Using end of semester evaluations to improve teaching
End of semester student evaluations can offer some insight into ways to improve your teaching for future semesters. Interpreting how you should respond to evaluations, however, can be difficult. As you read your end of semester evaluations, keep the following in mind:
- Look for patterns. Individual responses are often contradictory or revealing of only one person’s perspective. Look for ratings or comments that repeat across a variety of students. Do not fixate on outliers. Similarly, do not fixate on negative individual comments, which may not be meaningful.
- As you reflect on your student evaluations think about what you wanted students to get out of class and your own assessment of the class. Put those ideas into dialog with what the students say. Use student comments to prompt questions for yourself, not as the last word on what to do.
- The numbers you see are averages. It may be more helpful to look at distributions and clusters of student answers.
- Reading student evaluations can be stressful. Ask a friend or colleague to help you put the numbers and comments into perspective. Many of us tend to remember the negative comments and miss the more general reactions.
- Ignore small differences. There is little you should conclude if your student evaluations have dropped, or risen, by a few tenths of a point from last semester.
- Remember that difficult classes do not always produce low student satisfaction. There is evidence that students value a challenge if they feel they have been given the tools to meet that challenge.
- Get other feedback. Student evaluations should not be the only measure of your teaching. You may want to consider having other faculty or CTL staff observe your class or review your syllabi or assignments.
- Ask for a consult at the Center for Teaching and Learning to arrange for observations, get a recording of your teaching, or strategize individually with CTL staff about ways to respond to student evaluations.
Other feedback sources
Penn offers an online system called Course Feedback for Instructors which instructors can use throughout the semester to get feedback from students on how the course is going. Instructors can choose (or write) their own questions and use this system twice during the semester. Instructors are the only people who see the feedback they get from this system.
To create a CFI, start here http://www.upenn.edu/eval.
The Limits of Student Evaluations
Most research into course evaluations shows that they are good measures of what matters to students in the classroom but that they are an imperfect measure of learning. Additionally, research has shown that student evaluations may contain other biases:
• Larger classes and classes that are required get lower ratings than smaller elective classes.
• There are differences between how students rate different disciplines (STEM related fields are often rated lower.)
• Some recent studies have shown that the gender, and other personal characteristics of instructors may bias student evaluations.
The same research that shows that student evaluations are fairly reliable measures of student experiences also shows that talking with other instructors and working with teaching centers can help instructors improve student learning and work toward their own goals for the class.
Note that the format of the standard Penn evaluations focuses on numerical ratings, which can make using the forms as tools to improve your teaching difficult. If you would like more detailed, qualitative feedback from your students, either at the end of or during the semester, the Course Feedback for Instructors tool is an online system that enables you customize the questions you ask of your students. You can also draw from the CFI question bank for ideas to use on paper evaluations if you prefer.