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Making Course Evaluations More Meaningful

Posted by on Monday, April 11, 2016 in Resource.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

ReflectionsCourse evaluations for spring semester courses begin today. When I served on the Provost’s Committee on the Evaluation of Teaching a couple of years ago, I found that instructors commonly face two challenges when it comes to course evaluations: motivating students to complete them (and thus increasing response rates) and helping students provide useful, constructive feedback on course design and teaching practices.

One way to respond to these challenges is to reserve time in class for students to complete course evaluations. That emerged from our discussions as the single best option for instructors interested in increasing their course evaluation response rates. It’s how we used to do things back in the days of pencil-and-paper evaluations, when response rates were often 90% or higher, depending on attendance.

After Vanderbilt moved to online evaluations, many instructors shifted practice, asking their students to complete evaluations outside of class time. However, the Vanderbilt Student Government student survey that the committee reviewed made clear that asking students to complete course evaluations outside of class during the absolute busiest time of the semester is problematic. I’ve reserved class time for course evaluation complete for years now, and, as the committee talked with faculty, it was clear that others do this, as well, with great success.

Since the evaluations are online, this move does require that students have laptops they can bring to class. Smart phones will do in a pinch, but our current evaluation system isn’t particularly mobile friendly. However, according to a recent survey by the Dean of Students, 99% of our undergraduates own laptops. That survey had a fairly high margin of error, but I’m inclined to believe that the vast majority of our students do indeed have laptops. This percentage hits 100% in schools like Engineering and Nursing that have laptop requirements.

Asking students to bring their laptops on a particular day near the end of the semester seems quite doable. And giving up 15 minutes of class time to increase response rates and to encourage more thoughtful responses by students is a trade-off many instructors are willing to make.

Speaking of thoughtful responses, a review of the literature on student course evaluations yields a number of recommendations for instructors for talking with their students about course evaluations. Whether or not you allocate class time for evaluations, the Center for Teaching recommends the following strategies for discussing course evaluations with students:

  • Tell your students that you value their honest and constructive feedback, and that you use student feedback to make improvements to your courses. If possible, share examples of how you have changed your courses as a result of student feedback.
  • Let your students know that you are interested in both positive and negative feedback on the course. What aspects of the course and/or instruction helped them learn? What aspects might be changed to help future students learn more effectively?
  • Describe the kind of feedback you find most useful. In most cases, specific feedback with examples is more useful than general statements. See the handout “Providing Helpful Feedback to Your Instructions” from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan for examples of specific, constructive feedback.
  • Remind students that evaluations are designed to be completely anonymous and that you will not be able to see any of their evaluations until after final grades have been submitted. Many students don’t realize these facts.
  • Let students know that you are the primary audience for their feedback, but that others will potentially read their evaluations, including department and school administrators. Course evaluations play a role in personnel evaluations and in curriculum planning.

For more on this topic, including an example of how one emeritus faculty member talked with her students about course evaluations and recommendations for reading and responding to student evaluations, see our teaching guide, “Student Evaluations of Teaching.”

On my agenda for this summer is updating the lit review section of that guide, which admittedly needs some work. In the meantime, for an excellent summary of the research on student evaluations of instruction (do they correlate with student learning? are they biased? etc.), see Elizabeth Barre’s well-researched post, “Do Student Evaluations of Teaching Really Get an ‘F’?“, on the Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence blog.

Image: “i will be your light,” Tim Snell, Flickr (CC BY-ND)

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