July 30th, 2012

Three Steps to Better Course Evaluations


With each semester’s end comes the often-dreaded course evaluation process. Will the students be gentle and offer constructive criticism, or will their comments be harsh and punitive? What do students really want out of a course, anyway? A better time to think about course evaluations is at the beginning of the semester. At that point, an instructor can be proactive in three areas that I have found lead to better course evaluations.

1. Understand and accept today’s college students. First and foremost, students want us to know who they are. They want us to know their names and to know about their world. Today’s students are busy, technologically savvy, and multitaskers. Some are prepared for college work; others are not. Regardless of their backgrounds, all students have lofty ambitions and want to succeed. To help them, we can provide background knowledge in our subject areas. We also need to share the rationale behind what we do and ask students to do. I recommend making invisible expectations explicit. I regularly start class by saying, “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.

2. Establish clear criteria for grading. All students want good grades, and they want to know exactly how to get those grades. College students today 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.

After 20 years of college teaching, I have learned that telling students that their grades are based on percentages (20 percent homework, 25 percent quizzes, etc.) does not have meaning for them. They cannot figure their grades with a percentage system. A total point grading scale provides that clarity. Each assignment, quiz, lab paper, project, or exam has a certain number of points. These point values can be listed in the syllabus as well as the total points needed for the final grade. To help students keep track of their points, I give them a worksheet and explain that if they record their points, they will know exactly how many they have and how many they still need to earn.

I get rave reviews about my “no-mystery” approach to grading on course evaluations, and I believe that the good reviews are due to the clarity and ease of the total point system. I re-explain the grading system after the first assignments/quizzes/tests are returned. On the first day of classes, students are overloaded with information. It’s not until after an assignment has been graded that they are ready to understand how the grading system works.

3. Get formative feedback early. The end-of-course evaluation is a summative one. 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 course. Formative feedback collected early in the course accomplishes that goal.

The first major paper or exam is a great time to collect formative feedback. I recommend attaching a page to the back of the exam, or asking students to respond to questions like these on the day papers are due:

  1. How long did you study for this exam or work on preparing this paper?
  2. How/where did you study/write?
  3. Which class activities (lectures, discussions, reviews, online notes) helped you the most in learning this material? Why?
  4. Which class activities helped you the least? Why?
  5. Which topics remain the most difficult for you?
  6. What has a professor done in the past that helped you learn?

If I have students answer these questions on a page attached to the exam, I let them know they can tear that page off and submit it anonymously when they turn in the exam.

You can also ask for feedback once that first exam or paper has been graded and returned. I like to ask questions then about improvement goals—what the student wants to do better and what else could be done in class to support their efforts to improve. If you don’t want to deal with open-ended questions, students can rate declarative statements such as “I would prefer more discussion of assigned readings.”

If you ask for their input, students will want to see that you listened to them. They may expect some changes. A short report back to them can be used to explain what you are willing and not willing to change, and why.

Students aren’t qualified to comment about all aspects of instruction, but they can rate how they feel about the classroom climate. They are good evaluators of what helps them learn and what confuses them. Getting their feedback early in the semester enables you to tailor the course to their learning needs.

Finally, it helps to talk about your evaluation results with a trusted colleague. Sharing student responses can help us see patterns in evaluations and sort out the “outliers” or just plain wacky comments. Knowing what our students need helps us teach in ways that promote their learning, and that means better results on the end-of-course evaluations.

Dr. Mary C. Clement is the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Berry College.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, 25.4 (2011): 1,3.

  • Ken Morrison

    Nice article. Would you be willing to share an example of your worksheet that you give students explaining exactly the points they have and need to earn? I have given students a big picture outline one month at a time on the white board, but I can see the value of a printout that they keep their own score. You can send it to kenmorrison30 @ yahoo if you are willing

    I also highly agree that the point system is better than the percentage system in helping with clarity.

