Well, it is December and we are racing toward the end of the semester. As students complete term papers, prepare for final exams or presentations or performances, faculty are making room in the schedule for teaching evaluations. These evaluations are generally short questionnaires that ask students to give an assessment of the effectiveness of the teaching they just experienced. It is an opportunity to give feedback, which is to the good, but most are constructed in a way suggests expertise where it does not exist (students are not instructional designers, nor will they have depth of knowledge of the discipline), and there is well-documented evidence that they reflect cultural biases throughout. So, why do them at all? Good question.
As currently constructed at my university (and at all of the universities where I have taught), there is little value in this exercise. We have made the whole process about evaluation instead of about learning. We have also cast our students as consumers, who then provide ratings (stars?) of our work, without really helping them reflect on their learning. What if we reimagined teaching evaluations as course reflections? Instead of using them to tally the effectiveness of a faculty member, they could become a mechanism for collaborative course construction. Instead of seeking an ill-informed critique, we could invite our students to share what they’ve learned from us and give us suggestions for future iterations of the course.
Here’s what it might look like.
At the end of each semester, I gather information about your experiences in my classes so that I can get a better understanding of what is working well and what new ideas I should explore. Please take a few minutes to reflect on what you have learned in this class and then answer the questions below thoughtfully and honestly.
- What was the most interesting or most important thing you learned in this class?
- It provided a foundation for this or another class that I will take.
- It connected to important topics beyond this course.
- It helped me see things from a perspective other than my own.
- Other (please explain).
- What was the least interesting or least important thing you learned in this class?
- It was too foundational/I’ve encountered it in several other classes.
- It seemed like a tangent that was not relevant to the class.
- Other (please explain).
- Considering the course overall, were there ideas or assignments that you think will help you succeed in other classes at the university? Please explain your answer.
- Considering all opportunities for feedback on your understanding of the material (tests, quizzes, presentations, papers, group work, etc.), which did you find most helpful? Please explain your answer.
- Is there an opportunity for feedback on your work that you would like to see added to this course?
- Considering things like grading criteria, timing of assignments, or overall organization, do you have any suggestions that you think might improve this course?
- Do you have any additional comments that I should consider?
Thank you for your feedback and good luck in your studies.
What I like about this structure is that it invites students to participate in the evolution of the course, instead of asking for some kind of score for performance. By using the first person in the opening paragraph, the faculty are given agency, suggesting that they are fully committed to this dialogue with their students. It also suggests that students are speaking directly to that faculty member, not some unknown administrator who will then evaluate the professor.
Moving in this direction, faculty can use the information to learn how students are experiencing their teaching and respond as they deem appropriate. For example, maybe the thing that students identified as unimportant, was in fact very important. Perhaps some reframing needs to take place. Or, maybe several students felt the need for a presentation to be included in the course. Digging into why would be a good next step. No doubt some students will ask for extra credit. If the answer is no, then being clear about why not might be a good thing to discuss in the next class.
I also like that this is a disaster for quantitative summaries. While the current scales from 1 to 5 may be helpful for creating graphs and charts, and they do provide some sense of the instruction in terms of extremes (outside of university norms), in reality they do next to nothing for teaching. Mostly, they inspire defensiveness. I’m not worried about losing those statistical summaries, because the extremes are easily captured in the syllabi, sample assignments, and peer observations. I’d rather cultivate the reflective practice that this qualitative approach implies.
As one of the people who reads faculty portfolios in their applications for tenure, I am most interested in seeing how faculty respond to student feedback. The most compelling thing that can be included in any tenure packet is a narrative about how one’s teaching has evolved and why. Evidence of change over time should include sample complaints and sample praise found in these course reflections. If the examples are followed by explanations of how things changed as a result, then I feel confident that I will know enough to fairly review the candidate. I will also know that I have a professor devoted to good teaching.
Let’s drop the ratings model and focus on learning about our teaching. Let’s try to foster an environment where we take student voices to heart, without ceding our expertise. Let’s listen carefully to concerns and ideas, and work to grow in our profession. Let’s be reflective educators.