Improving Ratings From Students

Improving Ratings From Students

By Sally Garvin

Response rates get a lot of attention in the student feedback arena . But a high response rate alone isn’t very useful if the data aren’t meaningful. In her blog post, “Teaching Students to Evaluate Us Better”, Madeleine Elfenbein states that, while students are often better equipped than anyone else to comment on instructors’ teaching and ways to improve, many students are “shockingly cavalier” in their opinions and consequently a lot survey results don’t amount to much. The author suggests one way to improve the student rating process is for faculty to train students to do a better job of filling out their forms. Elfenbein states most instructors hold themselves to high standards to provide fair and constructive feedback to students, and it’s time professors ask students to do the same for them.  In an excerpt from her blog, here’s what she intends to share with her future classes:

  1. Student evaluations matter. They form a part of my permanent record as a university teacher. They will be read by other students and instructors, department heads, and hiring committees. They will be used to shape the curriculum at your university. Believe it or not, there’s a good chance that your replies to the prompts in course assessment surveys will be among the most widely read and influential prose of your college career.
  2. I use your evaluations to improve my teaching. Not only do I read every comment I get; I save them, sort them, and actually revise my teaching practices based on the lessons I draw from them.
  3. The most helpful feedback you can give me is specific and relevant to my teaching practices. Think about how it felt to be in the classroom with me, what you learned, and how I helped you learn it. I spent a lot of time on the design of this course; did I do a good job? Take a look at the goals we set out at the start and the degree of progress we made toward them. Were we too ambitious, or not ambitious enough? What can I do differently next time?
  4. Gendered praise doesn’t do me any favors. If I’m a man, don’t say I’m “the man.” If I’m a woman, do not call me “nice.” Your blandly gendered words of praise aren’t going to help me become a better teacher; nor are they going to help me get hired or promoted. If you liked my style, focus more on what I do than on who I am: praise my command of the subject, my enthusiasm, or whatever I did to make class worthwhile. If you didn’t like my style, give half a second’s thought to why. What specifically turned you off, how did it pose an obstacle to your learning, and how can I change my ‘tude to become a more effective teacher?
  5. Evaluate me the same way you want to be evaluated. When you sit down to write your impressions of me as a teacher, think about what merits inclusion and what’s better left out. Of course, when you think of me, you can’t help thinking of my entire person: my ethnicity, my bearing, my clothes and accent, my political sympathies, my whole backstory. These are things that follow me into every room I enter, and I know they must shape your encounter with me. But would you want me to weigh these things in my evaluations of your performance in this class? As you write your evaluation, bring your sense of fairness into play: even if you thought I wasn’t fair to you, see if you can find the fairest way to tell me that, and it will go a long way toward making me fairer.
  6. Writing evaluations is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s not the hardest thing you’ll do in college, but it’s not exactly easy, either. Doing it well requires a bit of forethought, a bit of careful reflection, and ten or twenty minutes of your focused attention. But know that if you do it well, you’ll be rendering a service to a whole lot of people: not just to me, but to the thousands of students who will sit through my classes in years to come. It might not be too grandiose to say that a fair and thoughtful course evaluation is a service rendered to the integrity of American university life as a whole. I certainly think that way when I sit down to assign your grade for this course. I’ll admit that, too.”

By emphasizing to students the importance of their feedback, instructors (and institutions) could see an improvement not only in response rates but also in the quality of the responses. Better response rates plus better data can equal more actionable information for instructors, programs, and institutions.