  • Rochelle Watson

    Although I do think that a point system can be clearer, it's sometimes a catch-22. My experience has been that students may not want to take any personal responsibility for tracking their grades/progress and either (a) constantly seek assurance/interpretations concerning their grades, despte rubrics, score sheets, explanations, etc., or (b) tend not to address any confusion they have about course grading until the bitter end once they realize that they have not made the progress they would have liked. In any case, your article has influenced me to try–at least in some of my classes–using the points system again. I also would really appreciate a copy of your worksheet if you are comfortable sharing it (rwatson@monroecc.edu). I also really like the way you suggest collecting formative feedback and will use that strategy as well.

    • Shawna

      Is agree! I have the same finding. I'd be happy to adapt a total point systematic would like a copy. I already provide rubrics and check for comprehension during class. the students who rate me low are the ones with a poor work ethic. students who won't come see me for extra help, and who seek to blame me for their grade. sad… Especially since my entire annual review was based on seven students who weren't happy. how are these forms used in your University?

  • Jenny Franklin

    Very nice article – I'm posting a link to it the University of Arizona's TCE (teaching and course evaluation) website. In the course of directing both faculty development and faculty evaluation services at various points in my career, I think I've heard a lot of rationalizations for disappointing ratings. Taking a positive approach to getting useful information about what students are experiencing is a great antidote to the frustration we've all experienced at one time or another when a course isn't working as well as we might wish. I like your suggestions – especially the focus on getting formative feedback early and in the context of assessment since understanding how students perceptions about the teaching connect with their actual learning outcomes offers a unique perspective on what may need fixing and for whom.

    In a similar vein, I recommend the use of SGIDs – a strategy that provides usable feedback by providing a moderated, safe way for students to give grouped anonymous feedback early or midsemester but in time to address instructional problems. Even if there is not enough time to address an issue that may be discovered, there will likely plenty of opportunities in future to apply what was learned. There is a helpful guide to the method at http://www.ntlf.com/html/pi/9705/sgid.htm. It's a great service for teaching centers to offer – we trained a cadre of graduate students to do SGIDs for faculty here with good effect, but with the guide and volunteer colleague, anyone can use the SGID approach to get helpful feedback. Anecdotally, we often noticed higher than predicated ratings at the end of a semester (from past ratings) for faculty using an SGID that term.

    • Kathy

      Your link doesn't work. Do you have an updated one?

    • Shawna

      I too like the strategies listed and plan to use them! However, it does not erase the concerns about putting too much weight on student reviews. Does your University use them alone to determine annual reviews of non tenure track faculty? my institution used ten out of fifty items to review me. My entire review was negative and based on seven unhappy students…. Many I know are handing out the test questions and inflating grades as a result… I want to know if this is happening in other universities.

    • I'm totally agree with you, man..

  • Dr.K

    "…telling students that their grades are based on percentages … does not have meaning for them." In my on-line syllabus, I added a link to a page where the students can remedy this aspect of their innumeracy, if necessary. I also made a fill-the-blank worksheet that takes them through the steps of the calculation. Adults need to understand percentages!

    • Barbara W

      I Agree!

      • Shawna

        I agree as well! I realize this system encourages us to cater to the students but we are dumbing it down too much!!

  • Pat B.

    I still use the percentage grading system, but students see can see their average at any time in Blackboard. All of their grades are posted along with their current average. Have not had any problems with students contesting their grades at the end of the quarter. And the average display does motivate them to do better during the course if they see their grade beginning to dip a bit.

  • F.P.

    Thank you for explaining the formative feedback approach . I think that sharing what works and what does not work, will help us to improve effectiveness in teaching .Would you ming sending to all of us a copy of your worksheet.

  • RAC439

    I find it disconcerting that at the college level students cannot compute a weighted average. That is, after all, what a point system is. Do we really find it necessary to cater to their math illiteracy? These are college students we are talking about.

