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Approaching student evaluations

Student evaluations stir up a lot of emotions within faculty, administrators, and students. No one argues with the concept of student evaluations being necessary measures of teaching competency and student learning, but their effectiveness and reliability in doing so is contentious. Part of this is due to nearly every institution administering the evaluations with their own unique instruments and goals, making it difficult to compare their effectiveness on a broader scale. What works for one institution may not translate to another.

But this does not mean student evaluations hold no value. Betsy Barre, associate director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, conducted a literature review finding the correlation between instructor scores and student learning to be approximately 0.5. She concludes that while student evaluations may be a flawed instrument, “we have not yet been able to find an alternative measure of teaching effectiveness that correlates as strong with student learning”.

Essentially, student evaluations are here for the foreseeable future. Instead of dismissing them, ChronicleVitae columnist and University of Iowa professor David Gooblar recommends taking the following approaches to incorporate them into your pedagogy:

Wait before reading

Professors encourage their students to not immediately turn to the last page of their assignments to find their grade, and instead take time to decompress and read the assignment with fresh eyes. The same advice holds true for student evaluations.

Take your time

Set aside an uninterrupted block of time to properly review your student assessments. Maintain an objective perspective; it is easy to get defensive and focus on the negatives but doing so may result in missing important and formative feedback.


Synthesize the evaluations with the information you already know from your courses. If you are aware going in that some students were regularly combative, truant, or unprepared it is easier to separate the evaluation chaff from the wheat.

However, if you begin to notice patterns of comments or suggestions, it may be indicative of a pedagogical aspect you need to reflect upon and improve.

Student evaluations are not perfect, but they do have the capacity to provide insightful and constructive information. Next time you receive one see it as an opportunity to learn and improve from your students—even if each evaluation only provides a few valuable suggestions.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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