Teaching & Learning

Perceptions of learning matter. For faculty. And students.


Perhaps there is no greater third rail in college and university politics than the emphasis placed on student evaluations of faculty and courses. No matter where I travel, conversations surrounding the relevancy of course evaluations seem to bring out the worst in everybody. And it's rare to find strong supporters--outside of teaching & learning centers or perhaps faculty that are universally popular.

Whether faculty are questioning the writing of questions, perceived gender biases, how evaluations are used to determine their worth as an instructor, or why students are even allowed to offer their opinion, everyone seems to have thoughts on course evaluations.

But, regardless of faculty attitudes, students deserve the right to evaluate them. And these evaluations should be taken quite seriously. Students, after all, see faculty in action more than anyone else on campus. Maybe a colleague conducts a peer evaluation on a pre-arranged day once a year. But, they don't see the ebb and flow.

So, how do we help make course evaluations useful tools?

We start by assuring everyone understands their value. Students should know they aren't personality tests. Faculty should realize student views are important. Not only do we need evaluations to be taken seriously, we need them to be completed. So, we should be taking steps to assure response rates lead to valid and reliable results.

We need to use data from course evaluations to show their value. For example, if faculty believe there is a gender bias on campus, let's actually look at results and test it. Want to know how student perceptions of growth on an outcome align with faculty assessments of the same growth? Plot the two data points next to each other and see if we are doing our job.

Maybe most importantly, we need to work with faculty to design an instrument and process that provides useful data. And that means customizing parts for their own specific needs. It also means providing the means by which faculty can gain formative feedback throughout the semester. After all, course evaluations will likely look better if faculty have had an opportunity to respond to concerns throughout a semester.