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Student Ratings of Instruction: Creating Opportunities for Reflection with a Single Course-Specific Question

2 Dec

The perennially prickly topic of student ratings of teaching that provided the focus for New York Times “Room for Debate” feature a couple of years ago is once again circulating widely in Twitter retweets and Facebook shares.  Not surprisingly, as the current term wraps up, faculty on campuses are weighing – and weighing in on – whether students can provide useful evaluations of their professors.  Are evaluations of use as:

  • Sole indicator for high stakes employment decisions? Nope
  • One of many thoughtfully weighted pieces of evidence of teaching skill?  Better
  • A place for the call and response of open-ended questions offering students paragraph-length room for responding to a real question (or two) about some dimension of their in the specific class we’ve just shared with them?  Even Better. Maybe Best. 

After reviewing the “sides” noted below based on assertions presented in Professors and the Students Who Grade Them, this post proposes why to incorporate a single course-specific open-ended question within institutional student ratings of teaching forms – and offers examples of what might be incorporated.

Student ratings are useless:

Students often conflate good instruction with pleasant ambiance and low expectations  

Outcomes measures make more sense (i.e. student success in the next course in a sequence, pursuit of advanced degrees etc)  

Students are not dependable judges of their professors. It is really that simple. 

Student ratings are useful:

Students may not be experienced pedagogues, but they are experienced learners.

Written comments tend to be more valuable than numerical rankings.

Those with business and educational models that don’t listen to their customers are unlikely to survive the tempest — and frankly, they shouldn’t.

Alternative Questions:  

What if we re-frame in the following way the basic questions about student ratings:

  • What are the benefits of gathering qualitative data to supplement quantitative data gathered through official university ratings of teaching forms? What are the benefits specifically to me in reflecting on teaching as related to a specific course?
  • To that end, what open-ended question might I ask to help me-the-teacher to hear students’ perspectives regarding what does help or could better help them to learn in a specific course?

As Ellen McCullouch-Lovell of Marlboro College puts it, “When a faculty member is asked by both her peers and students to reflect as a regular practice, teaching improves.” 

Given the institutionally-designed ratings of teaching forms, the supplemental questions is more likely to spark our thinking about how to improve teaching in light of student learning. 

Our local Student Ratings of Teaching form includes six Likert-scale questions –

  1. The instructor was well prepared for class.
  2. The instructor presented the subject matter clearly.
  3. The instructor provided feedback intended to improve my course performance.
  4. The instructor treated me with respect.
  5. I have a deeper understanding of the subject matter as a result of this course.
  6. My interest in the subject matter was stimulated by this course.

– and an open-ended “Additional Comments” block, which students often leave blank.  By asking students to address a specific question or course matter, we can gather course-specific data as students seem highly motivated to respond to such personalized questions. “Additional Comments” questions that seek out qualitative feedback can then work as contextualizing information for understanding numbers “crunched” from the quantitative data.  

The result: a mixed methods instrument that is linked through the open-ended question to this specific course and this specific term – even better.

Possible questions:

What types of peer, teacher, and/or self-assessment feedback helped you to improve in the course?

What three things have you come to understand about ____ at the end of the course that you didn’t know about or understand at the start of the course?

In what ways has the instructor’s organization of in class time helped you to learn in the course?

What have you and your classmates done to maintain a respectful classroom atmosphere?  What actions has your instructor taken to help establish and maintain respect in the classroom?

What is something related to the course topic that you’ll continue to learn about beyond this course – perhaps that you’ve already worked independently to learn more about while taking the course?

What core course concept was most difficult for you to learn?  As you have made progress in understanding the concept, what has helped your learning?  As you have felt “stuck” in learning the concept, what helped you – or would help you – to get out of that “stuck” place?

In asking open-ended questions and proactively using the Additional Comments section, teachers signal that they want to learn more from students currently enrolled in the course.  In part, the learning more helps us to consider emendations to the course next time it is offered; additionally, we come to learn a bit more about how students that term “read” particular questions – What they have in mind when they encounter the words respect and feedback, as well as what they point to as interesting topics and helpful ways of learning.



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