    • Jeff


  • Rochelle Watson

    It is disconcerting that college level students seem not to be able to compute a weighted average. In some instances, they really cannot. I actually walk through examples w/ students two or three times during the semester so that they will know how to compute their averages. However, I believe much of their "inability" is willful ignorance. Even for those students who can compute weighted averages, they seem to understand (better) and prefer the point system. Maybe the point system makes them feel more in control of their destinies. On a point system, students know what they will/could earn on tests and assignments; they will know what they must do to earn those points; they will know their current letter grade status immediately based on the number of points they achieve.

  • professorh

    I agree that it is sad students don't understand weighted grades. But teaching and learning is why we are here, so we keep working with them.

    I really appreciate the formative feedback ideas you have proposed. I like some of the quick assessment strategies suggested by Angelo and Cross in their handbook on Classroom Assessment Techniques. You can learn a lot, early, about students' expeiences using One-Minute Papers and Muddiest Point Papers to determine where students are. Then, developing strategies is a great next step though it may require individual "case work".

  • N. Chesworth

    I like the exam feedback form and have used a similar technique with some success. It's particularly useful if students are not taking studying seriously and helps to forestall the practice of blaming a poor grade on the instructor. That said, why not get a head start and help students focus on the experience as well as the need to plan their time well from the start?

    Given that students are usually overwhelmed at the first class, at the beginning of the second class, hand out a sheet to help set them up for success. This is a simple process. Take for example the first question in the text above. Instead of asking "How do you", you could ask 'How long will you or How long do you think you need to study for an exam/work n a paper. Corrections can be made and suggestions given before that first test is handed back and a student expresses surprise at her/his grade. The same applies to the other questions in the list. If students realize you are there to help from the start and also that their success is ultimately up to them, course feedback should be more positive, constructive and useful.

    I also like the grade tracking sheet. It worked well on the occasion that I used it in the past, and I'll bring it back this year.

  • Ahmed Abu-hajar

    I am a strong believer in giving daily homework and weekly quizzes. With approach, I get a constant feedback and I am able to assess my teaching approach as well as my students’ learning ability. As an engineering educator, a very important learning objective is the ability for the student to be able to think outside the box and come up with unique, yet trivial solutions. I do that by assigning open ended challenging projects. This approach was proven to work with my teaching approach very well. Students earn good grades and most are able to secure jobs or getting into grade school.

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  • Matt Champagne

    This is an excellent topic. Gathering feedback in stages or net promoter scores are great ways to gain a perspective on real-time understandings of student satisfaction. I have similar research and findings on my blog at http://theevaluationguy.blogspot.com . Thanks for posting this!

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  • Shawna

    I am seeking information on how Non tenure track Instructors are being reviewed annually. I have received two reviews in my nine years of teaching. my last one shows a decline in ratings. I did have the most difficult semester of my life thanks to unfortunate power and politics working against me. the decline in ratings weren't significant. I had seven instead of the typical two students who were not happy with their grade in the end. My entire review was based on ten out of fifty items on the students review sheet. no positive comments were made and a vague," needs improvement," rating was given with no idea action of how to improve. it looks like a popularity context to me. So many are giving the answers to tests on study guides and giving all As not to get tenure and keep their job. Is this what higher ed has been reduced to? I teach basic clinical practices, that is a bridge class from academics to practice. It involves thinking and application, for some it's the first indication that they don't know everything and they can't memorize everything. Thus, for a minority they realize they have special learning needs or blame me.

  • Shawna

    sorry for the typos… Should be to get tenure and popularity contest

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  • Vivienne Friday

    Great article. I am interested in knowing what a robust student evaluation of faculty should be. What are the questions that students should be asked? Should the evaluation include questions to reflect students contribution to their learning as well? Many of the student evaluations that I have seen focus on content delivery and not the entire taching or classroom expeeince.

  • marlip

    The problem is that having to be so preoccupied with studentents evaluation takes a lot away from delivering a lecture which is spontaneous, natural and fun.

  • maria monk

    i feel i do all these things and still get crushingly mean comments -I feel so bullied it is hard for me to live