Student Evaluations Can be Helpful: And Here’s How

Turn your student evaluations into an opportunity where you can be the student, and your students can teach you about how they learn best.

By Dr. Virginia Lamothe

student evaluations

This past week, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured an article by Chris Quintana that examined the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly” of student evaluations from the anecdotal perspectives of various professors in a number of disciplines.  Some of the featured professors found student evaluations helpful, even when ridiculous, and others found them worthless. David Gooblar’s latest Pedagogy Unbound vitae piece, “No, Student Evaluations aren’t ‘Worthless’” was also featured this week by the Chronicle.  Here, Gooblar makes the point that when it comes to student evaluations, many academics become skeptical of their value and that in recent years even the media has been quick to also promote the idea that student evaluations have little to no significance for informing teaching practices. Glooblar draws upon the work and blog pieces of Betsy Barre of Rice University who discovered there is a complex nature to student evaluations as well as many hurdles to finding meaning in evaluations due to student biases such as student motivation, class size, disciplinary study and other factors.  However, her studies led her to the conclusion that student evaluations are not “worthless” because academics have not yet found a better method of gaining student input on teaching effectiveness.  Gooblar goes on to give some helpful tips for the professor as he or she sits down to read the comments.  He also adds some practical ideas offered by James M. Lang, author of On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, and Peter Filene, author of The Joy of Teaching about the value of conducting one’s own mid-course formative reviews for taking the temperature of the course.  But what was not offered to educators this week by the Chronicle was some idea of how to frame and conduct the reviews as you give them to the students to complete.  While formative reviews in the early part of the semester are indeed helpful, there are strategies professors can employ at the “eleventh hour” as they begin the process of asking their students to complete the evaluation process.

When I think back to my nineteen-year old self in college, I remember myself as someone who respected her professors and wanted to present a distinct and informative evaluation. But, I also clearly remember feeling anxiety over the fact that I wasn’t exactly sure what to write.  Often, only the events of the past two weeks of class would come to the forefront of my mind – two weeks of the stress of finishing research projects and looming final exams.  When professors handed us student evaluations with a blank box to “add comments,” my mind was often just as blank as the box, no matter how much I had learned or how hard the professor had worked to teach me in that course.  What was more is that much like our students today, I did not understand the purpose of what I was writing.  When it comes to asking for constructive criticism, some specific guidance for the student can completely transform the comments professors receive, and the helpfulness of those comments.

Like the professors in the Chronicle article who received strange comments such as “Satanic worship” for using the term “devil’s advocate” in class, to comments about wardrobe choices, I too had my share in my first years of teaching.  I was told that because Madonna laid down on a bed in a wedding dress in her video “Like a Virgin,” that I had “shown pornography to the class.”  I was also once told that with my dark hair and light olive skin I should *never* wear lavender (I disagree.)  These types of comments can be reduced, but perhaps not eliminated, although they are often funny to recount amongst one’s trusted colleagues.  The comments I really wanted to eliminate however, were not always bizarre or negative.  Rather, the least helpful comments I was receiving were comments like “Great! Love her!” or “Super class.”  These comments told me nothing more than those that read “Dumb class – AVOID!” What I really wanted to know, and what administrators really needed from my student evaluations were discussions of what helped them learn in the course.  Unhelpful, vague comments such as these, whether positive or negative, were a problem – and I worked hard to find a solution.

I begin by explaining to the students why they are being asked to give feedback, and I am always sure to thank them for taking the time to do so. 

First, I make sure to use fifteen to twenty minutes of class time to have the students fill out the evaluation.  This ensures more students will fill them out, giving a broader picture of how the course and my teaching practices were perceived. I begin by explaining to the students why they are being asked to give feedback, and I am always sure to thank them for taking the time to do so.  I tell the students that administrators have to make important decisions for the college, but that these administrators are not right here with them in class every day.  The administrators need to know what types of activities the students did that helped them learn the material for this course.  Writing the evaluation with specific feedback helps them remember not only what they did and how they learned, but can also reveal some areas for improvement.  I tell them that it is helpful for me in my future course planning to know what types of activities helped them learn, and that if they see a specific place for improvement, I would like to know about it.  I explain that the evaluation is not one of my character, but rather, an evaluation that focuses more on the course. Sometimes, especially for freshmen students, I add a bit to this explanation by informing them what these evaluations are NOT.  I joke about ridiculous ratings of “easiness” and “hotness” on websites like and advise them that they should steer themselves away from that sort of evaluation.  I also explain that their evaluations are only anonymous to a point.  I remind them that I will not see their evaluations until after the semester is over, and there will not be any names attached to the comments.  But, I also inform them that since they do have to log into the system with their first name, last name, password, and student ID number, that an administrator could, if need be, determine the author of a student evaluation.  This is where I remind them that our University Code of Conduct still applies, even to course evaluations.  They know that they may give me constructive criticism and that I actually appreciate it, but personal attacks on me or their classmates will not be tolerated by our University.

Second, and most important, I keep a list of teaching practices that I used throughout the semester.  These include lectures, live music performances, watching videos of music or operatic performances, Evaluationa visit to the library to learn about helpful resources or music books in our special collections, learning historical dances such as a galliard or a minuet that correspond to the styles we are learning, various games, role playing, journaling, group or jigsaw classroom activities, think-pair-share discussions, research assignments, and short writing assignments.  Then, I put these on a PowerPoint slide specific to each class I teach and project it on the board as I ask the students to begin their evaluations.  This gives them an overview “reminder” of the whole semester, and not just how they are feeling (“too much homework”) in the last week of class.  I do not at any time attach value to this list of activities; I simply provide a list to help them remember all we had studied.  Their opinions on these activities are entirely their own.

When my students are informed of the purpose of course evaluations, and given reminders of which activities we did in completing the course, they write thoughtful and useful comments in their evaluations. 

But there’s more.  I tell the students that I will leave the room, but that I will do so after I ask them if they have any questions.  I tell them that if they would like to quietly ask me a question in private that I would be happy to come over to their desk and talk with them.  Since instituting this part of my student evaluation strategy, I have never had a class without at least one student take me up on the opportunity.  Usually a student will raise their hand and quietly ask me things like “Was getting here by 8am hard for you too?” or “Is it okay that I write about how much I like gangsta rap and you do too?”  I always answer to the best of my ability and tell them to go with their gut feelings about how to address these questions in the evaluation.

Lastly, there is about one minute of lingering.  I make sure the computer has not shut itself off, I find my phone, my keys, and my purse, and then I finally leave the room.  These moments of answering questions and lingering help establish a quiet, contemplative space where evaluations are to be taken seriously.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a professor give the students the web address to go to, walk out of the room, and then hear an unbelievable raucous begin as professor closes the classroom door behind them.  Rowdy students who are lacking sleep and good judgement at the end of the semester will always goad each other on. At that point, you might as well copy and paste your comments from (not advised.)

When my students are informed of the purpose of course evaluations, and given reminders of which activities we did in completing the course, they write thoughtful and useful comments in their evaluations.  For example, I learned to modify some role-playing activities so that even the very shy find them enjoyable. I also learned to include more visuals for students who believe visuals are a helpful aspect of the course.  I’ve also learned how to better serve my students who have come from the military and might be sensitive to some discussions of violence.  I’ve also pushed myself to find new types of technology to accommodate students who are blind or struggle with speech or dyslexia.  Most importantly, I have learned to turn my course evaluations into an opportunity where I can be the student, and the students may teach me about how they learn best.

Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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