Boost Your Student Ratings by Creating Evidence of Student Learning

Student ratings can provide helpful and legitimate feedback. Unfortunately, all too often, students give very little time or thought to end-of-course evaluations, or they use them as an opportunity to make mean-spirited comments about the instructor. And, all things being equal, an instructor who teaches a challenging course will score lower than an instructor whose course is less rigorous.

“There’s a great deal of faculty dissatisfaction out there with the over-reliance on student ratings to evaluate teaching effectiveness,” said Linda B. Nilson, PhD, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. “In fact these ratings are very good for measuring customer satisfaction, no doubt about that, but really, under the best of circumstances, there’s only a mild correlation between student learning and an instructor’s rating.”

During the recent online seminar Measuring Learning: The Ultimate Teaching Evaluation, Nilson outlined a number of different tests and instruments faculty could use to serve as solid evidence of student learning as a result of the course. Faculty could then attach the results of the measurement along with their student ratings.

Some of the measurements discussed during the seminar include:
Perceived learning gains – Developed in 1997, the Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG) instrument was originally used to assess learning in undergraduate chemistry, but was later updated to meet the needs of a broader range of courses. The SALG asks students to assess and report on their own learning, and on the degree to which specific aspects of the course have contributed to that learning.

First week writing and corrections – Give the students an ungraded writing assignment on key concepts, principles and techniques, processes, and cause/effect issues related to your course content. At the end of the course, have students write a letter to their “pre-course self” correcting errors, poor reasoning, misconceptions they may have written about in the first assignment.

First-week final exam – One of the more controversial methods of measuring student learning is to have students take the final exam during the first week in class, but don’t grade them on it. At the end of the semester give them that same exam again and compare the results. While letting students see their final exam makes some faculty nervous, Nilson says most students won’t remember any of the questions, and if they do what’s the harm? It will simply help them focus in on what you feel is important for them to know.

Targeted essay – In order to demonstrate the relevance of the course content, as an end-of-course assignment you could ask students to write an essay based on this question: Pretend you are on a job interview and the interviewer asked “What are the three most important things you learned in your X course?”

Nilson says she would like to see student satisfaction play a lesser role in the evaluation of faculty, noting that the real goal of higher education is not to please students but to facilitate student learning. Interestingly, a side benefit of simply asking students to think about and articulate what they learned in a course could be higher student ratings.

“Really what it does is make students more aware of their learning,” said Nilson. “Yes, it could make the evaluations more positive, but it’s also making them more accurate. When students have to reflect on their learning — where they were versus where they are now — they’re going to give a more valid assessment of your teaching and the effectiveness of the course and that’s not a bad thing… They can’t say ‘I didn’t learn anything in this course.’”