Student Evaluations of Teaching

Talking with Students about Evaluations

To motivate students to complete end-of-course evaluations and to provide useful feedback through those evaluations, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning recommends instructors talk with their students about the importance of course evaluations and how those evaluations are used.

  • Designate time during class for students to complete evaluations, and let your students know why and when. (See below for more on this advice.)
  • Tell your students that you value their honest and constructive feedback, and that you use student feedback to make improvements to your courses. If possible, share examples of how you have changed your courses as a result of student feedback.
  • Let your students know that you are interested in both positive and negative feedback on the course. What aspects of the course and/or instruction helped them learn? What aspects might be changed to help future students learn more effectively?
  • Describe the kind of feedback you find most useful. In most cases, specific feedback with examples is more useful than general statements. See the handout “Providing Helpful Feedback to Your Instructions” from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan for examples of specific, constructive feedback.
  • Remind students that evaluations are designed to be completely anonymous and that you will not be able to see any of their evaluations until after final grades have been submitted. Many students don’t realize these facts.
  • Let students know that you are the primary audience for their feedback, but that others will potentially read their evaluations, including department and school administrators. Course evaluations play a role in personnel evaluations and in curriculum planning.
  • Consider including language in your syllabus that addresses student evaluations. This alerts the students to the fact that they should also pay attention to their learning experiences throughout the semester and makes them more mindful of their responses in the course evaluations.

Why is it better to include time in class for student evaluations?

By setting aside 20 minutes during class for students to complete course evaluations, just like the custom when evaluations were done with pencil and paper, you are not only increasing the overall student response rates, but you are also increasing the likelihood that students have time to think through their responses. As a result, students will have the opportunity to produce less rushed, more thoughtful feedback, especially if this strategy is combined with the other recommended strategies below. Using class time thus may be a way for you to differentiate the type of serious, considered input appropriate for course evaluations from common brief and off-the-cuff input on social media, customer feedback, and other online forums. Finally, setting aside class time communicates to students the importance of evaluations in the teaching mission of the university.

It should also be noted that when setting aside time in class for students to complete course evaluations, you should leave the room to help ensure that students feel free to provide authentic responses.

Making Sense of Student Evaluation Feedback

Adapted from “Some Guidelines and Principles to Consider In Making Sense of Evaluation Feedback” by Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey, Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Vanderbilt University.

When considering student evaluations:

  • Pick a good time to do so, when you will have enough time to digest at least some of the information, have privacy, and can give yourself some mental ‘space’ to analyze the information.
  • Track quantitative results. Consider how the summary rating received for each item fits with your own teaching goals and your department’s expectations for teaching.
  • Look for patterns in students’ comments—identify trends, note what you have done well and what needs improvement.
  • Take your experience into account. If you are new to teaching, the university, or even the course, you may still be learning about various aspects of being a professor, such as course design, teaching skills, student interaction, and departmental expectations.
  • Take the context and characteristics of your course into account. Research shows that student evaluations often are more positive in courses that are smaller rather than larger, and elective rather than required. Also, evaluations are usually more positive in courses in which students tend to do well.

When dealing with negative student feedback:

  • Know that almost all faculty members receive negative feedback at some point in their careers, including those who are senior and highly successful.
  • Allow yourself to acknowledge that it can feel hurtful or make you angry, but also provides a pointer toward important areas for your continued development.

When deciding how to further your development as a teacher:

  • Bear in mind the most frequently mentioned areas for teaching improvement in analysis of student evaluations within and across universities: 1) clearer, more specific in-class communication; and 2) clearer, more explicit organization of course content.
  • Consider scheduling an appointment at the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning for a consultation to help you interpret your evaluations. Research suggests that teachers who consult with someone about their evaluations are more likely to score higher on the next set of evaluations than others who do not discuss them with anyone. To schedule a consultation on student evaluations, contact us at 815-753-0595 or citl@niu.edu, or schedule a teaching consultation online at citl.niu.edu/conversations.

When planning steps to improve the feedback you receive in evaluations, consider the following options:

  • Use one minute evaluations at the end of selected class sessions, asking students to note the main idea they learned that class, or two ideas about a major construct considered, or a question about content, and so forth.
  • Give a “midterm evaluation” of the course to check how the class is progressing while you can use the information to make changes.
  • Talk with the class about their interim feedback, and explicitly put into practice one of their suggestions.
  • Before the final course evaluation, explain to the class the importance you place on their input.

Mid-Semester Student Feedback and Other Strategies

Course evaluations can be and should be thought of as a part of a larger classroom narrative, one that focuses on improving students’ learning experiences from beginning to end along two intertwined paths: student feedback and improving teaching.

Gathering Student Feedback

There are multiple opportunities to solicit student feedback throughout the semester. The feedback students provide about your teaching on their end-of-semester course evaluations is the most identifiable form of feedback and can be valuable in helping you improve and refine your teaching. Soliciting mid-semester student feedback has the additional benefit of allowing you to hear your students’ concerns while there is still time in the semester to make appropriate changes.

