Receiving feedback from students about your course can take place in many forms and can be immensely helpful for your teaching. At Princeton, as at many other institutions, you will receive student course evaluations at the end of every course. The questions are centralized and administered by the Registrar, but the instructor of record on a course can also add up to three individualized questions to their course evaluation. (For guidance on adding questions, please contact Kelly Godfrey.) Sometimes student reviews are viewed with skepticism by faculty. Questions abound about whether student evaluations are reflective of actual teaching ability as well as whether they are influenced by factors unrelated to the instructor’s teaching. Much published literature concludes that student evaluations, under the right conditions, are stable, reliable and do reflect the instructor’s teaching (e.g., Marsh & Roche, 1997). At the same time, in a review of the literature in 2014, Phillip Stark and Richard Freishtat concluded that student teaching evaluations should not be used as the primary or only tool for measuring teaching effectiveness. They stated that student course ratings are valuable – if they include the right questions and have healthy response rates – and suggest that student evaluations be used in conjunction with other measures of teaching to form a composite view of instructors’ teaching effectiveness. Below we offer guidance how to use student feedback, including end-of-semester course evaluations, to improve your teaching before you start a course, during the middle of a semester, and at the end of a course. Before the Course Before the Course Reflecting on Previous Teaching Take a few moments to reflect on teaching successes and missed opportunities from the previous academic year and to use that reflection to plan for the coming term: If you’re teaching the same course again, look back over your syllabus. When did the course progress more quickly than you had anticipated? Where did students have problems that caused you to slow down a bit in your presentation of material? Make notes for adjusting the pace of a course where necessary. Think back on your best class sessions. What did these sessions have in common? How did you stimulate student engagement with course material? How might you prepare in order to maximize the incidence of such sessions in the future? Consider moments of conflict or tension in the semester. What might you have done to avoid those moments? How might you have responded differently? Difficult moments are easier to deal with when we respond not on an ad hoc basis but in reference to a consistent and considered pedagogy. Invite your preceptors, AIs, lab instructors, and graders to share their thoughts about the course. Which concepts, units, or texts did students find particularly engaging? Which did they find challenging? Which problem sets, quizzes, exams, or other assignments did students ace and which did they bomb? With this information, you can make informed changes—both additions and deletions—to course content and assignments. Read student evaluations in the context of this information gathering and reflection. Doing so creates an interpretive framework for the qualitative and quantitative data provided by evaluations and can provide a helpful perspective for critical or unmeasured responses. Gather Information from Students You may choose to survey your students at the beginning of the course in order to better understand their academic preparation, motivation, concerns, and objectives for taking the course. The Pre-Course Survey or Questionnaire is an example of such a survey. At Mid-Semester At Mid-Semester Whether your students excelled on mid-term assignments or fell short of your expectations, the time after mid-term can be challenging. Students may be complacent after doing well—or poorly—on mid-term work, and they may be distracted by looming end-of-term projects, independent work, or expected break plans. What can you as an instructor do to re-energize the class and help make the last few weeks of class more dynamic and productive? Survey Students Collecting informal feedback on your teaching or on activities conducted in the course can be a good way to check in on the progress of your students and make improvements where you see fit. To get feedback on student perceptions of your teaching, you might administer a mid-semester evaluation survey. This can be as open and general as asking the students: What’s working well for you in this course? What could be improved? A mid-semester survey can also be more specific and focused, asking direct questions about specific aspects of the course, such as lectures or group projects and assignments. It is recommended that you select or craft a small number of thoughtful questions that will not require more than 5-10 minutes of your students’ time. (See a list of sample survey items.) There are several tools available to you for gathering feedback from your students. You can use Google Forms, an online survey platform such as Qualtrics (access provided by the university), or Canvas. It may be necessary to create your survey as “optional” for all students so that it remains anonymous and no identifying information is tracked. Keep in mind that, at the mid-semester point, you will only be able to make reasonable changes to your course. It is important to keep this in mind when composing questions to ask students. You may wish to debrief with your students after you have collected and synthesized their feedback. Having an open and frank discussion about what you can and cannot change and how the course is going may be beneficial to you and your students in developing an understanding of teaching and learning in your course. This discussion may be especially valuable during virtual teaching. Gauge Students' Progress Midterm exams are a common and traditional method of formally assessing student learning. Reviewing results with careful focus on trends in student performance, both strengths and areas for improvement, can provide valuable feedback on teaching and help you fine-tune your plans for the remainder of the term. You may wish to assess students’ learning through alternative, more informal, methods. Some suggestions include: Administer a “one-minute paper” at the end of a class meeting. Ask your students to write a response to a specific question, describe the most important idea they learned in that class, write a one-sentence summary of an argument or key concept, or identify a question that remains unanswered. At the end of class, ask students to identify the “muddiest point” from a lecture or discussion. Ask students to write a short definition of a key term at the beginning and end of a class. Instruct students to write a short list of pros