Small Teaching Tip #8: The Problem with Student Course Evaluations

We are rapidly approaching the end of the semester.  Soon, faculty will receive the results of their course and teaching evaluations. . . Well, perhaps it’s more accurate to say some will receive evaluations of their teaching.  Many more will receive evaluations of their personality, wardrobe, voice, sense of humor, and physical attractiveness. . .

When I first began teaching, I agonized over my students’ evaluations.  I can still quote some of their comments five years later.  Some evaluations made me feel like I could soar while others crushed me.  I’ve since learned to take student course evaluations with a grain of salt.  There are simply too many flaws that make these evaluations an unreliable measurement, including that they are administered at the very end of the semester.

This is problematic for numerous reasons:  First, human memory is notoriously unreliable so student recollections may not be accurate.  Second, the end of the semester is when student stress peaks, which could result in venting negative feelings about their professors.  Finally, students’ opinions can only be used to change future courses rather than being used to improve the course during the semester.

Despite these weaknesses, student perceptions matter and it’s important to provide a platform for their voices to be heard.  What can we do as individual instructors to better assess student learning and satisfaction?  I believe the simplest and most effective solution is to administer student evaluations throughout the semester.  This is sometimes called “Informal Early Feedback.”

How to Incorporate Informal Early Feedback

Gathering students’ opinions multiple times during the semester solves many of the problems associated with end-of-term evaluations.  Also, responding to students’ comments by discussing them in class and making changes as appropriate can have a powerful and positive impact on the classroom culture.  Here are a few ideas to incorporate into your classes:

Exit Tickets:  These are quick formative assessments that allow instructors to check students’ understanding and identify areas of struggle.  They’re called exit tickets because they are typically administered at the end of each class period.  They can take any form and ask any question.  For example, some instructors simply ask students to write responses on scrap paper.  Others incorporate instructional technologies, such as Poll Everywhere, Socrative, Plickers, or Google Forms.  These are two of my favorite exit ticket prompts:

  • 3-2-1:  Ask students to list three concepts they learned, two ways they contributed to today’s class, and one question they still have about the material. This allows the instructor to compare the learning outcomes he/she set for that class with what students are actually retaining.  It also provides insight into how students perceive their participation as well as identifies concepts that students may need further help understanding.
  • Muddiest point: Ask students to identify the most challenging concept discussed in class or in the readings.  This provides a safe way for students to communicate what they’re struggling with so you can determine if additional class time is warranted or if individual interventions are needed.

Keep, Stop, Start:  Ask students to write on a Post-It note one thing they wish would remain the same, one thing they wish would stop, and one thing they wish would start happening.  For example, a student may comment that they like the flipped classroom structure, but they wish the weekly quizzes would be eliminated, and instead be replaced with journaling.  I ask students to not write their names on the Post-It and to stick them to the wall on their way out.  This helps to ensure anonymity and, therefore, more honest feedback.

Post-it notes with students' feedback about the class stuck to the wall outside the classroom door.

Describe Our Class:  Around midterm time, I ask students to compose a letter to a friend who is interested in taking the course.  I ask them to describe the class, including how each class period is typically structured, how I interact with students, what types of readings are assigned, what types of assignments are completed, what he/she is learning, and whether or not he/she is enjoying the experience.  This exercise gives me fantastic insight into how students’ perceptions compare to my own.

It’s easy to allow student course evaluations to distress us.  When so much of our identities is connected to teaching, it’s painful to be criticized or even attacked.  If you receive negative evaluations, seek out the counsel of your Department Chair or ask a colleague to observe your teaching.  And instead of relying only on this one snapshot to assess your teaching, consider implementing informal early feedback throughout the semester.  I’ve found that these exercises have actually improved the quality of my end-of-semester evaluations.


This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.