Course Evaluations as Thoughtful Feedback

It’s that time of the semester again.

Course evaluations.  True confession time:  I don’t actually read mine.  I am far too thin skinned for that.  I send them to a trusted friend who reads them, tells me the things I need to know to improve my teaching and the course, and we leave the rest unsaid.  I read them eventually.  But right at semester’s end, at peak exhaustion, still raw from the experiences the semester brought, is not the ideal time for me to absorb the feedback.

All it takes is one.  One student to say I “have strong opinions” or “sometimes get off topic” and I’m not thinking any more about what I can learn from that feedback but about how I failed a student or that their perception was that I wasted valuable course time.

See?  It’s best if I don’t read them right away.

I also talk to students about how to write course evaluations.  They are clearly and without any doubt a flawed mechanism for evaluating teaching.  Students are not pedagogical experts, the measures on most evaluations are not meaningful assessments of teaching and learning, and many instructors find ways to dismiss both positive and negative student reports.  However, that doesn’t mean we can not and should not attempt to get the most out of them.  The experiences of learners in our environments are important.  I would argue the experiences of learners may be the most important.  Meaningful learning cannot occur without meaningful relationships.  So the feedback matters.

Students tend to approach course evaluations in one of two ways.

  1. Dismiss them.  Who has time for that?  No one reads them anyway and nothing changes.
  2. Rip them.  Students have waited all semester for the chance to unleash their rage, contempt, dislike of their instructor.  Now is that time.

In response to the first approach, while course evaluations are not great, they do matter.  Depending on the university and the department and the instructor, they may matter in big ways or small ways.  However, if you do not complete them, they do not matter in any way.  Complete them.  Thoughtfully.

As for the second approach, this is the quickest, easiest way to ensure that your evaluation will not matter.  It will be immediately dismissed by the instructor and those evaluating the instructor because they will attribute your anger and frustration to you, and not to your instructor.  Your words and your experience cannot be heard if it’s presented emotionally rather than thoughtfully.

I teach people to be effective, inclusive educators.  Therefore, I must BE an effective, inclusive educator.  Part of effectively teaching is providing meaningful, thoughtful feedback to learners.  I aim to provide ongoing feedback to those learning with me and I ask them to do the same for me.  So when course evaluation time rolls around, we talk about how to provide constructive feedback to instructors.  I guide my students to consider two big ideas first.

  • In what ways did you invest in your own learning this semester and in what ways did you hinder your own learning this semester?
  • In what ways did I invest in your learning this semester and in what ways did I hinder your learning this semester?

Focus on the teaching and learning.  Take responsibility for your learning.  It’s okay for you to dislike my personality, my clothes, my tendency to talk about Netflix at the start of class.  Do those things hinder your learning?  If no, keep it to yourself.  Tell me how I can improve.  Tell me what I should keep doing and why it helped you learn.  Tell me how you would have benefited more from specific learning experiences so I can be better the next time.  Provide me with feedback as you would a learner in your class – tailored for my reflection and improvement.

Those are course evaluations I would read.

How do you approach course evaluations, both as a learner and as a teacher?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

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