Course Evaluations

Course Evaluations. 

College professors sometimes respond with frustration to these two words. Students have the opportunity to complete an evaluation in all or almost all of their courses each semester. Results from these evaluations do carry significance, especially in institutions with a first devotion to teaching.

Results from these are, of course, not without problems. Occasionally, a professor will get a group of students that is just set on writing negative comments. (The potential for this seems greatest in dual credit classes.) Likewise, sometimes students use evaluations to “get revenge” after they earned a lower grade, for example. There are some professors too who get very positive evaluations only because they give everyone an “A.”

Nonetheless, such evaluations, especially written comments, have positive and useful purposes. First and foremost, they allow students to have a voice in how their educational experience is going. They allow professors and administrators to see who is an effective teacher. They give an insight as to what happens in the classroom on an everyday basis. And, they allow good teachers the opportunity to see ways to possibly change and reassurance that they are effective teachers.

In my classes, I like to do a midterm evaluation. This way there is an opportunity to see if anything needs to be or can be adjusted before the end of the semester. Click here to see the questions and results from the midterm evaluation for my United States History Since 1877 course this semester. (Other evaluations can be found here.) There were 48 students enrolled, 5 dropped, and 34 took the evaluation.

Student comments on evaluations are, for sure, interesting. In places they show how a few students do not necessarily understand the full purpose of learning and ways to effectively do this, such as the student of mine who suggested to eliminate the writing assignments and reduce the weight of the quizzes. In other places, a few of the comments make me wonder what class they were attending! Such as the student who said we should have talked about the Harlem Renaissance (which we spent a good 20-25 minutes on) and the Holocaust (over an hour on this topic) or the student who said the PowerPoint Presentations were least interesting (there haven’t been any PowerPoint Presentations). Group work is always an odd ball one – they either love it or hate it.

Overall, however, they show how devoted the students are to learning and how much they are paying attention. They took time to write careful and thoughtful comments. Based on the surprisingly kind and generous feedback on the midterm evaluation, I plan to keep doing things basically the same. 

So, my dear readers, what do you think about course evaluations? Would love to hear perspectives from all the voices in academia. 

Please be sure and check out my other articles published here and Inside Higher Ed. I have articles about teaching aimed at students and professors generally and more specifically for those in History or Student Success courses.

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10 responses

  1. Where I teach, course evaluations are both a blessing and a curse. They are only mandated during the pre-tenure years and five year reviews–and, as a result, a lot of faculty choose not to use them when they are not required, mainly fearing reprisals for bad reviews. The administration sometimes uses the results punitively, such as requiring faculty to complete self-evaluations more frequently than the five years stated in the union contract. Plus, when I started, we had paper forms completed in class by students, and I had a 95-98% participation rate. A few years ago, in a “cost saving” measure, the university switched to online course evaluations, and the participation rate dropped to 30-40% at most–which makes the evaluations pretty much pointless, because you eliminate the average student and only hear from the truly disgruntled or the extremely happy ones–and our system is so screwed up that students who have withdrawn from the course (mostly because of low grades) have the opportunity to evaluate faculty. Plus, if the faculty member is not required to conduct course evaluations, a lot of them won’t–and, as a result, the students have little recourse if they want to anonymously comment on the professor’s teaching and course structure.

    Regarding the written comments, I do read them and take them to heart if they are appropriate. For instance, the one student who said I should wear fewer plaid flannel shirts–I don’t own any plaid flannel shirts, and I haven’t since I was an undergrad at SFA, long before any of them were born. When they state that I required more work than any other class–I see that as a badge of honor, because their other classes obviously do not require a lot of work (and I assign less than I had to do as an undergrad). But my favorites are the ones who make constructive suggestions that I implement in future semesters, such as the one student last spring who commented that he had a hard time listening to the lecture video. This semester, I have changed how I do the videos, and they definitely are much more audible.

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    • Thanks for your comments! The official evaluations at UH are online now too and have low completion rates.

