More Canadian universities are moving to online student evaluations, which unfortunately produce lower response rates. Students either don’t care to fill them out, don’t understand their purpose, or just plain forget. What they don’t usually realize is that these evaluations are used to hire and fire sessional instructors and can also be used for tenure and promotion consideration.
Rather than continue to resist and dismiss the usefulness of student evaluations, professors might benefit from a change of attitude and approach. What if we could actually get a larger amount of useful feedback from students?
Two related questions underline my suggestions that follow: How can students evaluate faculty teaching? And how can we show students that we care and value their feedback?
Teaching to the instrument
On the first day of class, distribute a blank copy of the evaluation questions and then go over the questions, in the same way as you would the course objectives on the syllabus. This will help to encourage a more informed sense of student feedback. It also shows that you value feedback from your students. If you continually demonstrate that you need their feedback throughout the course, it may lead to better ratings on such questions as “I would rate this instructor as very good.” This is an important question that stands out from the others – the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education refers to it as “the global question.”
Consider a common question found on evaluations: “The assigned readings contributed strongly to this course.” In a recent introductory course, I asked the class of 300 students whether any of their professors had explained why they had selected the course readings. Not a single hand went up. So I proceeded to explain why our course would have a textbook and course reader, the differences between primary and secondary readings, and how these readings contributed to the course objectives as outlined in the syllabus.
Another question that is sometimes asked is, “Did the instructor integrate their research into the course material?” Students might complain when they are required to buy a professor’s book, assuming that the professor is out for a buck. Explaining to students that professors are expected to integrate their research (for example, publications) into the course will help clarify why some of us choose to assign our own work. Faculty might also explain why they include research projects in their lectures. These explanations can contextualize the practice, making the question on the evaluation form easier to understand.
Use the feedback you do get
Include previous written student responses into class materials during the semester, using these as opportunities to discuss how the feedback has contributed to modifications you’ve made to the course. You might consider including one or two comments a week on a slide, to show students that their feedback is valued. It also can focus more attention on concepts that students have consistently reported are difficult ones.
Negative feedback on forms usually includes such comments as “there are too many readings.” These are excellent conversation starters for discussing the expectations of your course. The talks can lead into a discussion of what good feedback means to you – in this instance, it helps in designing the course. For example, I used to schedule my midterm exams near the end of term, in the belief that they conflict less with other midterm exams. I thought it would help them focus on one exam rather than several. But it turns out this belief was not universally shared among my students.
Try to build excitement about the evaluations. Facilitate a friendly competition among your classes about online response rates. Some platforms will allow you to view the percentage of feedback while the evaluations are still open to students (their actual feedback, however, will be restricted until after the term and this should be reiterated to students). Use the percentage data to report to students that your morning class is leading your afternoon class. Take a page from charity campaigns and give “guilt marks” to your students by awarding the entire class a one percent bonus mark for completing the evaluations, even though you have no way to verify whether they did or not. Also, allow in-class time to fill out the evaluations.
Finally, you should explain that online evaluations are anonymous. You might be surprised to learn how many students don’t know that.
Christopher Schneider is an associate professor in the department of law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University.