Teaching Tips

Using Student Evaluations Effectively

Student evaluations of instructors have come under significant scrutiny because of their tendency to promote unconscious biases. Unfortunately, evaluations might often tell you more about how popular you are (or how well you fit into normative identity categories) than how effective of a teacher you are. Keeping in mind the limitations of student evaluations, they still have some significant uses. According to a study involving 200 faculty respondents, the following four factors significantly contributed to improvement of teaching as measured by student evaluations (McGowan & Graham, 2009):

  • Engaging in active and practical learning that emphasizes the relevance of course material to students.
  • Creating the opportunity for significant teacher/student interactions and conferences that allow instructors to connect with students.
  • Emphasizing learning outcomes and setting high expectations.
  • Revisions and improvements to how student learning is assessed.

The best way to use student evaluations is to first acknowledge and accept their limitations. A 2014 article in the Chronical of Higher Education elaborates on this first step with the following points of advice:

  1. Don’t make student evaluations the only measure of teaching effectiveness
  2. Know the capabilities of the specific evaluation instrument
  3. Acknowledge that evaluation scores are correlated with student’s expected grades
  4. Don’t leave student evaluation of teaching only for the end of the course

The next step is finding ways to make your student evaluations work meaningfully for you. Patrick Bigsby, in an article for Inside Higher Ed, gives five helpful pieces of advice for this step in the process:

  1. Prime your students to give you meaningful feedback. This includes imparting to them that student evaluations matter, that you use them to improve your teaching, encouraging them to give feedback that is specific to your teaching practices, and discouraging them from giving empty gendered praise (i.e. calling their women teacher “nice”).
  2. When you don’t get that feedback, don’t take it personally. Don’t react, don’t get angry or defensive, don’t try to rationalize or shift blame or figure out which student gave you that low rating in the ‘treats all students respectfully’ category.
  3. Separate criticism of the material from criticism of you. Not all topics are going to excite all (or any) students. Especially if you don’t have much leeway with the material, it’s not terribly worthwhile to fret over curriculum-centric complaints.
  4. Focus on opportunities for feasible, tangible improvements. Start your self-review with focusing on low-stakes criticism that points to tangible items you can improve. This will shift your energy to concrete, manageable, and finite objectives for you to work on that can go a long way in resolving students’ frustrations and improving the class experience.
  5. Save your evaluations. Being able to review past semesters’ batches of evaluations enables you to look for patterns and evaluate your progress. Additionally, student evaluations can be helpful when it comes time to writing your teaching statement for employers. If you’re having trouble summarizing your strengths or identifying ways you’ve grown as a teacher, use your old evaluations to jog your memory. Finally, if you’ve experienced a setback or found your confidence shaken in the classroom, rereading an evaluation from a student who you really helped can be the perfect pick-me-up.


Bigsby, Patrick. (2019). “Using Your Students’ Evaluations.” Insider Higher Ed – GradHacker. Retrieved July 15, 2019 from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/using-your-students%E2%80%99-evaluations

Elfenbein, Madeline. (2015). “Teaching Students to Evaluate Us Better.” Insider Higher Ed – GradHacker. Retrieved July 15, 2019 from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/teaching-students-evaluate-us-better

Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. “Student Evaluations.” Retrieved July 15, 2019 from https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/designing-your-course/student-evaluations

Malesic, Jonathan. (2014). “Student Evaluations Aren’t Useless. They’re Just Poorly Used.” The Chronicle of Higher Education – The Conversation. Retrieved July 15, 2019 from https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/05/07/student-evaluations-arent-useless-theyre-just-poorly-used/

McGowan, W. R., & Graham, C. R. (2009). “Factors contributing to improved teaching performance.” Innovative Higher Education, 34(3), 161-171.?