemistry professor and Top Hat user Dr. Scott Northrup won Tennessee Technological University’s Outstanding Teaching Award, as nominated by students and peers, for using direct student evaluation continually in his course. Learn more about how he increased student engagement with Top Hat.
- Barrett, D. (2014). Scholars Take Aim at Student Evaluations’ ‘Air of Objectivity’. September 2014. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Take-Aim-at-Student/148859?cid=tn
- Parker, Q. (2018). Student Evaluations: Problems and Possible Solutions. Top Hat Blog. Retrieved from: https://tophat.com/blog/student-evaluations/
- Boring A., Ottonobi K., and Stark P. (2016.) Student evaluations of teaching (mostly) do not measure teaching effectiveness. ScienceOpen Research. Retrieved from https://www.scienceopen.com/document_file/25ff22be-8a1b-4c97-9d88-084c8d98187a/ScienceOpen/3507_XE6680747344554310733.pdf
- Hessler et. al. (2018) Availability of cookies during an academic course session affects evaluation of teaching. Medical Education. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/medu.13627