How to Frame Course Evaluations With Your Students

Zachary Nowak describes how you can help them to help you help them.

April 19, 2019
 
 
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A recent study confirmed what many college instructors had long suspected: bringing chocolate chip cookies to the class during which students did course evaluations significantly -- and positively -- affected the students’ evaluations of the course. But instructors can also do a few other things to help students understand the importance of taking time to give thoughtful feedback.

One way of getting thorough, and hopefully positive, student evaluations at the end of a course is asking students for feedback periodically during the semester. This should start at the beginning of the course and can be as simple as handing out quarter sheets of paper in the last five minutes of class. Ask students to respond anonymously, listing what they want you to drop, keep and do more of.

This sort of feedback is easy to process -- looking through even 150 of these mini evaluations is relatively quick. Of course, you’ll receive contradictory requests. The most important thing is to acknowledge the feedback in the next class and to make some changes that respond to it. Doing that early on creates buy-in from the students, as they recognize they have the ability to shape the class to some extent. It shows them that you listen to them and respond to their feedback. This sort of evaluation is simple enough for you to repeat every few weeks. You might even note on your syllabus that you plan to solicit frequent feedback.

Another setup for the final evaluation is a midsemester review. You can do a more elaborate version of the quarter sheets (maybe with four or five specific questions) or invite your institution’s assessment experts to come in and conduct a more formal survey. When I asked Harvard University’s Bok Center to do this, the professionals there worked with me to develop a short online questionnaire. They administered it during the first 20 minutes of one of my class meetings and then met with me to detail the results and decide how to discuss them with the students.

By making evaluations and subsequent adjustments to your teaching a part of your class, you set yourself up for an easy and mutually satisfying conversation with your students on that last day of class. Rather than simply offering them an obvious (albeit effective) bribe of cookies for good evaluations, you can extend what has been a theme the whole semester: you take evaluations seriously and make changes because of them. If you’ve put in the time to evaluate and respond to student input, your class will realize that their responses to those 10 or so questions will not simply be printed out, collated and launched toward Jupiter by Elon Musk.

The fact that you, the instructor, are taking time out of class to allow them to fill out the evaluations does two things. It reinforces the importance of the task, and it also ensures a much higher compliance rate than students would otherwise achieve if writing comments were purely optional and subtracted from their free time.

This semester I also made explicit what I do with these qualitative and quantitative responses. I showed the students part of one of my cover letters for a job application, zooming in on the sentence about my average teaching evaluations. I then showed a slide of the page in my teaching portfolio where I both summarize my scores and list some of the best student comments on my teaching. I studiously avoid implying that I wanted them to give me good evaluations, but I do make explicit that the responses do go somewhere and do “count.” It’s not only an important assessment for me to improve my teaching but also an important assessment for me to use for future employment. A female friend of mine went a bit further: she showed her class certain past responses (e.g., comments on her attire) and explained why they were both inappropriate and unhelpful.

I’ve never tested this approach experimentally -- giving one class the final spiel and cookies and the other class simply the cookies -- in part because I’m confident that the explanation either does indeed help or at least doesn’t hurt. When students understand where their comments go and how they can help you become a better teacher, their comments become much more meaningful and constructive.

Bio

Zachary Nowak is a college fellow in the history department at Harvard University. He is also the associate director of the Center for Food & Sustainability Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy.

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