      Regarding the “badge of honor” comments – YES! I frequently get the “there’s sooo much writing involved” – one semester a student complained that I never canceled class and never let out early! :)

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  2. I’ve only been in the “teaching assistant” position, never an instructor. However, as a TA, I sometimes asked the professor if I could pass out surveys at the beginning of the semester. I would ask things like, “Is this your first semester in college?” “Did you like history in high school?” “In general, how did you do in your high school history class?” “Would you be interested in studying in a group?” “Do you know the name of your professor?” Anyway, I liked getting feedback in terms of how students’ experiences with history. I don’t recall ever doing an evaluation at the end (my own evaluation, in other words–not the “official” evaluation that no one but the professor sees). However, if I was a professor, I would definitely do the evaluation at the beginning and the end in order to see how the students’ perceptions about history may have changed, what they have learned, how I might improve, etc. Andrew, you are a great professor. I have worked for several professors over the years and so often they don’t even ask their TAs for an opinion because they have gotten set in their ways of doing things. What I’m saying, Andrew, is that you are wise to be open-minded and open to suggestions from the students as well as your peers.

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    • Thanks for your kind comments and insights, soon-to-be Dr. S, aka tristefantasma! We should co-teach a course some time. That would be fun. :)

      Teaching is all about learning from anyone and everyone.

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  3. I think they’re hit or miss. I’ve generally gotten pretty favorable evaluations, even in classes where the average grades aren’t that high. I make it a point to try to engage students, particularly with games/reenactments, multimedia or other non-lecture type tools, and many of the comments center around how refreshing the students find it that I don’t just lecture. I also have a surprising number of comments where it seems the student’s purpose in filling out an evaluation is to apologize for their fellow students. Meaning, stuff like, “This was a great class and there was a lot of good information, but almost nobody asked questions and it was hard to have a good discussion.” Does this make me a better teacher? Not sure, but it’s better to have imperfect feedback than none.

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    • Thanks for your comment! I suspect most of the time even when students don’t comment in discussions they are still learning and the class/professor is still effective. Sometimes I think it takes time for the information to soak in or takes time to feel comfortable speaking out. :)

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  4. I’ve been teaching for over 24 years at the community college level. My “stats” on evaluations have never varied as odd as that might seem. I, too, find the written comments most revealing and heart-warming. And I take the suggestions seriously, often changing supplemental books and lectures based upon thoughtful criticism. I am less pleased with ratemyprofessors.com. My ratings are fine, but I find it more likely that a disgruntled student will leave a horrible rant online for the world to see, rather than on the institutional reviews. And alas, after 24 years, I’m no longer rated as “hot.” Haha. My son, a college freshman, uses the rateprof site when choosing classes. He has found plenty of hits and misses already, so I think by 2nd year, students are more savvy with the site. Oh, and our institution went to online evals too. So I now give two extra points on the final for students who show me a “completed” eval slip. Otherwise the rates are exceptionally low. Thanks AP as usual!

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    • Hi Johanna! Thanks for your comment. :) Your comment about making changes reminds me that I added a specific, detailed lesson on the Holocaust this semester by student request.

      I think Ratemyprofessor should do away the the “hot” pepper rating or whatever they’re calling it now. I think it can be a useful tool, especially for students brand new to a college, to find good classes, especially if they can read through the lines on some of the “ratings.”

      Have a great day.

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  5. My college had trouble getting students to fill out course evaluations. You’d think digital would enable people to do it easier, but it was quite the opposite. If it’s online and optional, people won’t do it. Now everyone is required to fill out paper evaluations at the end of the course – give to them by hand, leaving little room to avoid it. It’s handed to you like an assignment.

    I’ve never been on the receiving side of evaluations, but I found by my senior year that they were a bit restrictive in format. One thing paper evals allowed is for scribblings all over the place, and I took full advantage of that fact to cram in as many thoughtful comments ass possible, when passionate enough.

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    • Hey there- I think part of the problem is too that we all get so many emails and are asked to do so many surveys, it’s just hard to do everything. I’m sure your profs were most thankful for your thoughtful comments! :)

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