Student evaluations play a significant role in the assessment of teaching in higher education.
Evaluations are collected at the end of the term, and the scores become part of the instructor’s assessment. These evaluations can be a major part in determining if a teaching assistant or adjunct is reemployed. These evaluations become part of the package when a faculty member is reviewed for promotion and tenure if the faculty member is in a tenure-track position. In some cases, the evaluation of teaching includes peer observations and a teaching portfolio, but the student evaluations typically are viewed as the critical component in determining the instructor’s teaching effectiveness.
The end-of-semester evaluations can be helpful in adjusting or re-designing the course for teaching it again and can help the instructor determine changes in teaching strategies. But that after-the-course-is-over feedback doesn’t help instructors improve the course in real time.
Asking your students to complete an informal evaluation – termed Informal Early Feedback (IEF) — as the course is in progress is a pro-active approach to enable you to make adjustments to the course and your teaching in real time.
Not only can an informal evaluation help you make changes as the course continues, but the informal evaluation also can raise the scores on your end-of-the-semester evaluation.
You can conduct Informal Early Feedback at any point in the semester, but you want to collect your students’ feedback after they have been in the course for at least a few weeks and at a point in the semester when there’s still time for you to make some changes based on the feedback.
The informal evaluation takes about 10 minutes of class time.
Here are the six questions I’ve used with my classes, and I’ve asked my teaching assistants to use these questions in their writing labs. These questions (or with a few tweaks) can work in undergraduate and graduate classes.
- What do you find helpful/interesting about the course?
You may want to provide some specific issues you are interested in knowing about. This could include asking about homework, readings or projects. For example, when I started using Twitter as a class assignment, I used the informal evaluation as a way to get feedback on how the activity was going from the students’ perspective.
- What suggestions do you have for making the course more helpful?
Students often make a suggestion that can be incorporated into the remaining portion of the course. In the undergraduate media writing course, the lab instructors and I were surprised when students asked that we have more grammar and Associated Press homework assignments. We added those for the remaining portion of the course and received positive response to that in our final evaluations.
Some suggestions may be beyond what you can do in the course for the current semester, but you can let the class know that you heard their concern and will pursue it for future students’ benefit.
When I first took on teaching a large auditorium course, the class started at 8:30 a.m. In both informal and end-of-the-semester evaluations, students criticized the course and me for having class too early, which, by the way, was not my decision. Armed with the students’ responses and how that affected the students’ outlook on the course, I worked with the department chair on moving the class to a later starting time — which took several semesters to accomplish.
- What do you find useful about my teaching approach?
You’ll appreciate hearing that students can tell you’re prepared, or that they like the specific feedback you provide on assignments, or that they enjoy your sense of humor. “I appreciate that you listen to our comments in discussion and build on that,” several students wrote in my informal evaluation, which reinforced active listening on my part.
- What suggestions do you have for how I could be more effective in my teaching?
I’ve had teaching assistants tell me they learned from the informal evaluations that they were talking too fast or not talking loudly enough or that the point size on their presentation slides was too small. They were able to take action on each of those issues, and their students, in their end-of-the-semester formal evaluations, thanked them for making those changes.
- What is something you’d like us to do in the course before the end of the semester?
Students may suggest having a guest speaker or recommend a topic that you hadn’t included in the course syllabus. A suggestion in the informal evaluations one semester was to have upper-division students talk to the class about internships and campus organizations. That led me to include a student panel of upper-division students as a regular part of the course.
- What is something that you’ve done to improve your performance in the course?
This question is a good reminder to students that they have a big role in how they do in the course. Reading their answers helps me recognize the efforts the students are making. Their discussion of the time spent on readings or assignments is useful in recognizing the amount of time required by the students in working on new concepts.
Students should complete the feedback anonymously. You may want to ask about the student’s major or some other factor that would be useful in assessing the feedback.
Before giving them the questions to answer, explain why you are asking them for feedback:
“I’m going to ask you to spend about 10 minutes providing me with feedback about the course so far. I’m asking you for input now while I can make adjustments in the course. I’ll read all of your comments and will give you feedback during our next class.”
Leave the room while the comments are being written.
Before class starts that day, ask a dependable student to collect the responses and get you when the class has finished responding.
After class, read their responses.
In most cases, you will be pleased to read positive comments about your teaching.
You may find some students aren’t realistic or fair in their comments. You don’t want to let those comments demoralize you.
Those negative comments or even the fear of getting negative comments can keep you from conducting an informal evaluation. But remember those comments can wind up in your formal evaluations. By knowing what the issues are while the course is in progress, you may be able to address at least one or two of the concerns, and you will have the opportunity to talk about some of those issues that you can’t change in the course, such as including certain concepts because those are department-determined Student Learning Outcomes for the course.
In the next class, share highlights from their informal evaluation. I often do this as a “Top Five” approach – selecting five of the most mentioned for each question.
Talking about what students like about the course or what they would like to see changed provides you with the opportunity to talk about why you’ve designed the course or a project in the way you have. For example, you can explain why the major grade is a group project for those students who complained in their evaluations that they don’t like group projects.
By talking about their feedback, you can explain the rationale for course policies and activities. I’ve found in particularly helpful, when appropriate, to explain how class assignments and activities tie to what students will be doing in upper-division courses, internships, and jobs.
I also read to the class comments that show the students that not everyone agrees on their assessments. In the same class, I’ve received these conflicting responses:
“I like when you have us work in teams to review the readings and then share with the class.”
“Being in teams to discuss readings is a waste of time. Just go over what you think are the main points.”
Reading aloud those opposing views can provide that “teachable” moment for students as they realize that not everyone has their outlook about the course and that we, as the teachers, have a challenge in trying to teach in a way that works as well as possible for all students.
Identify at least one or two recommendations you can act on. Announce that you will make those changes – and then do so. Sometimes, it will be something like ending class on time or handing back graded work more promptly. Most important is to let students know you heard them and are taking action. Receiving feedback and not addressing issues that were raised is worse than not asking for feedback at all.
The benefits of using Informal Early Feedback (IEF)?
You will receive positive feedback from your students. My teaching assistants have told me how nervous they were to collect informal evaluations the first time, but they are relieved – and even elated – to hear the many things they are doing well.
You can address student complaints (at least some of them) — sometimes about issues you weren’t even aware of. For example, you may be allowing enough time after you ask a question to the class before you jump in to answer the question yourself.
You can improve the learning experience for your students by talking with them about their input and then by making some changes to your course and your teaching.
By the end of the semester, you may well find your formal evaluation from the students improves because the students saw that you were interested in their input, you heard them, and then you made changes.
You can read more about Informal Early Feedback:
- Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign http://cte.illinois.edu/teacheval/ief.html
- “Effectively Using Early Semester Feedback” and from Purdue University’s Center for Instructional Excellence https://www.purdue.edu/cie/documents/ief.doc
- Marilla D. Svinicki’s “Encouraging Your Students to Give Feedback” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tl.v2001:87/issuetoc