November 28th, 2012

End-of-Course Evaluations: Making Sense of Student Comments

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At most colleges, courses are starting to wind down and that means it’s course evaluation time. It’s an activity not always eagerly anticipated by faculty, largely because of those ambiguous comments students write. Just what are they trying to say?

I think part of the reason for the vague feedback is that students don’t believe that the evaluations are taken all that seriously, not to mention they’re in the middle of the usual end-of-semester stress caused by having lots of big assignments due and final exams to face. It’s just not the best time to be asking for feedback and so students dash off a few comments which instructors are left to decipher.

In most end-of-course evaluations, students tend to comment about some of the same aspects of instruction. They frequently address issues of organization, whether students were treated fairly and the challenging aspects of the course. Carol Lauer wondered if faculty and students defined some of these common terms similarly and so she asked a faculty and student cohort to say what they meant when they saw or used the term on course evaluations.

Would you be surprised to learn that faculty and students define the terms differently, or that students themselves don’t agree on definitions? Probably not, I’m thinking. Even so, some of the specifics are interesting. Take “not organized,” for example. Almost a third of the faculty think students use that term when the teacher changes or doesn’t follow the syllabus. Just over 11% of students said that’s what the term meant to them. Seventeen percent of the students equated it with the instructor not being prepared, 15% said they used it when the teacher had no apparent plan for the day and almost 13% equated it with getting student work graded and returned slowly.

“Not fair” refers to problematic grading according to almost 50% of the faculty surveyed, but to just over 2% of the students. To students “not fair” gets written on an evaluation when the teacher plays favorites and doesn’t treat all students the same way. Students and faculty are closer in their understanding of what “challenging” means when it’s applied to a course. It means hard work and lots of it.

The point here isn’t terribly profound but it merits a reminder, especially at the end of courses when teachers are tired. Many of the terms used to describe teaching on rating forms and in student comments are abstractions. “Organized” is something teachers are and deciding whether a teacher is or isn’t depends on what the teacher does. Various behaviors, actions and inaction can be what any given individual sees as the presence or absence organization.

There is good news here. If you’re interested in improving something like organization, if you define it behaviorally, you can change what you, do which is a lot easier than changing what you are. Organization has never been one of my strong suits and I didn’t make much progress trying to “be” organized. But when I started putting a skeleton outline on the board, when I stopped five minutes before the end of period and used the outline to summarize, when I began class working with students to create a list of points to remember from last class, I was seen by students as being more organized.

But it isn’t all good news. A collection of dashed off student comments collected at the end of the semester doesn’t easily translate into an action-based improvement agenda. What the student comments mean is probably not what you think they mean. Communication about the impact of teaching policies and practices on efforts to learn needs to be ongoing so there’s an opportunity for clarifying feedback, adjustments and then more feedback. We can and should make efforts to change the way our institutions collect student assessments, but, until that glacier melts, we need to take matters into our own hands and solicit a different kind of feedback and at different times during the course.

Reference: Lauer, C. (2012). A comparison of faculty and student perspectives on course evaluation terminology. To Improve the Academy, 31, 195-211.