An overarching criticism of student evaluations of teaching (SET) is they are often a measure of student satisfaction rather than learning outcomes.

There are myriad other criticisms. Evaluations are regularly completed at the end of the course, so professors have little opportunity to adjust their instruction, the feedback is often more negative for women and minorities, and a 2016 meta-study by researchers at Mount Royal University and Saint Mary’s University finds quantitative courses—e.g., mathematics, chemistry, engineering—are significantly more likely to receive more negative evaluations than their qualitative counterparts in the social sciences and humanities.

SET questions, mean ratings, and standard deviations.

Question M SD
1. How would you rate the instructor overall? 4.37 0.55
2. How informative were the classes? 4.26 0.52
3. How well organized were the classes? 4.19 0.55
4. How fair was grading? 4.14 0.55
5. How would you rate this course overall? 4.09 0.57
6. How clear were the objectives of this course? 4.12 0.52
7. How well were these objectives achieved? 4.10 0.53
8. How interesting was the course? 4.01 0.63
9. To what extent were your own expectations met? 3.90 0.58
Mean overall rating (across all items) 4.12 0.50

Following from this study an example of questions asked in New York University’s evaluations; mathematics received significantly lower evaluations from the mean.

While these evaluations may be an afterthought or an emotional exercise for students upon the conclusion of a course, they have real impacts on an instructor’s employment or opportunities for promotion.

Student evaluations of teaching will not be retired anytime in the foreseeable future, so a recommended form of action for instructors is to check in with their students early and often. Many instructors use smartphone apps to request anonymous and expedient feedback from their students on topics such as the pacing of lectures, whether they are understanding the content, or if a class exercise was beneficial.

Other popular methods include creating a Tumblr or course Wiki page where students may provide anonymous and detailed feedback. A beneficial, low-tech exercise encourages students to write what they like, want to keep, and want changed in a course on a whiteboard while the instructor steps outside for approximately 10 minutes.

Granted, these activities are unlikely to replace end-of-course SETs; however, they provide channels for consistent and anonymous feedback which will help students learn and potentially provide more insightful evaluations.

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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.