The CITL offers a service called a Small Group Instructional Diagnosis, which is a method of gathering anonymous feedback from students about what is helping them learn and what is not, in a course. This completely confidential service is an excellent way to assess students’ response to your teaching mid-semester. 

Lastly, for soliciting informal feedback from students on their learning throughout the semester, consider adapting some classroom assessment techniques (CATs) from our CATs teaching guide that best fit your classroom. One example of a CAT is the minute paper, during which time students take one minute to write a response to a question or statement prompt. This can be especially illuminating if the prompt is intended to collect feedback on their learning experiences in the course.

Other Mechanisms for Improving Teaching

The process of incorporating student feedback towards the improvement of your teaching can sometimes seem like a daunting process. The CITL can serve as a support system for you in this process through the following:

CITL individual consultations. We are available for confidential consultations on any teaching questions or topics you might like to discuss.

  • Observations. The CITL offers classroom observations as a mechanism for instructors to get individualized feedback for a particular class.
  • Syllabus review. A CITL staff member can work with you to review your syllabus and consider how well your course design is accomplishing your goals.
  • Topic-specific consultations. CITL staff members can also consult with you around particular teaching questions, such as effective discussion approaches or assessment options.
  • Pedagogy-specific consultations. If you are interested in adopting particular pedagogies, such as case-based learning, service-learning, or team-based learning, the CITL can work with you to adapt that approach to your class.

The CITL also hosts faculty learning communities on various teaching topics. These communities provide NIU faculty opportunities to learn from and with each other as they develop their teaching skills.

Outside the CITL, peer evaluations are another way to get valuable feedback from colleagues and to potentially create a community of teachers in your department. For more information, please see the guide on the Peer Review of Teaching.

Resources on Interpreting Student Evaluations

Student Rating Forms”, a chapter from the book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis [available as an eBook through the University Libraries].

Interpreting and Working with Your Course Evaluations, a resource from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University, featuring suggestions for improving one’s scores on particular student evaluation questions.

Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, published by the National Research Council (2003). [available as an eBook through the University Libraries].

The following articles can be found in the journal, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Volume 2001, Issue 87, Special Issue: Techniques and Strategies for Interpreting Student Evaluations . Issue Edited by Karron G. Lewis.

  • Faculty Thoughts and Concerns about Student Ratings, by John C. Ory, Office of Instructional Resources at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Although student ratings of instruction are used to determine whether a person is teaching effectively, many people who use them are not aware of the extensive research base for them.”
  • Encouraging Your Students to Give Feedback, by Marilla D. Svinicki, Center for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Texas at Austin. “Giving feedback is a skill that can be learned. What are the conditions that foster that learning and the later use of that skill for feedback to instructors?”
  • Making Sense of Student Written Comments, by Karron G. Lewis, Center for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Texas at Austin. “Most student evaluation instruments include a place for student comments, yet the comments are often difficult to interpret. This article illustrates these comments and uses the information for improving teaching and students’ learning.”
  • Using Midsemester Student Feedback and Responding to It, by Karron G. Lewis, Center for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Texas at Austin. “Getting midsemester feedback from your students can help you make changes before it’s too late.”
  • Interpreting the Numbers: Using a Narrative to Help Others Read Student Evaluations of Your Teaching Accurately, by Jennifer Franklin, Center for Teaching and Learning at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “Student ratings are one of the most widely used measures in teaching today. All users should understand what the numbers mean and how they should and should not be used.”

Summaries of Research on Student Evaluations

Student Ratings of Teaching: A Summary of Research and Literature (IDEA Paper 50) by Stephen L. Benton and William E. Cashin, IDEA Center. This white paper “summarize[s] the conclusions of the major reviews of the student ratings research and literature from the 1970s to 2010. That literature is extensive and complex; a paper this brief can offer only broad, general summaries and limited citations.”

Student Ratings: Myths vs Research Evidence, by Michael Theall, Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Theall, a research expert in instructional design, development and evaluation, explores the myths and truths behind Student Ratings (reprinted with the permission of the Brigham Young University Faculty Center).

How To Evaluate Teaching, by Richard Felder, from Chemical Engineering Education, 38(3), 200-202 (2004). “A key to effective teaching evaluation is to collect data from multiple sources [peers, students, instructors, administrators]…making sure that all education-related activities are rated by the people best qualified to rate them.”

Questions Frequently Asked about Student Rating Forms: Summary of Research Findings,” by Matthew Kaplan, Lisa A. Mets and Constance E. Cook, University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. This article answers questions such as, “What do we know about the relationship between grades and student ratings? What do student ratings tell us about teaching effectiveness?”

Student Evaluations and Gendered Expectations: What We Can’t Count Can Hurt Us, by Kelley Massoni, University of Kansas, and distributed by the Sociologists for Women in Society. “How does gender enter into students’ evaluations of their teachers. Scholars who have attempted to answer this question are divided in their findings. …This fact sheet is designed to make sense of the research on gender and teaching evaluations.”

Gender and Student Evaluations: An Annotated Bibliography, at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan.


Creative Commons License This work is adapted from Student Evaluations of Teaching by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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