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

30 Apr Don't Rely on Sat Nav

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 weighed in on – both sides of the question of whether students can provide useful evaluations of their professors.  

 Here’s a synopsis of those “sides” as presented in Professors and the Students Who Grade Them”:

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

Sean Decatur, Oberlin

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

Jeff Sandefer Acton School of Business

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)  

Stuart Roistaczer, Duke

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

Jude Ryan, San Antonio Florida


What if, instead, we posed this question – and read the debate with it in mind: “For what are student ratings of instruction useful? 

  • As sole indicator for high stakes employment decisions, no. 
  • As one of many thoughtfully weighted pieces of evidence of teaching skill, better. 
  • As an opportunity for reflection for both student and instructor alike, even better, perhaps best. 

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, what supplemental questions might we pose to our students to gather feedback, data, that will spark our thinking about how to improve teaching in light of student learning?  Here’s what we noted in an “As the Term Wraps” post:

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 help provide contextual information for understanding numbers “crunched” from the quantitative data.

Possible questions:

  • What type of 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?

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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