Strategies for Better Course Evaluations

Strategies for Better Course Ratings

End-of-course ratings (also called student evaluations) can improve teaching and learning, benefiting future students who will take the classes. They are not perfect measurements of teaching effectiveness but can elevate the teaching and learning environment of Iowa State University by:

  • Creating an opportunity for students to reflect on their perceptions of the learning and the classroom environment.
  • Providing instructors with constructive feedback, enhancing teaching effectiveness.
  • Supporting an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning between instructors and administrators, including positive reinforcement and identifying areas for improvement.

Increased student response rates provide additional evidence for instructor analysis. There are several strategies to increase the response rate, including,

Before survey release:

  • Placing student survey dates in your course schedule to demonstrate the importance of the ratings and as a reminder.
  • Informing students of how you have used ratings data to improve the course in the past or present.
  • Accustom students to feedback by seeking formative information early and often in the semester. Constructive feedback collected early in the course can positively increase the completion rate for the end-of-course ratings. Consider using a mid-semester assessment and visit the how to use formative course feedback from students' webpage.  
  • Detailing how the institution uses evaluation feedback. Many students do not realize that their ratings are looked at by department chairs and included as teaching documentation in personnel decisions, such as annual reviews and promotion and tenure. 

During Survey Release:

  • Providing class time for students to complete the end-of-course ratings. It is best practice for the instructor to excuse themselves from the physical or virtual room during the process.
  • Telling your students that you would like to get feedback from everyone. Set a percentage for class completion for the entire class to earn a small extra credit bonus. For example, tell the class that if they achieve 85% class completion of the survey, they will receive a small number of extra credit points.
  • Sending students a personal reminder (in addition to the automatic reminders to complete the student ratings) can send the message that the instructor values the ratings.

Constructive feedback is necessary to improve teaching. The feedback should be specific, focused, and respectful. While comments regarding what needs to change may come more readily, it is just as helpful to share successful elements of the class. Share with your students these ideas for providing constructive student feedback.

  1. Stress the importance of respectful expression of opinions and ideas. Derogatory remarks or criticisms based on identity (e.g., race, color, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, sex, marital status, disability, or status as a U.S. veteran) are harmful, not welcome, and not appropriate in keeping with ISU's Principles of Community.
  2. Suggest a focus on observable behaviors and practices that the instructor can control. For example, class time or class location is not instructor decided.
  3. Encourage your students to provide specific examples of what worked well and what could be improved. Rather than stating the course was "organized," provide detailed information about what contributed to the organization, such as "each Canvas module contained the learning activities and assessments needed for that week."
  4. In addition to suggestions, provide alternative and specific instructor or course solutions for improvement. For example, rather than "provide recordings," elaborate, "Course recordings would be helpful when studying so I can go back and listen to problem explanations."

Student ratings provide formative information often used in summative evaluations for professional advancement. An analysis is necessary to consider how to leverage the positive aspects of the course, minimize some of the less successful elements of the course, and address misperceptions regarding the course early in the semester. Some ideas to keep in mind (derived from McGill University) include:

  • Balance student written comments with the quantitative ratings. Otherwise, negative comments may be given more weight than is appropriate.
  • Look for repeated patterns in the comments to identify areas of importance to the class as a whole. However, do not dismiss a statement out of hand if it comes from only one student.
  • Positive comments tend to be more general, whereas negative comments focus on a particular aspect of a course.
  • Comments on items outside of an instructor's control, such as scheduling, class length, timing, and frequency, are critical and can be discussed within the department.
  • After reading through your students' written comments, make an initial assessment and determine possible next steps, such as sharing your ideas and questions with a teaching mentor, colleague, or staff within CELT.

The Student Ratings Analysis Worksheet can help make sense of student responses. In Part 1, a table is provided for categorization to organize student comments. Part 2 offers guiding questions for reflection and next steps.

Remember that small changes can have significant effects. Some student comments might be immediately actionable, while others take additional time and effort. Teaching mentors, colleagues, and CELT staff can be beneficial in discerning the value and context of the student comments.

According to Centra (2003), "Bias exists when a student, teacher, or course characteristic affects the evaluations made, either positively or negatively, but is unrelated to any criteria of good teaching, such as increased student learning."

