Student Evaluations of Teaching


surveyToward the end of each semester, students fill out a survey evaluating your teaching and your course.  There are sometimes difficulties, controversies, and myths and misconceptions revolving around this practice, but there are also a lot of good tips and suggestions for more effectively conducting and interpreting these surveys.

Improving Student Response Rates for Online End of Course Surveys

One difficulty with online end of course surveys is getting your students to actually complete the survey.  Below are some tips for improving response rates.

  • Encourage and remind students to complete the end of course evaluation multiple times.   Send out emails to students with the link to the online evaluation form, and remind them at the end of class to fill out the survey.  You can even show them on the projector screen how to complete the survey.  Add the evaluation dates to your syllabus and course calendar.
  • Emphasize to your students that the survey is completely anonymous, and that you will not see their responses until after the final grades are submitted.
  • Explain why the survey is important, and how you will use the data to make improvements to the course.  Tell them what kind of feedback you are looking for.  If you have any previous examples of changes you made in response to student feedback, you might share that with the students.  You can also tell students that the university assessment office and department chairs use the data, too, for example for promotion and tenure decisions.
  • To dramatically increase the percentage of students who complete the survey, give them time during class to do it. Ask students to bring laptops or smartphones to class and give them time during the last 15 minutes of class to complete the survey.  It is best if you even leave the classroom during this time so that they feel more comfortable providing their responses, and again assure them that the survey is anonymous and you cannot see the responses until after the semester is over.
  • An alternative way to dramatically increase participation is to provide incentives or even credit for students to complete the survey, such as bonus points.  You can check online (ERNIE -> Tools -> EvaluationKit) to see which students have completed the evaluation or not.   You should be careful not to design the incentive in a way that punishes students who choose not to complete the survey, however.

Interpreting Student Evaluations of Teaching

You got your students to complete the survey, now what?  How do I interpret their responses?  What use is this data?

  • It can be hard to read criticisms of your teaching, just as it is hard to read criticisms of your research papers, or to hear criticisms in general!  Take it with a grain of salt, and maybe a glass of wine or a beer or a non-alcoholic alternative 🙂  If a student says something you think is mean or unfair, just let it go.  Every instructor receives negative feedback from time to time.  See also Cruel Student Comments: Seven Ways to Soothe the Sting.
  • Look for patterns in the responses, and patterns from semester to semester, not just single responses or numbers.  It is important to not over-interpret the numbers you receive.  Some people may mistakenly interpret a single course rating as “good” or “bad” teaching based on whether it is above or below some arbitrary value.
  • Teaching is very hard to do.  There aren’t silver bullets or recipes for perfect teaching.  Every class, every student, every day is different.  It can be difficult to interpret student feedback and use it to make improvements the next time you teach because of all these contextual factors.  However, some teaching issues and problems are more common than others.  Students bored with lectures? Not coming to class?  Not doing the reading? Unprepared? Cheating? See this Solve a Teaching Problem site from CMU for advice on dealing with common problems.
  • You can also meet with a CTLE staff member for help with interpreting and addressing the feedback you received on your courses.  We can help put the students’ feedback in context, and recommend strategies for addressing any valid issues or concerns the students bring up.  We can observe and/or survey your students to further help you improve your course.

Frequently Asked Questions about Student Evaluations

  • Don’t higher student ratings just mean that the course was easier or grade inflated?  Or the instructor was more friendly or attractive?
    • There are some factors that influence student ratings that don’t relate to learning, or even negatively correlate with learning.  But that doesn’t mean student ratings and feedback are completely useless.  Student ratings correlate the most with expected grade rather than actual grade.  If a student comes into your course expecting an A but fails the first midterm or receives a C in the course, for example, they may punish you in their rating.  Thus, as suggested in the tips below, you need to manage their expectations from the beginning of the semester, as well as emphasize your own high expectations for their hard work and effort.  Think about why might they have the wrong expectations (calculus is different in college than in high school, for example), and consider meeting with students who are struggling in your course to discuss the issue and perhaps help them with effective time management and study skills.
  • Aren’t student comments often just whining?
    • Students might be blunt or upset in their comments at times, but that does not necessarily mean that there is no basis for their comments or that their feedback should be ignored. Try to translate student feedback into constructive changes and improvements in your teaching.
  • What’s the deal with Rate My Professors?
    • Some professors may hate it, and many students may love it, but it does have value for students, and it does have validity.  Our student ratings data is kept private – students can’t see instructor ratings.  Thus, even incoming freshmen are using Rate My Professors to choose instructors with higher ratings.  There have been multiple studies showing that the ratings on Rate My Professors do significantly correlate with official course and instructor ratings at universities.  As one study put it: “Results suggest that students favor professors who are demanding, yet helpful and attentive, and a class that is rigorous, fair, and informative, and thereby perceive quality teaching and learning to comprise the same.”
    • If you see some negative or harsh comments on RateMyProfessors, it might be in your (and your future students’) best interests to respond to those comments, to clarify or correct any misconceptions.  See this article: Study suggests students could gain by instructors responding to RateMyProfessors comments.

Tips for Increasing Your Student Ratings

There are no silver bullets or magic formulas to good ratings, but here are some strategies that have been shown to improve student ratings and engagement.

  • Have CTLE conduct a Midterm Semester Feedback (MSF) survey with your students in the middle of the semester, rather than waiting until the end of the semester when it is too late to make any changes.  A CTLE staff member will visit and observe your class.  During the last 10-15 minutes of the class, the instructor leaves, and students fill out an anonymous three question survey.  The staff member emphasizes that this survey is completely anonymous and is being conducted at the request of the instructor – it is not about evaluating the instructor, but about getting feedback for improving the course.  The three questions basically ask students what has helped their learning in the course, what has hindered their learning, and what the students can do themselves to enhance their own learning (such as study groups, tutoring, using online resources).  The class as a whole discusses their answers – this helps students identify and add items they may agree with but did not think of themselves initially.  The CTLE staff member will later send you a summary of the students’ responses, along with recommendations for addressing any issues the students have raised.  It is recommended that you thank or acknowledge the students for providing you with feedback that can be used to improve the course.  Research studies have shown that this process is a win-win for everyone involved.  Instructors receive feedback from students and expert advice on how to improve their course.  Students in turn appreciate having a voice in the class and may respond with higher ratings on the end of course evaluation.
  • From the very beginning of the course, emphasize the course learning outcomes and set high expectations.  Student evaluation scores correlate with expected grade.  You have to be clear with students about the work and effort expected of them to succeed in the course, otherwise poor performance may be unexpected, and students will be more likely to respond negatively on course evaluations.
  • Connect your course to the real-world (see situated learning).  Do your students know how the topics in your course apply to the real world?  Or are they given opportunities to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts, such as projects?  Do you talk about your own research or bring in outside researchers or show videos of professionals applying the knowledge learned in your course?  Or are you teaching the topic very abstractly with little or no real-world context.  Students will be much more engaged, motivated, and persistent if they know why the topics they are learning are important and how they apply to their own interests and to the real-world.  This in turn should positively influence student ratings of the course.
  • Meet with your students, especially when they are struggling or low-performing, and increase the amount of student-faculty contact in your course.  See this video and resources on advising and mentoring students.


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