Seeing the Bright Side of Student Evaluations

Seeing the Bright Side of Student Evaluations

Teaching is a vulnerable profession. You put yourself out there—pouring your heart and intellect into your course.

But the fact that end-of-semester Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) are on the horizon doesn’t mean it’s time to hit the panic button.

Stay calm and read on.

Truth is, instructors have mixed feelings about the value of university-sponsored SETs. Although SETs do affect decisions around tenure and promotions and are intended to help improve instruction, these evaluations are based on opinion and can be tainted by student bias and factors beyond your control.

Here are 5 ways to get the most out of SETs:

1. Get feedback often.

A two-year longitudinal study of faculty at a college in the UK showed that those instructors who engaged in continuous, reflective practice—meaning that they conducted weekly SETs instead ofsummative SETs that are typically given at the end of a semester—came out on top.1 The most self-reflective educators’ SET scores on average improved with each year, meaning that continual tweaks to their approach based on student feedback resulted in students reporting a more positive view of them.

2. Take them with a grain of salt.

Several studies have shown that SETs are more of a reflection of the student’s personal taste and perception of the instructor’s characteristics—and these preferences can vary greatly from student to student.2 Taking this one step further, when a student likes a teacher’s style, she is more likely to remember the lecture because there’s a stronger emotional connection.

3. Find strength in numbers.

It’s natural to focus on the negative comments over the positive, so ask a colleague to read your SETs before you do. In her blog post, Diane Rubino of New York University says, “Experienced teachers expect nastiness, so they may be able to provide perspective.” Eliciting a “first reader” will help you focus on constructive feedback and not take hurtful remarks to heart.

4. Look at the big picture.

In addition to your students’ inclinations for a specific teaching style, there are other non-instructional factors that have an impact on SET scores and can vary by discipline. These include class size, course level, type of course (elective vs. core), and course grades.3

5. Tailor them to your liking.

Remember, you can go beyond the institution-required SETs to create different methods of eliciting student feedback. Some instructors use Google surveys to make decisions based on student comments. You could also offer a bonus question on a test that asks for specific feedback or simply talk to your students about what works and what doesn’t.

Explore 8 Things to Remember When SETS Get You Down

1 Winchester, Tiffany M., and Maxwell K. Winchester. “A Longitudinal Investigation of the Impact of Faculty Reflective Practices on Students’ Evaluations of Teaching.” British Journal of Educational Technology, vol. 45, no. 1, 2013, pp. 112–124., doi:10.1111/bjet.12019.

2 Gross, Jennifer, et al. “Person Perception in the College Classroom: Accounting for Taste in Students’ Evaluations of Teaching Effectiveness.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 39, no. 7, 2009, pp. 1609–1638., doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00497.x.

3 Narayanan, Arunachalam, et al. “Analysis of Differences in Nonteaching Factors Influencing Student Evaluation of Teaching between Engineering and Business Classrooms.” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, vol. 12, no. 3, 2014, pp. 233–265., doi:10.1111/dsji.12035.

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