Posted by: Gregory Linton | 04/30/2019

How to respond to course evaluations

One of the areas that I oversee is faculty evaluation, including student evaluations of teaching. After each round of evaluations, I send an email to all the faculty members that contains advice on how to respond to the course evaluations. I am providing here that advice about how to read, interpret, and respond to student evaluations:

  1. Ignore the mean. Your printout will show the mean of the responses to each question. This is a meaningless number. A couple of outliers can skew the mean, and averaging the responses provides little information that you can act on. What is the difference between a 3.6 and 4.1? What would you have to do raise the 3.6 to a 4.1? It’s hard to figure this out just from the mean.
  2. Focus on the bar graph. A better way to analyze your evaluations is to consider the distribution of responses for each question. If all the students answer “Strongly agree” for a question, then you know you are doing well in that area and you should keep doing what you are doing. But if, for example, a third of the students mark “Disagree” for one of the questions, then you know you might need to give some attention to that area in the future.
  3. Ignore the outliers. You are looking for patterns in the responses, so if you have a couple of extreme responses that lie outside the typical responses, do not take them to heart. There are bound to be a few students in any class with some personal issues that cause them to experience reality differently from most students (to put it tactfully). Also, you may have had to hold students accountable for their work, and their lack of appreciation for your integrity may cause them to take it out on you in the evaluation. If you read a negative comment that is not backed up by any other responses, take it with a grain of salt.
  4. Don’t overlook the positives. You may be familiar with the old truism that it takes five (or seven or whatever) positive comments to undo the damage caused by one negative comment. The same is true for course evaluations. Because we all have high expectations of ourselves, we can focus too much on the negative responses to the exclusion of the positive responses. It is just as important to know what you are doing well as it is to know what needs to be worked on. Allow yourself to enjoy the positive reinforcement, and keep doing what you are doing in those areas.
  5. Don’t dismiss the negatives. Although we are all probably perfectionists to some extent, we also know that there is always room for improvement. In many cases, we already have some ideas about how we can improve a course the next time around. Use the student feedback to confirm or refute your suspicions, but also remain open to information from the students that you have not considered. As in many arenas in life, how the provider or performer perceives his or her own work can be very different from how the observer or recipient actually experiences it. Let the students’ feedback provide a reality check and then decide what advice you can act on to improve the students’ experience in the future.
  6. Talk it over with someone. Research has shown that instructors are able to process the information and respond to it appropriately if they are able to discuss the results with a trusted colleague or supervisor. Especially if you feel discouraged or demoralized by your evaluations, seek the input of a more experienced colleague or your dean, who can help you sort out what is helpful and valid to consider.

Brief, practical advice on how to respond to course evaluations can also be found in the following resources:

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