April 3rd, 2013

Course Evaluations: Helping Students Reflect on Their Feedback


I always hesitate to do posts on student ratings. Every teacher has opinions, a lot of which aren’t supported by the research. But this post is on a topic about which there is little disagreement. Students don’t take the process all that seriously, especially now that they complete rating forms online. Few take the time to provide teachers with quality feedback. They mark the rating boxes quickly and dash off a few poorly worded comments. Most of the time it’s not a process that benefits teachers or students, which is sad because it could be an experience with learning potential for both.

Yes, students can learn from activities that involve them in providing instructional feedback, especially if it’s focused on their learning experiences in class. Most students have little insight into themselves as learners. So, if the assessment activity gets them thinking about how they learn and what teaching policies, practices, and behavior expedite their efforts to learn, it can be a beneficial activity for them as well as for the teacher.

The trick is coming up with feedback activities that garner these benefits and I just found a great example. Professor La Lopa, who teaches hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University, has students in his 200-level Human Resource Management course write a reflective paper on quality teaching and its assessment. (I can hear some of you wondering about the appropriateness of the assignment. His article, referenced below, explains the context which more than justified it for me.) What’s most creative about the assignment are some of the prompts students respond to in the paper. Here’s a condensed and slightly edited version of some of them.

  • How would you describe your ideal professor? Include a description of the classroom setting (number of students, physical space, etc). Paint as clear a picture for me as possible so I can envision your ideal college professor and class.
  • Now describe the typical teacher you have actually experienced in your courses here. What is the typical classroom setting like?
  • If you could put one question on a course evaluation what would it be and why would you ask it?
  • If you were the president of your college or university, what method would you use to evaluate the [teaching] performance of college professors?

The article is worth reading for the quotes excerpted from the student papers alone. Their observations demonstrate just how well an assignment like this gets students thinking about good teaching, its assessment, and its relationship to learning.

There are lots of potential spin-offs from an activity framed around these questions. The most frequently mentioned characteristics of the “ideal” professor could be shared and discussed. Why these characteristics? Are these characteristics that support efforts to learn? How? Why? How about the teacher writing a short description of the “ideal” student followed by another short description of the “typical” student? I wonder if the one question teachers would add to the course evaluation would be anything like the question students would add. Maybe the best way to evaluate professors is by how well their students learn. Is that a good idea? Why? Why not?

There’s lots of research documenting that students don’t believe that their feedback is taken seriously by institutions or instructors, which in part explains the poor quality of the feedback they provide. And there’s lots of research documenting that if faculty talk with students about assessment feedback it improves end-of-course ratings. It’s a visible sign that teachers care and are willing to work with students, even if we don’t make all the changes they propose. Good feedback activities like the one described here have one final benefit: they can be learning experiences for students.

Please share the ways you collect, respond to, and use feedback from students. We’re especially interested in those ways that also encourage students to encounter themselves as learners.

Reference: La Lopa, J. (2011). Student reflection on quality teaching and how to assess it in higher education. Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, 9 (4), 282-292.

  • Susan Spangler

    I use a process I call a "midterm chat" a form of small group instructional diagnosis. I have written about it in English Journal 99.5 (2010): 100-102. Students take this method seriously because I take class time to do it, and the feedback they give me affects them during the semester instead of other students in future semesters. I take it seriously, and so do they. This kind of course/instructor assessment could be easily formalized by the institution and included on year-end reports and self-assessments. In departments where teaching is really valued, this kind of assessment is valued, too.

  • Tom Hunt

    This is a great idea. Presently, I do not give any credence to our present student evaluations. One is never is good or as bad as they may seem. While this is not as easy as scantron sheets, it would yield a more thoughtful presentation of ideas for improvement. That would be worth the effort.

  • Tammara Dias

    I use an optional End-of-Course Reflection that students complete during the last week of class. I give them 5-6 prompts regarding the course, the assignments, the way the course is taught, and specific changes they suggest to improve the course. Because I tell students that their feedback is considered when planning the next offering of the course, they tend to be quite open about things they believe worked in the course, things that didn't, and suggestions for improvement. The completion rate is high and I have implemented several of the recommended changes. During a course, I also tell my students about the changes that were made to the course as a result of past students' feedback — which I suppose encourages current students to contribute. It works very well for me and gets much more robust results than I ever got from the general campus evaluation system.

  • Nancy marashi

    I use the optional end of each unit exam student’s survey. The student's survey including questions about how much of the course materials students were comprehended, grading, instructor performance. Also I ask questions about the way students questions attained and handled by instructor. I find it very informative to learn about the weakness and strength of course setup, performance, and student’s feedback at the beginning of the semester and not waiting till the end of the semester.

  • Barbara Howard

    Like Susan Spangler I give an informal midterm course evaluation in my beginning algebra class. I ask 4 questions to which they respond with paper and pencil and turn in to me. The questions are: 1) What aspects of this class help you to learn algebra; 2) What aspects of the class hinder your learning of algebra; 3) What would you like to see changed in this class; 4) What would you like the professor to know. After I read and organize the responses, I discuss their answers the next class period, and how I will begin to implement their suggestions. I do receive good feedback that helps to make the class better for them which is why I do the midterm evaluation. Also, research has shown that if a professor/instructor does actually implement what is suggested on an informal midterm evaluation, the student's will give higher end-of-the-semester formal evaluations. It is a win-win situation.

