Learning from Student Evaluations

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have increasingly initiated formal procedures through which their students are encouraged to rate their courses and instructors' performance. Most employ a Likert scaled set of questions that appear on a form, along with space for students' individually worded comments. Since student evaluations are often the primary, and in many cases the only method of evaluation of your classroom performance, it is critical that you understand their rationale and manage the process as productively as possible to improve your teaching effectiveness.

First, in the tip for week 44, "Student Evaluations of the Informal Kind," you were encouraged to conduct several informal student evaluations throughout the term. This practice will not only provide you more timely feedback - while you still have time to make corrections that you deem appropriate - but also the opportunity to have students vent frustration that might otherwise be overblown on the final formal evaluation.

Formal student evaluation procedures are normally designed to protect the anonymity of students. Therefore, be sure to follow all stated procedures, such as leaving the room while the evaluation is conducted, so that students feel free to make comments. This also eliminates the chance that anyone can accuse you of undermining the process. When introducing the evaluation process to your class, be sure to set a positive tone and encourage students to make comments on their forms that have sufficient detail to maximize your understanding. Make it clear which student should collect the completed forms - I've always thought having a rather withdrawn student perform this task, rather than one who might be perceived as your "pet" by some - and deliver them to their appropriate destination.

Shortly after the end of the term, make an appointment with your instructional leader to review the completed student evaluation forms. Since many students are shy, expect a few surprises from their comments - both on the praising and critical ends of the scale. During your very quiet review, make general notes that will enable you to accurately reflect later. Since student evaluations were rendered in confidence, don't ask for photocopies of any forms - positive or negative. There is a tendency - especially among new instructors - to overreact to even the slightest criticism from students. Take a deep breath when you read such comments. But remembering that your instructional leader has or will no doubt read them also, employ proactive tactics. If remarks are egregious, initiate promptly an appointment to review the evaluation results with your instructional leader.

When viewed in its long-range context, student evaluation of courses and instructor performance is a helpful process. If you keep that focus, the process will enable you to benefit from its true goal - continual improvement of the very critical job of facilitating learning among sometimes challenging students.

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