Revitalizing the Dreaded Course Evaluation

Turn Your Evals into a Research Tool
by Dr. Sara Haefeli

On the Netflix series The Chair, the pre-tenure professor Yaz McKay (played by Nana Mensah) has her students tweet their favorite line from Moby Dick and write rap lyrics in place of a more traditional paper. Not only is her tenure chair horrified, but so are many of our own colleagues. Yes, we can almost expect this resistance to pedagogical innovations—even from some of our more progressive fellow faculty—but what we may not as readily anticipate is resistance to pedagogical and curricular change from our own students.

Music faculty are increasingly asked to make their courses and curricula more diverse, flexible, engaging, and inclusive. For many, that means modifying or abandoning traditional modes of content delivery and assessment. It may mean adopting universal design for learning, ungrading, or team-based learning strategies. For fields like music history and theory that draw on a more-or-less established canon, it may mean drawing on antiracist principles and practices that bring people of color to the center of the classroom experience.

Such pedagogical shifts are time-consuming and require practice, and the first iterations of a re-designed course are never polished and often bumpy. Innovative faculty might assume that students are fine with such changes—indeed, often advocating for them. But some students find these changes unsettling, especially those who are uncomfortable with ambiguity or simply used to “the old way” and the credentials that “the old way” provided previous generations of students. Radical pedagogical change will likely create discomfort, and this discomfort may very likely show up on the course evaluations.

Two questions arise for instructors making radical or risky pedagogical changes: 1) How do I solicit helpful feedback from my students about my teaching? and 2) How do I frame the course evaluation in my annual review with my mentors, chairs, tenure and promotion committees, directors, or deans?

I suggest that framing pedagogical work as research can help revitalize the dreaded course evaluation. This new framework will help shift the conversation away from the relative value of the instructor (as the “hero” or “master” of the classroom) to a conversation about processes and partnerships.  

We all know how flawed course evaluations are as a measurement of faculty excellence. Indeed, they often tell us more about the students—their implicit biases and maturity level—than they do about the instructor. Course evaluations can undermine a sense of partnership and trust in the classroom, and studies have shown that they are biased against women and other minoritized faculty. What student evaluations assess is often unclear and, even worse, many of the standard evaluation questions are not suited to innovative pedagogical approaches. Speaking from my own personal experience, negative student responses make me feel anxious and ashamed.

The natural desire for approval and fear of shame can encourage instructors to focus on the style of their teaching instead of on more substantive growth or change. For these and other reasons, some educational leaders advocate for dispensing with summative student evaluations altogether.

Yet students need to be able to assess their courses and instructors, and faculty also need to listen and respond to such assessment.

One of the best outcomes from the field of scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is a change in the status of pedagogical problems. Whereas classroom or teaching problems used to be thought of as embarrassing or shameful issues that needed remediation, they are now considered interesting and exciting opportunities for scholarly investigation.

In his article “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?,” Randy Bass points out that “having a ‘problem’ is at the heart of the investigative process; it is the compound of the generative questions around which all creative and productive activity revolves.” Problems can lead to a research question, a hypothesis, and a test that unfolds in the next iteration of the class. When you change your pedagogy according to a teaching problem, it means that you are an engaged, creative teacher that is responding to the needs of your students.

To solicit more helpful feedback from students on course evaluations, faculty need to create a more holistic evaluation tool. Design your own evaluation questions to add to the standard evaluation used by your school, or create your own course evaluation tool to use in addition to the formal one. Ask students about the totality of your teaching—not just what happens in the classroom—as important pedagogical moments can also happen during office hours or in small group consultations.

Ask students to reflect on how their own skill sets and dispositions shape their perceptions of your effectiveness as an instructor. Asking students to see themselves as part of the success or failure of the class requires them to reflect metacognitively on the work undertaken throughout the semester. The course evaluation can be more than just a mechanism for instructor feedback; it can be yet another learning experience for the student.

For example, I have asked students to consider the following on their end-of-the-semester evaluation:

  • How has this work challenged you to think differently?
  • What will you remember about this class five years from now? Why?
  • How has this class helped you to build valuable skills that are critical to future success?
  • What was your favorite part of the class and what does that say about you as a learner?
  • What was your least favorite part of the class and what does that say about you as a learner?
  • What would you do differently if you could do it all over again?
  • Where would you like more support?

Your evaluation toolkit should also include “peer reviews” from faculty that observe your classes. If your school does not have a formal mentoring program that facilitates classroom observations, organize one for yourself. Partner with mentors that have strengths you would like to emulate (e.g., a good discussion facilitator, or a dynamic presence in the classroom). Ask them if you can observe their classes as well. Keep mentoring relationships separate from evaluative ones as much as possible. As Teresa Amabile has noted, evaluators in the classroom surveilling your work may stifle your creativity.

To represent your pedagogical work-in-progress to your evaluators, prepare a self-evaluation that includes your goals as well as a narrative of how you are responding to problematic or challenging aspects of your course or curriculum. This statement should include an explanation of your teaching philosophy, the course design, and the student learning outcomes. Provide your reviewers with as much contextual information as possible, perhaps including a description of the typical student and their interest in the course. Evaluators will likely be impressed by such an approach, even if the immediate results are not perfect.     

Finally, I urge you to eventually publish what you have learned from your student evaluations and how you have made subsequent pedagogical shifts or innovations. As you adjust your teaching and evaluation methods in response to problems, you are participating in the rich field of SoTL research. This research not only furthers the field, but it normalizes “problems” in student evaluations as inspiration for further research.

I still have to screw up my courage to read my course evaluations, but if I read them in the context of my on-going pedagogical research, it’s much better.

Sara Haefeli
Ithaca College