Course evaluation often elicits groans from students — and can cause stress for instructors. There’s even an article1 in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Everyone Hates Course Evaluations.” But there are good reasons for doing evaluations as part of the teaching and learning process — and there are ways to make it easier and more relevant for everyone involved.
What are course evaluations?
A course evaluation is a questionnaire or survey — typically administered with an online evaluation form — designed to evaluate a given course at a higher-education institution using student feedback. The idea is to provide insight and reporting from undergraduate students that will help faculty members identify what’s working in the curriculum and to assess what could be improved, from lectures and assignments to teaching methods.
What’s wrong with course evaluation?
So why is there so much resistance? At the end of the semester, students are busy preparing for exams or finishing final papers. A course evaluation, which is requested of students but not mandatory, may seem like one more thing to add onto their to-do list. Plus, they may not see the benefit; the semester is ending, so any changes to the curriculum won’t directly benefit them.
On the other hand, some instructors argue that course evaluations aren’t taken seriously by students, don’t provide meaningful feedback and may even be biased. That is, in fact, the case if they’re designed badly, says University of Toronto educational developer Pamela Gravestock in a Q&A2 with University Affairs.
“Often the [evaluation questions] are not the right questions. General questions about the instructor’s effectiveness aren’t going to tell you what’s going on. Also, faculty are often just given this information and no one guides them through it,” says Gravestock, who also co-authored a report3 with colleague Emily Gregor-Greenleaf on models and trends in student course evaluations.
How can course evaluations be fixed?
Asking the right questions can make all the difference. At the University of Toronto, for example, students have been “phenomenally receptive” to the university’s revamped online course evaluations, according to Gravestock. These evaluations take a more student-centered approach, asking about their overall learning experience; for instance, if assignments contributed to their learning or allowed them to demonstrate their learning in the classroom.
Also, undergraduate students aren’t in a position to provide an accurate assessment of every aspect of the course — such as whether an instructor is qualified or knowledgeable of the subject matter. That’s why course evaluations should be part of a larger evaluation process; assessing knowledge of subject matter, for example, may be better suited for peer evaluation.
For students, there may not be much incentive at the end of the semester to fill out an evaluation if they’re not getting anything out of it. (Typically the deadline for submission is at the end of the course, but before the final exam.) But if students can see if and how their feedback is being put to use, it could increase engagement, motivating them to fill out their evaluations.
Instructors, however, aren’t limited to end-of-semester evaluations. Some are experimenting with conducting evaluation mid-term, only for their personal use (rather than for institutional administrators). This allows them to be proactive, address any student concerns and make on-the-fly tweaks in the lecture classroom.
Annelise Heinz, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas, says in an article4 for Inside Higher Ed that she experiments with “short and frequent” student evaluations, discovering “they give an extraordinarily worthwhile bang for the buck.”
“Getting feedback during the course allows you to actually make recommended changes,” she says of her five-minute evaluations, which she conducts every few weeks to take the pulse of her classroom. These short evaluations include questions such as: “What is one main takeaway you remember from the course so far?”
While the intent is to provide guidelines that can improve teaching and learning, evaluations sometimes appraise the performance of an instructor — so, understandably, there’s some concern that evaluations are more about student ‘satisfaction’ with a particular instructor, which is prone to bias. (More on this on our previous post on student evaluations.)
Since course evaluations are often used in promotion and tenure decisions, they can end up being a source of stress and anxiety for instructors. Faculty may also be overwhelmed by the large amounts of data they’re collecting, without knowing how to apply it directly to the curriculum.
What about the future?
Fortunately, with the rise of learning analytics tools (in conjunction with educational developers working in higher education), course evaluations could be less of a hassle — and much more relevant — than in the past.
Learning analytics tools, for example, can take data, analyze it and provide feedback in hours rather than weeks or months, minimizing the feedback loop. The technology is advancing to the point where instructors can ask learners more open-ended questions in their surveys (instead of only multiple choice questions) to gather more qualitative data. And educational developers can guide instructors on how to use this feedback for more effective teaching.
While there’s room for improvement in the course evaluation process, if done with intention — asking the right questions, focusing on the student and using learning analytics tools — more value can be gleaned from the process. Course evaluations could become less of a hassle, and instead provide meaningful, actionable insight that improves teaching and student learning.
2. Charbonneau, L. (2013, August 21). Course evaluations: The good, the bad and the ugly. Retrieved from https://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/course-evaluations-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/
3. Gravestock, P. & Gregor-Greenleaf, E. (2008). Student
Course Evaluations: Research, Models and Trends. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from: http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Student%20Course%20Evaluations.pdf