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Interpreting Your Course Evaluations and Using Them for Professional Development

The most important function of course evaluations is to help you develop professionally as a teacher. The Arts and Sciences course evaluation was developed with that purpose in mind. The more actively engaged students are in a course of study, the more successfully they learn. For this reason questions about student engagement come before questions about an instructor's performance. Well designed courses create a structured but open-ended environment that encourages students to take primary responsibility for their learning, motivates and facilitates their continued engagement, and offers them ample opportunities for assessment of and reflection on their progress.

When students evaluate courses and the faculty who teach them, bias sometimes plays a role, especially when instructors are perceived as belonging to a population under-represented in the faculty ranks. Such biases may reflect attitudes that stereotype race, gender, religion, ethnic origin and age. Students may be unaware of the biases that affect them, or they may express them quite deliberately. In either case, faculty members who suspect that course evaluations reflect such bias should not hesitate to speak with their department chair, their dean or the director of DCAL.

Evaluations also signal to students what the institution thinks are the most important features of learning and prompt them to reflect on their experiences in your course.

Before you look over your most recent set of course evaluations, consider studying them in the company of a trusted colleague. Being evaluated, especially by our students, can feel pretty unsettling and it is all too easy to lose perspective. The DCAL director and associate directors stand ready and eager to help you read your evaluations, interpret them and put them to good use. Call or e-mail DCAL@dartmouth.edu to set up an appointment.

We have organized this brief guide following the structure of the report you receive, so that you can go directly to whatever part of the evaluation responses most concern you. For this reason we repeat some advice here and there since it may be applicable to more than one part of the response report.  For instructions on how to access your reports and a look at the form as the students see it, see the registrar's page: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~reg/guides/ceval/ (link opens in new window)

Navigating the Online "Course Assessment Summary"

Once you have logged onto the Banner Student system and selected the report for an individual course, Banner shows you a "Course Assessment Summary" that aggregates all the student responses for that course on a single page. Should you wish to see each individual set of responses, that is, each student's set of responses to the assessment questionnaire, you may click on "Individual Responses." This allows you to click through each set of responses, one at a time. This can help you interpret the responses; for example, a student who reports spending fewer than 5 hours each week on your course may also have indicated a lack of intellectual engagement. Seeing a whole set of responses from an individual student can help you make better sense of them.

Mean and Median

Unless you've taken a course in statistics (maybe even if you have), the mean and median scores reported on the "Course Assessment Summary" page may mystify you. Put simply, the mean is the average of all responses. If you added up all the response scores (with 1 for the highest and 5 for the lowest) and then divided by the number of responses for that item, you will get the mean score. ("N/A" does not count as a scored response.)

Averages do not always tell a useful story. Imagine an extreme case in which 24 out of 30 students chose "Excellent" and 6 chose "Poor." The resulting average or mean would be 1.8. The 6 dissatisfied students severely affect the average. By computing the median, however, you will get another picture. To compute the median, arrange all the scores from highest to lowest and select the middle score. This is the median. (If there is no middle score, then average the two in the middle.) In our extreme case, then, the median would be 1.

So the average tells you one story, and the median tells you another. You want to know that six students were pretty dissatisfied and think of ways to address that, but you also want to see that for most of the students, the course was "Excellent." Because the summary reports both mean and median you get a look at both stories. For more good information on statistics, see RobertNiles.com.

I. Student Background

This first section of the evaluation response contains useful information about the students who completed evaluations for your course. Students are allowed to opt out of this procedure if they choose not to evaluate the course. Accordingly, the demographic information in Section I includes only those students who completed the evaluation exercise.

This information may help you determine whether the course attracted the students you expected. Were they mostly sophomores or seniors or a mix? Were most of them trying to satisfy a requirement? These factors may influence how you understand the evaluations that follow and they may even prompt you to think about planning for different constituencies.

Students who report high attendance rates and ten or more hours per week spent on your course were probably highly engaged by your course. The grade expectations they report may help you compare your sense of their achievement to theirs. The grades LP (low pass), P (pass) and HP (high pass) are used in graduate level courses. Students who take the course for CT (credit) only or under an NRO (non-recording option) agreement may have significantly different perspectives on the course than those who took it for a grade. All of this information can be useful in future course planning and adjustments.

