In Focus: Reading Students’ Evaluations of Our Teaching

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It took me a long time to review my students’ evaluations from the Fall Semester. Here’s what I learned when I did.

I can’t change what students said about my classes. And, despite sage advice from a colleague with Texas roots, even the best moonshine doesn’t blunt the most cutting criticisms. I can, however, determine how best to use students’ reflections to positively shape my instruction. First, though, I had to remember how to read my evaluations. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of (re)reading yours.

Read for the middle. Some students thought I walked on water (I can only tap-dance briefly). Others insisted I should quit the profession. (Do the Cavaliers need a point guard?) The best information was found in the middle, between the glowing praise and the damning rejection. Focus on the evaluations tempered both in their praise and criticism. Let the extreme voices have their own party. When I did this, I attended more intentionally to what students shared, and could more thoughtfully entertain what changes to make in my instruction.

Don’t change everything at once. I have had moments when, upon reviewing the most constructive feedback, I become overwhelmed. So many suggested changes: More quizzes. More feedback. Better examples. More class discussions. In-class snacks (uh, that’s a No). More, more, more. Here’s the point: I can’t change everything at once. Neither can you. Are students struggling to grasp the main ideas from class discussions? Have them write a minute paper at the end of a session, identifying their biggest take-away and sharing one question for the next class. Frustration over exams that take too long? Don’t rewrite every exam. Instead, consider whether a section might be recalibrated to honor your assessment goals and acknowledge situational constraints. Change one thing and see what benefits you discover.

Phone a friend. It’s easy for me to quickly build a narrative about my end-of-semester evaluations that becomes both limiting and stifling. When I have asked trusted colleagues to look at my evaluations with me, I am always pleasantly surprised—and grateful—for the different stories they see in the data. Having multiple sets of eyes review your evaluations helps in several ways. You’re sure to benefit from questions and insights your colleagues offer. You’ll also have the chance to commiserate. Finally, sharing our course evaluations reminds us that teaching, at its best, is a public act.

I am mindful that students’ evaluations are not without their faults. I won’t explore those issues here, but would like to propose: If you’re interested in talking through what end-of-semester evaluations mean, how we might learn from them, and what their limits are, I invite you to contact me. I would be happy to meet one-on-one with interested colleagues to look over evaluations. And I’d welcome the chance for wider conversations in small groups. With affection for my friend with Texas roots, I’ll leave the moonshine at home.

Posted Date 
Friday, January 19, 2018

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