Student Evaluations: Setting the Stage

At the end of every semester, my colleagues and I always chat about the familiar dread that accompanies student evaluations. This semester, I saw even more unpleasant stories popping up on Facebook, and I decided to think about why evaluations have become less dreadful for me. I think it has to do with how I set the stage.

Discuss the Course Structure

Although our evals are online, I request that all students wait to complete them until the last day of class, which I set aside in a computer classroom (instructors could request students bring laptops or mobile devices). In this way, the vast majority of my classes complete the evals instead of a
disgruntled few.

On the last class day, I dedicate 20 minutes to discussing the nuts and bolts of the course. I give my spiel about the major components of the class: why I assign 2 revision/extension papers rather than having 4 completely different papers, why I use notes to get students to read instead of quizzes, why I only allow late work until the major paper is due. I justify all of our work to students and open the floor to questions or comments to see if we might improve any of these specific components. Then I ask for any feedback on the course more generally.

At the end of class, our board looks something like this:

I always get at least one or two really inspired ideas from students about ways to make the course better. Interestingly, students often disagree with one another. They argue over the relative merits, for example, of having weekly vs. bi-weekly notes checks, and often do the work of explaining my policies for me.

Explain How Universities Use Evaluations

Secondly, I explain what the evaluations are used for and by whom, using a handout I created:

In my case as a postdoctoral fellow, my program director looks over the results, but nobody but me reads my evaluations extensively unless low scores signal a problem.

I carefully describe the things required of the course by the department and suggest that students might better spend their time commenting on things that I can actually change. I also have them complete a longer personalized evaluation (created as a google docs form) that asks about specific lessons, readings, and class methods.

Last semester (the fall) was the first time I orchestrated this discussion, and I had the highest evaluations of my career. I can't guarantee a correlation because I made other changes to my curriculum and have now been developing the course for 3 semesters, but the tone of the classroom before students began their evals was one of free-sharing and collaboration, which was reflected in their written responses.

Some folks at the chronicle forums are also discussing this issue. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts.

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