Evaluating Course Evaluations

How Will Our Feedback Be Received?

An important part of the conclusion of every semester is the opportunity for students to give their professors feedback on their courses. In a two-week time frame, students occupy fifteen to twenty minutes out of their schedule to fill out an online form called “Student Evaluation of Teaching and Learning,” more commonly known as course evaluations. By answering rating-scale questions, students reflect on how well their instructors followed the course syllabus, responded to students’ concerns, and taught their lessons through the lens of faith.


From the perspective of students, it is difficult for them to know what they can anticipate in the long run, especially when the overall process of translating feedback into the course’s design is not explicitly revealed to the students. Additionally, students may wonder why some of their feedback is acknowledged, while other feedback is discarded. This begs the question: “How can we be assured that our course evaluations will be effective in bringing better teaching and valuable learning?”


Before investigating this question, it is vital to understand how the course evaluation system functions. When students submit their course evaluations, their feedback is first shared with the supervising dean of the appropriate department. The dean takes note of the recurring comments among the students of each class before sending them back to the professors. The professors of each course can initially look over the feedback, but they will be required to read it at the end of the school year for review.


Furthermore, it is equally vital to understand the challenges and limitations linked to this system. Dr. Kevin Flatt, associate dean of humanities and professor of history, faces many of these limitations in his work. “It is a good system only if you understand what it can and cannot do,” said Dr. Flatt. “Course evaluations should be seen as an impressionistic painting of how students are experiencing the course. For example, some of my students will say there is too much class discussion, while others will say there is not enough class discussion.”  


Instead of considering different subjective opinions, Dr. Flatt encourages professors to look for broader patterns of praise and critique. However, in this sense, professors are compelled to discard comments like the examples above because recurring, general comments are more valuable. 


Dr. Flatt also notes that the course evaluation system only consists of students’ perceptions of the course and their judgment is not always correct. Thus, professors need to use their own judgment to decide whether a particular item of feedback isit is challenging for professors to accept much of the feedback when it is not always an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of the course.


Another notable challenge is that student submissions are entirely anonymous. On the one hand, this gives students an opportunity to be honest about their experience, but on the other hand, it does not de-incentivize unnecessary hostile feedback. “Students have sometimes abused the course evaluations by making hurtful and even personal attacks,” says Dr. Karen Dieleman, academic dean and associate vice president. Because of this, “this makes it really difficult for professors to separate constructive criticism from the hurtful criticisms.” 


However, there is one solution that students should anticipate as being put into place. Typically, the academic administration will ask a more experienced professor to sit at the back of the class and observe the teaching of an incoming faculty member during one of their lectures. According to Dr. Dieleman, the administration is now considering extending this and having all faculty members teach with a visiting professor in the classroom. A third party would not replace student feedback on their courses but rather add onto it, featuring more expert opinions on how students can improve their learning at school. 


As Dr. Dieleman said, “We are aware that things would look different to students than they would to a third party who has more educational expertise or pedagogical awareness.” In sum, Dieleman and the rest of the administration are “trying to diversify the feedback.”


It is important to note that at the end of each year, every faculty member meets with their supervising dean for a “year-end review” that includes a conversation on course evaluations from that previous year. Since last year, as Dr. Dieleman clarified, “faculty who are being formally reviewed for reappointment, promotion, or tenure complete a self-evaluation form that asks them to reflect in writing on the comments made on their course evaluations. That is, both annually and at other intervals, deans and professors thoughtfully consider student feedback for the future of the courses.” Therefore, professors are almost entirely required to read student feedback in course evaluations. 


When reflecting on the importance of course evaluations, Dr. Dieleman remarked, “Student evaluations are a significant piece of feedback because only students can tell us what the experience of students feels like.” Similarly, Dr. Flatt said, “Course evaluations can bring to the professor’s attention something that they were not aware of.” In short, the value in Redeemer’s course evaluations is found in the student’s opportunity to use their voice for the betterment of their university experience.