Many factors can negatively affect course ratings, including:  class enrollment, physical space, first time teaching a course, first time teaching at all, preparation time (or lack thereof), trying a new teaching strategy, changing teaching methods or assignments, the level of the class, required courses vs. electives, and amount of teaching assistant support. Positive factors include seniority of the instructor, instructor rapport, student motivation and preparation, class size, level of the course within the major, and discipline, with humanities courses often rating more favorably than those in math and science classes.

Bias is not monolithic. It is essential to consider if the bias is widespread and strong enough to overwhelm the students' ratings of the faculty member's teaching or course environment to reflect that bias (Linse, 2017).

Evidence and research-based strategies for enhancing student ratings reflect best teaching practices. These include:

  1. Ensure Course Alignment: Implementing course alignment results in explicitly linking course learning objectives to teaching and learning activities, classroom assessments, and evaluation.
  2. Increase Relevance: Today's students are busy, technologically savvy, and multitaskers. To help them, we can provide background knowledge in our subject areas. We need to share the rationale behind our designed learning activities and assessments. Make invisible expectations explicit by beginning class sessions by stating, "We are learning this because …" When students understand why and how the material is relevant to them, they find more motivation to study and end up rating the course more highly.
  3. Establish clear criteria for grading. All students want good grades, and they want to know precisely how to get those grades. Today, college students have experienced criteria sheets and rubrics since elementary school, and they want the same in college. They want to know where they stand on any given day in the semester.
  4. Create an inclusive environment. Inclusive pedagogy at its core is a student-centered approach to teaching that faculty create an inviting and engaging learning environment for all the students with varied backgrounds, interests, and physical and cognitive abilities in the classroom. Take deliberate steps to ensure that all students feel welcomed and supported in the classroom.
  5. Get formative feedback early. The end-of-course survey is summative. Although it aims to help us improve future courses, it does not enable us to respond to the needs of the students currently enrolled in the class. Formative feedback collected early in the course accomplishes that goal.

Student ratings are not precision tools that produce a measurement compared to a known standard. Some evaluators over-interpret slight differences as indicative of a problem, a decrease in quality, or an indication that one faculty member is materially better than someone else. In reality, a faculty member can teach different sections of the same course and receive different student ratings results.  

Aggregated and viewed over time, student ratings provide just one piece of evidence documenting teaching effectiveness. See the Documenting Your Teaching pages for additional means of collecting information from the instructor, students, and peers.

  • Abrami, P. C. (2001). Improving judgments about teaching effectiveness using teacher rating forms. New Directions for Institutional Research, 109, 59–87.
  • Barre, B. (2015). Academic blogging and student evaluation clickbait: A follow-up. Reflections on Teaching and Learning, the CTE Blog. Center for Teaching Excellence, Rice University. Retrieved from https://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2015/07/28/studentevaluationsfollowup.
  • Benton, S. L., & Cashin, W. E. (2015). Student ratings of teaching: A summary of research and literature. IDEA paper no. 50. Center for faculty education and development. IDEA Center, Kansas State University. Retrieved from http://ideaedu.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/idea-paper_50. pdf.
  • Berk, R.A. (2013). Top 10 flashpoints in student ratings and the evaluation of teaching: What faculty administrators must know to protect themselves in employment decisions. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
  • Centra, J. A. (2003). Will teachers receive higher student evaluations by giving higher grades and less course work? Research in Higher Education, 44(5), 495-518.
  • Clement, M. (2012, July 30). Three Steps to Better Course Ratings. Faculty Focus.
  • Hativa, N. (2013). Student ratings of instruction: Recognizing effective teaching. Oron Publications.
  • Linse, A. (2017). Interpreting and using student ratings data: Guidance for faculty serving as administrators and on evaluation committees. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 94-106.
  • McGill University. (n.d.) Mercury Course Evaluations. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/mercury/instructors/interpretation
  • McKeachie, W. J. (1997). Student ratings: The validity of use. American Psychologist, 52(11), 1218–1225.
  • Moore, S., & Kuol, N. (2005). A punitive tool or a valuable resource? Using student ratings to enhance your teaching. In G. O’Neill, S. Moore, & B. McMullin (Eds)., Emerging Issues in the practice of university learning and teaching (pp. 141-148). Dublin: All Ireland Society for Higher Education.
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