Cedar Riener, Associate Professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College
Student evaluations are a curious metric for assessing one’s teaching effectiveness. They can contain valuable insight into the successes and failures of a course and the strengths and weaknesses of the instructor. However, as with any information, its value depends upon appropriate interpretation. Because student learning (and by proxy teacher performance) can often seem hard to quantify, it is tempting to evaluate one’s own progress by simply tracking the cold hard numbers of students’ evaluations without carefully interpreting the context in which they take place. Doing so would ignore the subtle dimensions that inform students’ responses on evaluations. The students’ state of mind, their assessment of their own learning, and the emotional power of evaluations all contribute to make the process of interpretation a difficult one for any instructor. Despite these complications, student evaluations can be a powerful tool for improving teaching.
As any psychologist knows, placing any answer on a simple 1-5 scale often simplifies complex processes. In addition, students’ assessments of their own learning are not always perfect, and they may know that something impeded their learning without being able to describe exactly what it was. Furthermore, the students’ state of mind will surely influence how they feel about the course. For example, if the course began well but has languished towards the end of the semester, the most recent experience can unduly decrease evaluation responses. On the other hand, students can be happy that the course (and the semester) is over and responses can be inaccurately inflated. Each of these factors combines to make student evaluations a noisy instrument to measure classroom effectiveness. In order to filter the noise out, I use a process consisting of several discrete steps. I find that this structures my interpretation of student evaluation by making concrete several useful strategies.
First, I read through the evaluations carefully and let them sink in. At this point, any negative comments or below-average ratings stand out in stark relief and hurt my feelings. I am defensive and dismissive. This is natural. I remind myself that this same thing happens with many of my students who try hard for a particular assignment and are disappointed with their grade and my comments. Then, I put down the evaluations for one week.
Second, at least one week later, I read through the evaluations again. I am more able to take the negative comments objectively now, without being defensive. I seek to determine first whether they are concerned with the planning of the course, with the execution of the course, or with my teaching style in general (rather than focusing on what personal defect led that student to make such a criticism of my teaching). This step allows me to classify each comment without responding to it.
Third, after addressing particular comments, I try to identify main themes—in areas of success, as well as areas where there is room for improvement. The goal of this step is to distinguish between representative attitudes and particular concerns or the preferences of a single student. Returning to individual comments, I can now see if they are instances of a larger concern or instances of individual learning styles. Comments not attached to a main theme can now present interesting case studies. In the past I have found that they can represent how the pace or the difficulty of the course does not satisfy all the levels of student in the course.
Ideally, after one has completed such a process, patterns of comments and main themes would become readily apparent. However, if you are like me, you may have been disappointed in the past with a lack of coherence or a lack of useful comments on your student evaluations. The interpretation strategies outlined above are obviously of little use in structuring the data if there are actually no patterns in students’ responses. In order to provide effective end-of semester feedback, students’ need to have some practice reflecting upon their own learning before the end of the semester, either with quick learning checks, midterm evaluations, or a Teaching Analysis Poll. Like any skill we teach them, students need practice in evaluating their own learning. When it comes time for the end-of-course evaluations, students experienced with evaluating their learning will therefore provide more insightful and useful responses (both positive and negative) on their evaluations.
In addition to giving students practice earlier in the semester, I also seek to structure students’ comments immediately before they complete the course evaluations. Rather than simply urging students to complete the evaluations, I send them along with particular instructions. First, I tell them that both I and my department take these evaluations very seriously. Teaching is a vital part of my career, and evaluations can influence this career. I often interject a bit of humor here by letting them know that my career is in their hands and pleading with them to please be kind. After the uncomfortable chuckles subside, I tell them that in all seriousness, it would ultimately be detrimental to my teaching if I only got positive feedback. My teaching would never improve, and part of the reason I enjoy teaching is the never-ending challenges it presents. I know that neither that particular class, nor my teaching ability, is perfect; and if I thought it could be so, I wouldn’t find teaching as exciting. I then urge them to be honest and reflective about their learning experience. They may even find their reflection leads them to suggestions for improving their own learning in their next course, independent of the instructor. I finally remind them that what I find most helpful are specific written comments in their own words about what most helped or impeded their learning.
Examining teaching evaluations can be a humbling experience. Negative comments sting every hard-working teacher and threaten to discount the countless other potentially valuable responses and comments. I have found it useful to adopt the process described above in my attempts to structure students’ comments and dull their emotional power. In doing so, I have been led to honestly confront shortcomings and limitations in my courses and my teaching in general. Now, armed with these strategies, when I improve my teaching, I actually know it.