The end-of-the-term student course evaluations of faculty are soon to be upon us. Some of us worry and fret over them, wondering how scores will impact our performance evaluations. Others of us look forward to them with great anticipation, hoping for some satisfaction for a hard-earned, “job well done!” And a few more of us (and students) have become calloused, apathetic, and largely immune to the event. Whatever your perspective, there are some reliable things you can do this week to improve your course evaluation scores.
Without repeating much of long held lamentations of the relative validity, inherent bias by gender and culture, and downright absurdity of many student course evaluation systems (They, 2015), we should acknowledge that most of us really want to do well by our students. We largely want students to feel like they know more now than they did at the beginning of the class, that they think the subject matter has value and relevance, and that they believe we professors played an important role in helping them learn. A reasonable criticism of most student course evaluation systems is that the survey questions usually seem far removed from these goals.
It isn’t that clever scholars studying higher education haven’t looked at the reliability and validity of student course evaluation systems, for certainly they have. What scholars find is that many of the myths of “dress casual, tell lots of jokes, bring donuts, and give all A’s” really are myths. In other words, if you were to teach two classes identically, but dress down, tell more funny stories, deliver pizza, and grade easy in one class, but not your other class, you’ll find that there really isn’t a significant difference in your course evaluation scores.
So, what does matter and separate out one professor’s performance from another? As it turns out, most students don’t carefully read and contemplate each of the individual strongly agree-to-strongly disagree items on the questions’ merit. Rather, interviews with students–both high performing and not so high performing students—reveal that students tend to re-interpret most of the evaluation questions to be about students’ perceptions of just two things:
Did the professor build and follow an organized pathway designed to help me learn the material?
Did the professor really cared about whether or not I learned the material?
That’s it. Really. All of the other things, like easy tests or premium snacks really don’t impact scores nearly as much as what students perceive about the design of the learning environment and the professor’s posturing. In the end, most of the students desire the same thing most professors hope for: Students want to be different as a result of spending an entire term with you and to not have wasted their time.
This seemingly straightforward result gives you a secret pathway to improve your course evaluation scores, right here in the last stretch of the course. After the mid-term has passed, distribute to your students a simple three question survey during the last ten minutes of a well-attended class. Here are the survey questions:
Question One: What is one thing that is working really well for you about how this class is structured that we definitely don’t want to get rid of in future course offerings?
Question Two: What is one thing that you really wish could change about this class that would help you learn better?
Question Three: Is there anything else that the professor should know?
It is critical that you tell students that this information is just for you, and that no one else will see the results. In this way, you are telling students that they can be honest and that you really care about their learning. After class, find a quiet room with your favorite beverage and start skimming. Make some notes about some themes you see in the notes, both in terms of what is going well, and what is not going so well. You will need these notes for when you de-brief the class at your next class meeting. But, remember, what is most important here is not what the results are; instead, what is most important here is that you let your class know you really care because you asked for their opinion.
At your next class meeting, carry in the stack of surveys and set them down in front of the class. Tell the students that you carefully read every survey and thought deeply about all of their suggestions. This tells the students that not only you cared to ask their opinions about how to help structure the learning environment for them, you cared enough to read their responses (Incidentally, students are largely apathetic about formal campus course evaluation systems too, because they are rightly convinced that those evaluations do little if anything to improve the instruction they themselves experience).
Your task here is to convince students that you care deeply about their learning. Tell them which parts of the course design you are going to keep based on their comments. Tell them which parts of the course design you can’t change, because it is too late in the semester. And, most importantly, tell them which parts of the course you can slightly alter in response to their comments so that they can all do well on the final exam. This strategy clearly demonstrates to students that you are on their side, that you are committed to following an organized pathway to help them learn, and that you are leading the class for their benefit, rather than your own ego.
The magic that happens here is when students get to those formal course evaluations at the end of the term, and they start interpreting the items as to measuring the degree to which you gave them an organized pathway and were committed to supporting their learning, the students will report on the fact that you cared deeply enough about their learning to ask. The trade secret here is to give students mid-term course evaluation that demonstrates you are concerned about the same thing the students are: knowing and valuing more than when they started your class those many weeks ago.
References: They (2015). “They say …” Private Communication.
Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com