Using Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching

By Sandy Chapman

It's the end of a semester and, once again, time for Course Evaluations. Course ratings, in the form of student-submitted teacher evaluations, are a widespread practice meant to encourage faculty members to inspect their teaching methods. Does the course facilitate student learning or not? Positive student comments are great short-term ego-boosters, but the occasional negative ones can weigh on the psyche and remain in the memory long past the end of a semester. Beyond that, student comments on course evaluations are not taken lightly: they weigh in on promotions, tenure, and pay raises as well.

One useful benefit in course evaluations is the student feedback included on the form. It has the potential to help the teacher improve his or her course design and teaching methods. On the one hand, it's great to know that, in the minds of students, one is doing the right thing, yet faculty sometimes get befuddled reconciling contradictory student comments. They may even need to seek help from a colleague in interpreting their meaning and importance.

The article "Using Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching" published in Speaking of Teaching, the Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching (Fall 1997), provides suggestions on how to interpret course evaluation forms and provides some beneficial ideas by which instructors might improve their courses. These include:

  • Reflecting on goals for the course
  • Reflecting on teaching methods
  • Considering one's strengths as a teacher
  • Targeting points that may need improvement
  • Identifying strategies for change (such as chunking content or clarifying points)

The author suggests targeting four teaching areas:

  • Clarifying and communicating course objectives
  • Pacing material appropriately
  • Developing students' conceptual understanding and critical thinking
  • Planning assignments that reinforce student understanding of course material

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