What’s the best way of digesting student teaching evaluations?

This is a difficult question to answer, even for an experienced teacher. Student evaluations can be very helpful and give you a good sense of what is working and what isn’t, and also perhaps what to do about it. But it can be quite upsetting to receive negative feedback especially if it is flippant or personal, as some of it is.

For these reasons, when we received the student evaluations for our first year compulsory political theory module, I emailed my teaching assistants (all PhD students or recent graduates) with some advice.

I am sure there’s lots more good advice I missed out and perhaps there are things that I say here are mistaken. If so I’d be delighted to be further informed about how best to react to feedback and how I might better advise my TAs in particular. But thinking it might have some useful guidance for others, I post a slightly altered version of the email below.

When reading the evaluations you should exercise caution. Like all types of feedback, student evaluations can be extremely useful in helping you determine what worked well, what didn’t work so well, and to think about new ideas for next time. It can make you a better teacher. But it is also possible to interpret the feedback in ways that are misleading and won’t help you become a better teacher, and may make you worse. So here is some advice.

Student Evaluations in Context

It can be tempting to think of student evaluations as definitive verdicts on our teaching, but student evaluations are one type of feedback among many. For this reason, you shouldn’t rely entirely or mainly on student evaluations in forming judgements about the quality of your teaching or making changes in any particular year. It sounds obvious, but keep this in mind when you first approach the evaluations.

Peer reviews, either from a fellow TA, the course convener or another experienced teacher, are the gold standard of feedback. They’re more likely to be objectively based, grounded in experience and understanding of pedagogy. They’re also more likely to be constructive and comprehensive, noting both the positives and negatives. Finally, you can ask your peer reviewer follow up questions if you’re unclear. This is why it is worthwhile discussing any student feedback with another experienced teacher.

Response rates of student evaluations are often lower than 50% and sometimes very low. The lower that response rate is, the less reliable it is as an account of what students think about your teaching and, therefore, any conclusions you can draw from it will be limited. Here are three reasons to be cautious about this kind of feedback:

First, those who have the strongest views (positive but especially negative) tend to be the most likely to respond. Just read a selection of trip advisor reviews if you don’t believe me. This would tend to suggest that the large proportion of non-respondents thought the teaching was fine. Take that on board.

Second, you should be especially wary of drawing conclusions about the quality of your teaching relative to others who may have received a higher “score”. The response rate of your students may have been lower than your peers and so will be less representative even than the not very representative sample of the whole course. The numbers of students you teach could be very low. If you only teach twenty students, then one student alone would account for 10% of the feedback at a 50% response rate.

Third, there are well-documented reasons for thinking that student feedback is biased in highly problematic ways. For example, we know that students tend to rate white men more highly than women and BME instructors. Some information is collected here on the Guardian with links to research: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/apr/04/will-the-teaching-excellence-framework-be-sexist.

As well as student comments, you may also receive quantitative feedback where students give aspects of your teaching a numerical score. These scores may be benchmarked against a school or university mean average. Cohort sizes and composition can vary widely across schools, faculties and universities. Whether a course is compulsory or not and how it fits within various degree programs will each play some role in affecting the validity of comparisons to these averages. In some cases it is like comparing apples and oranges.

For these reasons, you should exercise caution when thinking about quantitative and qualitative feedback from student evaluations. Nevertheless, student feedback can be extremely helpful if you put it in context and take your aim to be to learn from it and become a better teacher.

Considering the Feedback

The first thing to do is read the feedback and reflect on the point being made. You’ll want to ask yourself if the feedback is genuinely about your teaching, whether it is accurate and whether it is something you can control.

Think about whether the points being made are substantively about your teaching. Are they about students’ understanding of the material and development of the relevant skills? Comments about what was unclear to them or what they didn’t find helpful are substantive. Comments about the pace or nature of discussion are also usually substantive. But other comments can be irrelevant to your teaching. For example, some students might state that the seminar room was poorly lit or far away or that the time of the seminar was too early. They may even be personal comments about your accent or dress sense or even insults, which can come up when feedback is anonymous. Usually dwelling on the personal comments won’t help you become a better teacher, so don’t. Substantive feedback on how your teaching affected their understanding should be given further reflection.

Once you have identified the more substantive points, reflect on whether they are also accurate. In some cases students may provide feedback that is straightforwardly false, like “the teacher never gave essay writing advice”. If the point is inaccurate then your attitude should be to give it less weight, but even inaccurate feedback can be helpful because you can reflect on how you could avoid giving that impression in the future. Student feedback can give you an idea of what expectations to set in the future. For example, students sometimes use evaluation forms to state that it took too long to get their essay marks back. It is likely that you don’t have much control over how long it takes to get mark back and it might be that they don’t wait long at all for their marks, but one good response to this issue is to say clearly how long it takes at the beginning of the course. You might find, as I have, that students stop mentioning this in feedback, even though they don’t receive their marks any quicker. This is just one example of how you can improve student feedback without taking the comments literally and as stated. Sometimes something deeper is going on and the comments can obscure that.

This is the sort of thing that it is really hard to know unless you have experience of teaching, so don’t beat yourself up over not managing expectations like these right from the start.

Taking the Feedback Forward

If the point made by comments is substantive and accurate, then you should think about how you could address it, if you can. An important question to ask yourself is: can I address this point without imposing costs on others and without compromising the rigour of my teaching? An important part of interpreting feedback is to think about whether other feedback you received is in tension with it or contradicts it. Some students will enjoy and learn from aspects of your teaching that others do not. For example, some students might want to spend more time discussing the readings and less time going back over the lecture, while others prefer to cover the basics rather than advancing to discuss the readings. It is worthwhile thinking about how you might satisfy them all, but remember this is a difficult balancing act that we all must perform, and the feedback reminds you that you’re doing something that is very hard to do and sometimes you can’t please some without displeasing others.

Another example might be that students think you are being dismissive of their ideas in class and feel unable to contribute or they feel that a few students dominate discussion. Now, the nature of tutorials in political theory are that we want to challenge students to provide reasons for what they believe, so giving up on challenging them is not really an option. Moreover, some students really love this aspect of our courses. But perhaps there are things we can do to make the classroom less daunting, to spread opportunities for contribution more widely by intervening more regularly or doing group work. Alternatively, set expectations early on by saying that you are going to challenge them in class but that this is important for the development of their critical thinking capacities and not a sign that you think they are stupid or that you dislike them.

Once you’ve identified the feedback that is substantive, accurate and by acting on it won’t sacrifice rigour or contradict other feedback, you should try to discuss it with the module convener or other TAs. Their experience may throw up some helpful ideas and they may have some helpful comments to make about your new ideas. It is very important to reflect on your teaching and discuss your ideas with others before making changes, especially sweeping changes. Next year will involve a completely different cohort who may have different ideas. So knee jerk responses are not a good way to improve your feedback never mind improve your teaching. And once again: do not take negative or personal feedback very seriously. It won’t make you a better teacher.

Liam Shields