and cons, costs or benefits, or advantages or disadvantages for making a particular choice or decision. Ask students to connect general principles and specific examples, or underlying concepts and specific problems, from a short list. Try Something New Your mid-term evaluation may lead you to want to try something new in your pedagogical approach. Sometimes the uniformity of our teaching format allows students to drift intellectually. If you usually lecture in class, try devoting time for students to discuss questions or problems in groups and share a few responses. Or pose provocative questions and poll student responses. (This can be done anonymously by means of personal responders, also called “clickers.” Contact the McGraw Center for the availability of a system to borrow.) If you normally use discussion, assign brief in-class writing or pair students up to analyze text or solve a problem. Help students think through challenging topics by forming, and then switching, sides in a debate. These techniques allow you to connect with students and gain new insights into your teaching and their learning. Building on this information can add new energy to the last weeks of class. At the End of the Course At the End of the Course Analyzing Final Exams If your final exam is a traditional assessment with objectively scored (right/wrong) items, it is good practice to review student performance as well as test performance to guide your teaching. For example, ask yourself the following: What was the distribution of scores? How difficult were the items? Any surprises among highest/lowest performers? What misconceptions or misunderstandings were evident from incorrect responses? Were there any units/skills with more challenges than others? Having a greater understanding of where your students ended the term with regards to the course objectives and your expectations can help you refine your teaching approaches moving forward. Reading and Interpreting Student Course Evaluation Responses One way to assess our effectiveness as teachers from the student's point of view is through student evaluations. However, it is crucial to review these results with a few considerations: Numerical ratings are helpful in capturing trends over time, but focus on the numerical range of responses more than the average number. It gives a clearer picture of the range of student experiences (and consensus) in the classroom. Accepting the positive and interpreting the negative with caution can help you maintain balance in your view of the overall tone of the comments. Because student evaluations are anonymous, positive comments are usually genuine, and you should not minimize their importance. Extremely negative comments, on the other hand, can reflect pressures students feel and their dissatisfaction with a broad range of educational issues, over and beyond your teaching. When reviewing comments, it may be helpful to highlight specific themes or key concepts that appear more often in responses. By identifying these concepts, you can organize comments and get a clearer picture of how students experienced your class, where your teaching is strong, and areas where you can improve. For support on this type of analysis, please contact Kelly Godfrey, assistant director of educational and program assessment at [email protected] Talking through your evaluations with a trusted colleague or a McGraw Center consultant can help offset the complex reactions sometimes set in motion by reading them. Keeping our perspective is a necessary first step to making practical use of evaluations. Rather than viewing student evaluations primarily as judgments of teaching performance, we may find it more meaningful to look at student reports as reflecting the spectrum of ways that students as novices learn and think within our disciplines. Reflecting on the Semester After you've submitted grades and before you start your summer research projects, you might consider taking a few moments to reflect on teaching successes and missed opportunities from this academic year and to use that reflection to plan for next year. Look back over your syllabus. When did the course progress more quickly than you had anticipated? Where did students have problems that caused you to slow down a bit in your presentation of material? Make notes for adjusting the pace of a course while it's still fresh in your mind. Invite your preceptors, AIs, lab instructors, and graders to share their thoughts about the course you taught together. Which concepts, units, or texts did students find particularly engaging? Which did they find challenging? Which problem sets, quizzes, exams, or other assignments did students ace and which did they bomb? With this information, you can make informed changes—both additions and deletions—to course content and assignments. Think back on your best class sessions this semester. What did these sessions have in common? How did you stimulate student engagement with course material? How might you prepare in order to maximize the incidence of such sessions in the future? Refine objectives for next year's course. What did students learn in your course this year? What evidence do you have for this assessment? Is it what you had expected or hoped they would learn? Making connections between your expectations and student learning will help you determine what you want your students to get out of a course the next time around. Consider moments of conflict or tension in the semester. What might you have done to avoid those moments? How might you have responded differently? Difficult moments are easier to deal with when we respond not on an ad hoc basis but in reference to a consistent and considered pedagogy. References and Additional Resources References and Additional Resources Berenson, Carol and Cheryl Jeffs. Making Sense of Student Feedback Guide. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning Guide Series, University of Calgary, 2021. Curby, Timothy, et al. “Sources of variance in end-of-course student evaluations.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 44-53. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1607249. Marsh, Herbert W. and Lawrence A. Roche. “Making students' evaluations of teaching effectiveness effective: The critical issues of validity, bias, and utility.” American Psychologist, vol. 52, no.11, 1997, pp. 1187–1197. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.52.11.1187 Signorini, Adriana, et al. “Students Helping Students Provide Valuable Feedback on Course Evaluations.” To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, vol. 39, no. 2, Fall 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3998/tia.17063888.0039.204 Stark, Philp B. and Richard Freishtat. “An evaluation of course evaluations.” Science Open Research, 29 September 2014.