  • Charlie Baker

    The most helpful comments I receive from students are immediately after class using a form created by that most brilliant adult educator, Stephen Brookfield. As a self-proclaimed “less than brilliant” student himself while in school, he has a unique perspective into the means of teaching. You can access his thinking in a number of brilliant books, including Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. By learning to use his Critical Incident Questionnaire, I believe I’ve become much more effective in the classroom. Since I share the summarized results of their feedback in the next class session and ask for their further comments, students seem to feel that 1) their input is valuable to me, and 2) that their personal perspective is only one among many. Some students, a few at least, love power points – others love discussions – others more structured experiences. I learn to have a variety of approaches in every class.

    I still haven’t found something that provides good feedback from students over the scope of the semester.

  • Curtis Izen

    One of the online colleges where I teach requires a mid-term letter grade for the students. Once this is completed, I ask about 4-5 open ended questions about the course. In the past this was done anonymously, but the replies were few. I now offer up to 7 points added to their final graded score (up to 1,000 points) for complete replies. I explain very clearly that in no way will their replies be held in anyway for or against them other than the 7 points ( I really stress this). I have received wonderful comments on both ends which have helped me both during and for future iterations of courses. The 7 points are perceived to many as extra credit which they love and the work is not difficult. It is also a win-win situation.

  • Marguerite Samuels

    Whenever I have my students do a group exercise, I want to receive immediate feedback on whether or not the activity helped them to apply and master the skills upon which the objective and the lesson is based. Since each student has a different learning style and writing process, I appreciate the students' reflections on the group exercise. I also use a minute paper, especially for the accelerated classes that create a lengthy session in one sitting. I will ask them to fill out a quick survey at the end of the class of naming one thing they learned in class and their favority activity and why. Teaching English is all about imparting knowledge about how to think critically, write analytically, and organize methodically. It is a very meta-cognitive subject because English transcends that particular story or essay or writing assignment to the core of the curriculum – how to teach students to interact with the material through the exercise of critical thinking and much reflection. For this reason, as an English teacher, it is important for me to reach as many students as possible and to help them learn the best way they can. Student feedback is critical for this process.

  • Lisa

    As far as online end-of-course evaluations, I don't even have access to those results until about halfway through the following semester, unfortunately. Therefore, feedback from the last class is irrelevant to my current classes. So, I can only use their input (if there is any) to help improve my teaching practices from the current class forward. However, I like the suggested activity – although I'm not teaching Spanish at a high enough level at this institution for the students to be able to answer the questions in the foreign language. Now, obviously, when I conduct activities within the classroom, I glean immediate results and provide related feedback to the students. I also do this in written form on homework or written assignments.

  • Teresa Beed

    I think the biggest issue is that students do not know how to give truly useful, constructive feedback to a teacher. They don't know how to express their comments. They don't know how to do an evaluation. So, on evaluation day, I give them examples of how they can help ensure than their feedback will be understood and more likely to be used. For example: if they say, "Your tests aren't fair." What is the teacher supposed to do to fix that? How are the tests unfair? What could the teacher do to fix that problem? For example: if they say, "I don't like your voice." What is the teacher supposed to do to fix that? Did she talk too fast? Did she talk too softly? Does she have a whiny voice? What? I tell them to give positive and negative examples of what they are trying to express. Since I have been doing this, the feedback I get is much more enlightening and valuable. I get positive feedback as well as ideas for changes. I also tell them I do read and care about their comments and have made many changes from clear feedback.

  • J. licht

    When I read my students' work, I try to make corrections on grammatical errors, due to the fact that many of my students come from diffferent countries and thern settle in the U.S. I also give them positive and negative feedback as to how to write more on topics they may have covered during assignments. Each homework is graded on a 10 point basis, of which 10 is the highest grade. These homeworks are part of the students' grades, along with a mid-term and final exam.

    • Darlene


      I realized I can type fast later reading over my material I find errors. I am learning to slow down and reading my information before submitting.

  • Meghan

    As a faculty developer, I used to offer this service in the middle of the semester. I would go into the classroom and ask 3 questions – What is helping you learn? What is making it difficult to learn? What suggestions do you have? As students shared their thoughts, I typed onto a projected Word document as they talked. They could see I was summarizing their comment appropriately. I was able to ask questions and clarify. If they said "There is too much homework" – I would ask questions about what that meant and if everyone agreed, etc. I found I was able to weed out laziness and whining and could get to the core of the student feedback.

    After the feedback session I would write a summary for the faculty member highlighting the areas of strength and areas to improve. I found I could get better feedback since I was not the instructor and I could filter any rude or inappropriate comments. I only took 10-15 minutes of class time and I spent about 15-20 minutes after editing and writing my summary.

    We continued this practice at our institution because it had value for the faculty.

  • Lori

    I found this article interesting because it was not until recently that I discovered the way student evaluations were conducted at the school at work at were not performed efficiently. Many times the student would be asked to complete the evaulation right ater submitting their exam. Unfortunately, they may still be stressed about the exam and not taking the time to read the questions. We did provide an area for the students to make comments, but most often this setion was left blank. In addtion, we utilized a Likert-scale for evaluations. When students scored a certain item low they did not provide an example. This left the faculty guessing what they student might be referring to. I do like the suggestion of having a small group discussion. However, a disadvantage to this method would be the shy student may not feel confident to express their opinions verbally. Currently, we are using this method of feedback from students during the debriefing session after a simulation scenario. So far, the faculty has received valuable feedback from the students.

  • C.A. Bendana

    It is very true that students evaluations are not beneficial because of the manner we are collecting them at the school where I work. I recently attended a conference that discussed this, the speaker stated she does evaluations mid semester so changes can be made. I think part of this is students are afraid to offend the instructor and also the instructor should not take offense to the evaluations but see it as constructive criticism. I hope to try this in my next semester.