Making the Best of Course Evaluations

The problems with course evaluations are many, well documented, and probably insurmountable. Evaluations consistently demonstrate bias based on factors such as race and ethnicity and gender (for instance, when online instructors lied about their gender, they saw statistically significant favoring of instructors whom students thought were male). Even when carefully designed, they’re unreliable indicators of teaching quality and liable to be used inappropriately in decisions about rank and tenure. And if that weren’t enough, research has confirmed that students give courses significantly higher scores if the instructor brings cookies on course-evaluation day

The bad news is that course evaluations probably aren’t going anywhere. The slightly better news is that a vocational approach might help. One place to start is by actually teaching students to give useful feedback. Just as we have to teach students to write lab reports, literature reviews, and essays, we need to give them at least some sense of how to write in the genre “course evaluation.” That’s true especially since the default model for evaluating anything has become comments on the internet, ample trolling included. If we don’t teach students anything else, we shouldn’t expect anything better. 

When we teach students how to give useful feedback, we’re doing vocational work. First, we’re helping them develop a skill they can contribute to their communities in the future; after all, giving feedback well is essential in classroom and career, in friendship and family. Second, we’re demonstrating that we value their insights in the present, recognizing they have the ability—perhaps even the responsibility—to help us be better teachers and help the institution live out its vocation. Finally, by encouraging them to reflect on their education, we’re tapping into the value of metacognition, which enhances both learning and ownership of learning.

Ideally, teaching students to write good evaluations is part of a course-long dialogue about how students are learning and what could help them learn better. That dialogue can take place in different kinds of low-stakes evaluations—for instance, questionnaires accompanying tests and assignments, midterm evaluations, focus groups, office-hour check-ins, even full-class discussions. The goal is for faculty and students alike to inhabit a space in which, as bell hooks puts it, “I’m not taking this personally. It’s not just my job to make this class work. It’s everyone’s responsibility” (italics added).

I’m not taking this personally. It’s not just my job to make this class work. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, 155.

When I taught students how to evaluate our course, I was impressed by the usefulness of the feedback I received. That said, as someone who professes the value of failure, I’ll admit that I’ve managed to do this only once. So I turned to my colleague Jennifer Juszkiewicz, Director of Saint Mary’s Writing Program and member of our English Department, who introduced me to this practice. Here is Jennifer’s process:

1. Teach the practice of evaluation. Teach students criteria-based evaluation throughout the semester, if possible. For example, have them evaluate sample essays using established grading criteria, practicing grade norming together as a class. Walk them through how you grade.

2. Wait. Ask students not to evaluate the course before the end of the semester, so they can evaluate the class as a whole. Let them know you’ll give time for them to complete the evaluations in class. 

3. Reflect on the semester’s learning. In either the class immediately before or the class during which the students will be completing the evaluations, have students reflect on the semester. There are many ways to do this. I’ve saved students’ first writing assignments and had them at hand for students to do a short writing comparing their first assignment with their most recent (which is usually due this day). This helps them see how far they’ve come and the work they’ve done. Another good move is to ask students to recap some of the key ideas from the semester, writing them on the class’s shared writing surface. I ask questions like, “What texts were most memorable/influential for you?” If they are reluctant, I’ll suggest some. At the end of this conversation, I take a photograph of the board with my phone and let them know that this is helpful; I use it to decide whether to keep/change/adjust how I teach texts for the next semester. I tell them it takes a few weeks before I receive the college evaluation forms, so this discussion gives me some information I can work with immediately. 

4. Explain what their comments mean to you. Before they begin filling out the evaluations, I explain how I use their comments. I assure them that I review them carefully, particularly paying attention to what worked and what didn’t. I note that comments about what I can’t change aren’t helpful. For example, I can’t be a different person. I may describe some comments I’ve received in the past that I didn’t find helpful (comments about my appearance or age, for example), but it depends on my relationship with the class. But the content, the ideas, the organization—those I can change.

If it’s been a class where we talked about gender or racial discrimination, I may let them know that research shows that these evaluations tend to be gendered and racialized, which is particularly problematic for instructors who need to rely on these for tenure, promotion, and job security. 

I then describe comments I received in the past that have affected how I created their class in order to show them how past students have helped improve their current experience through their evaluations. I emphasize how helpful their explanatory comments are, rather than just filling in the bubbles. I note that the evaluations are anonymous and I won’t receive them until after the grades are submitted. Then I thank them and leave the room. 

5. Make the time. I try not to do this at the end of a class. It’s better to do it in the middle so that I can come back in. Otherwise, they will simply leave class, some without completing the evaluation. If they know I’m coming back, they are more likely to complete it. I usually give them about 10-15 minutes and ask that someone come get me when they are done. I always, always thank them for the time and care they’ve taken to provide the feedback.

Of course, even the best-written evaluations are just a start. Institutions can’t fulfill their vocations without nurturing the vocations of their teachers, and that means putting course evaluations into the context of ongoing, supportive mentoring that’s informed by research, that puts both praise and blame in clear-eyed perspective, and that nurtures each individual’s vocational goals instead of imposing uniform standards. Faculty also need access to multiple kinds of feedback on their teaching, including visits to each other’s classes (not just one-way visits at review time) with time to debrief; sharing assignments and syllabi; ample opportunities for self-reflection and professional development; and plenty of honest, low-stakes conversations about teaching, including about the stresses, uses, and limitations of course evaluations. Putting course evaluations in their rightful place—and only their rightful place—will help institutions live out their vocations as they seek to become truly inclusive communities of lifelong learners. 

A former high-school teacher and parish lay minister, Anita Houck is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology and Joyce McMahon Hank Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She co-founded Saint Mary’s long-running program in vocation, Real Life Calling, and participated in the 2018-2019 NetVUE faculty workshop. Her research explores religion and humor, vocation and single life, and pedagogy. She teaches comparative theology, spirituality and comedy, and interfaith studies, and has received the College Theology Society’s Monika Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence. For other posts by Anita, click here.

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