II. Course Design and Effectiveness

1. I think the overall quality of the course was _______. High quality learning experiences have as much to do with well-designed syllabi, learning exercises and assessments as with an instructor's performance in class. Most of the learning students experience in your course will take place outside of class periods. "Planning assignments and out-of-class activities is even more important than planning for class meetings," says Wilbert J. McKeachie ( McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers 11th Edition [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002], 15). The more carefully you articulate what you want your students to do when they read, study and write, the more likely it is that they will succeed in meeting your high expectations.

Students generally give high marks for overall quality when they feel that they understood very clearly the objectives, goals or outcomes the instructor desired the course to promote and these coincided with their own reasons for taking the course. Unclear or mismatched sets of expectations generate frustration and inhibit learning. For this reason it is a good idea to plan your course following a procedure sometimes called "backwards design" (Grant P. Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. [Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005]). Begin by articulating the outcomes you want—what skills should students acquire? what questions should they wrestle with? what concepts should they understand?—and then decide how you will know when the students have achieved these outcomes. Once you have a clear set of learning goals and can begin to design assessments that demonstrate achievement of those goals, then it is time to select reading assignments and exercises and plan your instruction time. Your department assistant may want your book order months before class begins, but selecting books should not be the first step in course design.

State your desired outcomes at the top of your syllabus and take a sentence or two for each assignment to explain how it furthers the goals you have set for learning. If you use a Canvas site for the course, give the students enrolled in the course a heads-up e-mail a week or more before the first class meeting and invite them to browse the syllabus and assignments. It's also a good idea to have them complete a short pre-course survey to prompt them to reflect on their reasons for signing up for your course and so that you can know more about what they know, what they expect from the course and how they think they learn best. The DCAL director and associate directors can help you set this up quickly.

2. I learned a lot in this course. Students strongly agree with this statement when they feel that the high expectations you set out for them matched their own reasons for taking the course and when they have had plenty of opportunities to assess their success and reflect on that assessment. Ken Bain writes that people learn best and most deeply when "they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before anyone makes a judgment of their work" (What the Best College Teachers Do: Understanding Human Learning [The Teaching and Learning Resource Center Advancing University Learning, Montclair State University, 2006] based on Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004]). This means that learning activities like practice tests and quizzes that students can take over and over and opportunities to rewrite essays for full marks help students learn.

3. I put a great deal of effort into the course. What motivates students to put more effort into a course? Well for one thing, they work hard when they respect and admire the instructor and when they feel respected in return. Students respond especially well when they believe their teacher is genuinely invested in their success. If they see you believe they can do well even when they are doing poorly, they will respond with enormous efforts. Students work especially hard on projects and assignments they have chosen for themselves.

4. I was intellectually engaged in the course. John Dewey once said, "We don't learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience." Students feel most engaged in learning when they have lots of opportunities and promptings to reflect on the content of your course. Instead of asking students if they have questions, assume they do and ask them what questions they have. Ask them to formulate new questions and re-formulate old ones. Provide plenty of motivation for reflection and self-assessment and allow time for it to be done well. If your course is a large lecture course keeping students actively engaged can be particularly challenging, but many teachers do this successfully every term. The people at DCAL can help you meet those challenges efficiently.

5. The objectives of the course were clear to me. State your desired outcomes at the top of your syllabus and take a sentence or two for each assignment to explain how it furthers the goals you have set for learning in your course. If you use a Canvas site for the course, give the students enrolled in the course a heads-up e-mail a week or more before the first class meeting and invite them to browse the syllabus and assignments. It's also a good idea to have them complete a short pre-course survey to prompt them to reflect on their reasons for signing up for your course and so that you can know more about what they know, what they expect from the course and how they think they learn best. The DCAL director and associate directors can help you set this up. Your expectations and theirs will not always mesh, but that's all the more reason that you take time to be explicit and allow your students to tell you about their expectations. They do not have to match exactly, but it helps if everyone acknowledges where expectations and goals diverge.

6. I found the course to be well organized. Many instructors resent this question because students may not be in a position to see how well you have organized a course. Nevertheless, even a well-organized course can appear disorganized to an inexperienced student and it helps if we keep our students informed about why we do the things we do. When we tell students how our choices of readings, assignments and assessments relate to the learning goals of the course, they are more likely to see how a course is organized and why.

