Want Better Student Evaluations?

Getting Feedback in Time to Use It

Getting useful feedback on teaching can be difficult. In “Everyone Hates Course Evaluations,” Supiano and Berrett summarize three important objections to the system most universities currently use: Research suggests that student evaluations of teaching are prone to bias, especially against faculty of color; students are unlikely to have the perspective to evaluate certain matters, such as a faculty members’ knowledge of the field; and “these surveys are often used in tenure and promotion decisions and as proxies for really evaluating teaching and learning.”

That said, we also know there’s value in surveying students about their perceptions of the learning experiences we’re providing for them. As Maryellen Weimer points out, “the front of the room looks different when viewed from the desk.” Since our students’ learning is our goal, it’s essential for us to find out how effectively we’re reaching them, and for many of us, evaluations are our main source of that information.

Unfortunately, we only get this feedback when the semester is over, and it’s too late to make changes that could improve students’ experiences and learning in our courses. That’s one of the many reasons that, when our colleagues come to workshops and consultations on interpreting and responding to student evaluations, we always encourage them to collect feedback earlier in the semester.

Midterm evaluations give us vital information on the effectiveness of our courses, in time to act upon it. Gathering midterm feedback on your teaching also sends students the message that you’re committed to their progress and success. It also often improves end-of-semester evaluations, as long as you close the loop and address the results with your students, letting them know what you heard and what you’re able to adjust.

There are a variety of approaches. You can create and distribute your own survey in class or online, using Canvas, Qualtrics, or another survey app. (Of course, it’s important that midterm evaluations be anonymous, so that students can respond frankly.) We’ve developed a sample midterm evaluation that you can import into Canvas. Instructions are available here. We’re also happy to help you interpret the results, consider adjustments you’d like to make, and plan how you will discuss the feedback with students.

We also offer the following services from Student Consultants, undergraduates who work at CAT and are trained to collect student feedback on teaching:

  • Informal Feedback Session: If you can spare about 20 minutes of class time, you can invite student consultants to conduct a feedback session in your classroom. They’ll talk to your students about how their learning experience is going, using a brief writing exercise followed by small group discussion and a quick class-wide debrief. Then, we’ll analyze the results and meet with you afterwards to discuss the responses and your plans for modifications.
  • Observer/Note-taker: Student consultants visit the classroom and record in writing what happened during class (e.g., chronology of classroom activities; time spent in questioning, board work, small group discussion; and so on). If you wish, they can use the COPUS. The student consultant describes rather than evaluates, and meets with you to present and discuss the report.
  • Primed student: Prior to class, you inform the student consultant what he or she should watch for. Examples: How often do certain students respond? Are the students discussing course material among themselves? What seems difficult for the students? What are the students in the back rows of the class doing? The student consultant writes his or her observations in a report to share with you.

There are two important provisos for any of these options: Students must be confident that the feedback process is safe and anonymous. (You also may be assured that it’s optional and entirely confidential: midterm feedback is purely for formative purposes.) It’s also essential that you follow up with students, thanking them for their feedback and outlining how you’ll use it: accommodating reasonable, useful suggestions and explaining why others aren’t feasible this semester.

In feedback sessions last year, surprisingly many students asked for more quizzes and more practice; they wanted to know how they were doing so they could adjust and improve. If you’re eager for feedback, too, write us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu to schedule a session.