Reading Student Evaluations

Given our high expectations of our teaching, we may experience real anxiety over reading our student evaluations. But reading the written comments on those evaluations as insights into how students think, rather than only as judgments of our performance, can make reading them less stressful—and more helpful for our future teaching.

Interpreting written comments

As you read your students’ written comments, ask yourself, what intellectual challenges do they reveal? Do they reveal particular misconceptions about your field or knowledge production in your field?

Below we offer examples of written comments that may confuse or frustrate us and suggest what they may reveal about our students’ beliefs about knowledge. We also offer some ways to correct or respond to those beliefs.

  • “The problems on the exams were nothing like the problems on the homework.” This comment may reflect a simplistic attitude toward problem solving. Novices often classify problems according to superficial characteristics, not underlying principles. They also may not fully recognize that thinking is an effortful process: even experts require time and the willingness to experiment in order to solve problems (Schoenfeld, 1985). Asking students to explain or monitor their thinking process may change this attitude.
  • “The grading was unfair.” This comment may reveal a student’s naïve understanding of what your assignments demand. In most classes, we expect our students to do original thinking, not reiterate what they have read or heard. Designing assignments that prompt argumentation—and sharing our grading criteria—may correct this understanding.
  • “The readings were difficult.” This is likely an accurate assessment. But students may not realize that even expert readers have to work to understand difficult texts (Blau, 2003). Modeling for students how you read and mark up your texts may illuminate this process for them.
  • “Lectures were boring.” Versions of this comment can serve as a reminder that our field isn’t transparently interesting to our students. Organizing lectures around questions and problems may minimize this complaint.
  • “I didn’t come to college to teach myself.” If you experiment with new teaching methods, students may suspect that you’re not teaching—and tell you so on your final evaluations. They may not see that carefully designed in-class activities are also teaching. Explaining why you use certain methods may help convince them.

Expanding your sources of student feedback

What is it we want to learn from our student evaluations? A recent critic proposes that we ask students how they have been changed by their encounter with course material, not how they have been entertained by our performance (Edmundson, 2004). You might consider supplementing your final evaluations in two ways:

  • Give a mid-semester evaluation. Mid-semester evaluations can help you identify student concerns early enough to communicate your course goals more clearly. These evaluations are seen only by the instructor and may be designed as open-ended responses or rated items. 
  • Ask additional questions. At the end of the semester, ask students to write in response to the following questions: how has your thinking about the subject changed by taking this course? How has the course helped you develop as thinkers or individuals? You might also ask students to evaluate their own efforts to learn in your course.

References and Further Resources:

Blau, S. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinmann, 2003.

Edmundson, M. Why Read? London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Schoenfeld, A. H. Mathematical Problem Solving. New York: Academic Press, 1985.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.