7. The assignments reinforced my understanding of the course material. Whether the assignment is a paper, a problem set or a lab report, we should make explicit what learning goals we expect the assignment to help students achieve. Is it about memorizing details? mastering a disciplinary discourse? learning methods of research or procedures? Generally an assignment has more than one learning goal in mind. Make these explicit on the assignment sheet or in the syllabus. Sometimes it makes sense to include a set of rubrics by which you will assess how well the assignment has been done.

8-10. Free text responses. For most of us, these are the most difficult parts to understand in a course evaluation, because students sometimes offer contradictory responses and suggestions. These contradictions tempt us to think such evaluations are meaningless, but they are not. One student's favorite reading may well seem dispensable to another; that actually makes sense because they are different!  Here are some helpful tips about reading these comments:

Read and compare comments in one category at a time. Don't pay much attention to contradictory comments on your first reading, but be sure to take special note of any comment or suggestion that appears more than once.

Reading negative comments is almost always irritating. Because they write them anonymously, students may sometimes be sarcastic or vicious. Such comments may be motivated by circumstances completely unrelated to your course. That said, such comments appear less frequently when students feel they understood an instructor's expectations very well and also believe the instructor understood and respected their reasons for being in the course. Grades affect student responses less when grading rubrics have been explicit and grading is perceived as consistent and reasonable. Remember, feedback is actually more important than grades to our best students, so giving an A with little or no constructive feedback can generate a negative comment.

Difficult as it may be, pay close attention to any criticism that appears more than once, even if it is a minority opinion and many other positive comments contradict it. There may be a small group of students regularly attracted to your course who could benefit from another approach or a different kind of assessment.

Because this is often the hardest part of the evaluations to absorb, consider reading these together with the director or an associate director at DCAL. You may be assured of perfect confidentiality.

III. Faculty

1. I think the overall effectiveness of the teaching was ____. Whether or not you believe students are good judges of your effectiveness as a teacher, what they think on this score matters and deserves our attention. We should all keep in mind that what one student finds effective for her learning style may not suit another, so it is almost impossible to get consistently high marks on this, nor should we expect that. In general students give high marks for effectiveness when they believe that we are invested in their success and when the gap between our expectations about the coursework and theirs is as narrow as possible. So frequent assessments, opportunities to try again, patient feedback, and clear articulation of your expectations can all help.

2. The professor set high standards. Contrary to popular mythology, students like to be challenged. The more we can fashion our courses as invitations to scholarly work in our disciplines, the better they respond. Even where that is not possible, students respond well to high expectations as long as there is plenty of support for their achievement. Let them know on day one and on your course website about the academic skills center, RWIT, and other programs designed to support their learning.

3. The professor explained central concepts clearly. We have lived and breathed our disciplinary discourse for at least a decade. Students have not. What appears intuitive to us may appear pretty opaque to them. It's a good idea to allow at least twice as much time for them to absorb material as we would expect of ourselves.

It's also a good idea to explain key concepts several different ways with several different examples. After one explanation, ask students to reformulate it in writing. Then offer another example and ask for another reformulation that takes the new example into account.

4. The professor challenged me to think critically about the course material. Critical thinking looks a bit different in every discipline, but one trait is common to all—the formulation and re-formulation of questions. Students who can frame new questions about old topics demonstrate that they have done more than "master material," they have begun to engage critically with the subject. We should reward good questions at least as much as good answers, maybe more. To repeat a point made above, rather than asking students if they have questions, we should assume they do and ask them to articulate them for us and their peers.

5. The professor was available for consultation outside of class. Students prize whatever one-on-one time you can offer them. They selected Dartmouth because we promised them more of this than other schools do. More important, such consultations promote deeper more engaged learning. Regular office hours can satisfy this, but consider lunch and coffee appointments as well. Like anyone else, students respond better to direct invitations.

6-8. Free text responses. See above in section II, questions 8-10.

IV. Discussion/Lab/Drill Integration

1. The discussion section/lab/drill section was well integrated into the course structure. Lab instructors should know exactly what learning goals you have set for the course, how the readings and assignments support those goals and conduct lab sessions accordingly. Much the same is true of discussion leaders and drill instructors. If we take time to discuss our goals and expectations with our co-instructors and review with them our criteria for assessment, students will perceive these activities as well integrated learning experiences.

Last Updated: 11/24/14