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Services of the CFT: Student Evaluation Consultations

This article was originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Anupama Balasubramanian

One of the services that the Center for Teaching offers to the Vanderbilt teaching community is the student evaluation consultation. In this section, Assistant Director Peter Felten describes his work with these kinds of consultations.

When and why do clients seek this service?

Faculty and TAs typically schedule this kind of consultation after receiving their student evaluations for either the fall or spring semester — in January and May.

Negative evaluations, of course, can motivate someone to talk with the Center. Nearly as often, however, a faculty member approaches me because she or he is confused about what the evaluations mean ; for example, the teacher might not have been very happy with the course, but the students rated it highly. Occasionally instructors also schedule this type of consultation when they are rethinking a course, such as when a course hasn’t been taught in a while or when the class has been taught so often it seems to be in a rut.

What happens when someone asks for a student evaluation consultation?

The instructor typically talks with or e-mails a consultant about goals for the consultation, and then drops off a complete set of evaluations at the Center. Sometimes the instructor also will provide other course materials (a syllabus, copies of exams, and so on). These additional materials can be crucial because evaluations are simply one piece of evidence about teaching and learning in a class.

The consultant then reads the evaluations and other materials to prepare; this preparation is based, in part, on both the teacher’s goals for the consultation and on the consultant’s experience and knowledge of evaluations.

The consultation may produce very concrete steps that the teacher can take to change the class (a plan to revise a course, to work on presentation skills, etc.), or it may simply be a time to reflect on the teacher’s thoughts and feelings about a class. For example, sometimes instructors simply want to talk through their thoughts and feelings about a class and/or a set of evaluations, rather than creating an “action plan.” Either approach is fine. And at the end of the consultation the evaluation forms are returned to the client.

How do you deal with bimodal feedback, and what would be your advice to someone who has had that problem?

When I see bimodal feedback, I ask a few questions:

  • What clues exist on the individual student forms that might explain these results? For example, can a correlation be found between how individual students scored a professor and those same students’ narrative comments?
  • Does the teacher often get bimodal feedback, or is this unusual? If a professor has a unique or unexpected teaching style, for example, he or she might be more likely to receive scored that reflect strong student reactions to the professor’s style.
  • Is there something about this particular course that produced these ratings? When students enter a course with widely divergent backgrounds (such as varied levels of prior experience with course material), the evaluations might be bimodal because students may think either that the professor aimed too high or too low with the material.

Once the teacher and I have some understanding of why the ratings are bimodal, we can talk about possible responses to this kind of feedback.

In your experience, how do instructors benefit from talking with someone about their evaluations?

Research suggests that teachers who consult with someone about their evaluations are more likely to score higher on the next set of evaluations than others who don’t talk to anyone. To see this gain, the conversation does not need to be with an “expert” in teaching and learning –instead, the conversation needs to be with someone who can help the instructor make sense of what the evaluations do and don’t mean.

Other benefits include developing new teaching strategies and gaining confidence as a teacher. For example, it is easy to let negative or personal comments on an evaluation overwhelm all other comments. Talking with someone can help put such comments in context. These conversations help teachers find out or remember that they are not alone, but rather part of a scholarly community.

Finally, these conversations often lead teachers to think about new ways to gather feedback from students during the semester. Faculty and TA’s can do many things during a course to uncover both what students like (and don’t like) and, more importantly, what is (and isn’t) helping students learn . Responding to feedback during a class often is more effective than waiting for student evaluations after the semester has ended.