Some Thoughts On Course Evaluations

Photo by Todd Binger

It’s nearing the end of the term—and that means course evaluations are looming. To be honest, I start thinking about course evaluations on the first day of class. I like to keep mental notes on my classes throughout the semester so that I have coherent comments to offer up at the end of each term. I’ve been mentally grading my teachers and classes since junior high. Lately, I’ve been spending a good deal of time thinking on the evaluations themselves to try to understand their purpose and what I can do to make the most of them.

What do professors want?
In thinking about this post, my biggest question was—what do professors want from our evaluations? I reached out to a few professors that I know (across many different fields) and posted this question to them. The breakout theme? Specific comments. Professors want specific feedback on the negative AND positive elements of their class. If you didn’t like the syllabus—tell them exactly why. If a paper led to an epiphany about your career goals—say so. In many cases, the comments section of an evaluation form is preceded by a tedious list of ranking and fill in the blank questions. Don’t fizzle out and turn in the evaluation until you write something personal and specific to the professor.

Do they matter?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had my ear to the ground listening to what students have to say about evaluations—the conversation is not much different than what I heard in undergrad. A lot of students are skeptical of course evaluations. Many feel that the ratings we give and the feedback we write doesn’t matter. To some teachers—they may not. While this is unfortunate, I still think that there are a lot of educators and institutions out there who want to effectively reach students. Help these teachers and universities out and give them solid comments and feedback to act on in future semesters. If there are legitimate concerns that need to be voiced about a teacher or class—consider speaking up in ways other than evaluations. Do your research and determine who you can talk to at your institution so that the issue can be properly addressed. If you feel comfortable with the instructor, and you think they’d be open to it—have a conversation with them about what you liked or did not like. A few professors I know welcome honest, face to face discussions about their courses. If you’re not sure about speaking directly with the instructor, talk to a mentor or advisor about how to proceed. I think evaluations have the potential to make the educational experience better—but they’re not the be all end all.

What can evaluations do for you?
When you’re filling out evaluation forms—don’t forget about what evaluations can do for you. In my own experience, course evaluations have been a way to understand what helps me to be successful in a class. Perhaps evaluations can help you to have healthy closure at the end of each semester—or vent a semester’s worth of frustrations. Whatever the case, figure out what you can get out of  this reoccurring exercise and turn it into an opportunity instead of another chore. Happy evaluating.

7 replies

  1. THIS IS SUCH A GOOD TOPIC, Ashley! Some students don’t stop to consider that course evaluations are just another format of the evaluation and feedback that we will seek as service professionals; so paying attention to how your school conducts evaluations and what the form consists of are part of your education in some ways.

    I’m proud to say that at Simmons GSLIS, the evaluation form was developed by students and professors; the results are used by the Rank, Tenure, and Appointments committee to provide recommendations for faculty promotions/etc; and copies are available of the anonymous forms in the student lounge, so that students can see comments on courses and professors from their peers/”ancestors”.

    So I’m in total agreement that evaluation is an opportunity to learn and to help your fellow man. Also, if I told my 16 year old self that one day I’d feel this passionately about the usefulness of course evaluations, she wouldn’t have believed me.


  2. I second the “good choice” Ashley, and a nicely written piece to boot. It is a quite important and topical “hack” right now and unfortunately too many don’t take it seriously — myself included in previous semesters.
    I find it odd and unfortunate that, at least for my program, surveys are done before the real end of term. I’m sure there is some thought that your final grade might influence your evaluation but with other deadlines looming it is difficult to give these the brain space they deserve.
    I’m sure we all have those “arrrggg” or “ahhhh” moments and your suggestion to keep notes over the course of the semester with evaluations in mind is a good one so that you aren’t scrambling to remember useful things while under deadline for your term paper.
    One other note (especially for all the professors or TAs lurking about), I found it extraordinarily helpful to have a professor the other night give us all 10 minutes in class (online) to do our course evals. I gave her more specific and quality feedback than I might otherwise have without the dedicated time to do so.
    Emailing more information is something that I too have done and recommend — keeping in firm mind professionalism and the meaning of “constructive.”
    Happy Grading All!


  3. Stephanie, it sounds like Simmons has a really productive and transparent evaluation system. I’m sure a lot of other institutions could take a note from your school.

    Joanna, I agree that it is really hard to make time for evaluations. End of term is a really pressing time for most students–the last thing we want to do is evaluations. I think it is great when professors can build the process into class time.


  4. At my school (Pratt SILS), summaries of the evaluations are available in our library and are a great resource for students considering the course in the future. The one time I ignored poor evaluations and took the class anyway, I regretted it. I don’t think that professor reads his evaluations, which is unfortunate because he is smart and friendly, but greatly needs to improve his teaching style.

    The evaluation process is built into class time at the last class meeting of the year.


  5. Great topic to discuss Ashley! Having course evaluations available for students to view as Pratt SILS and Simmons GSLIS does is instrumental when choosing your future classes. I used the course evals to figure out what classes I wanted to take next semester and with what professor I wanted to take them with.
    If there’s one thing I learned while completing course evaluations it’s to look over the syllabus that was handed out at the beginning of the semester and ask yourself: did the course meet the standards/goals that were set in the syllabus?


  6. I’ve been fortunate; even the (happily rare) negative evaluations of my courses have been specific and constructive, for the most part.

    That doesn’t mean I haven’t run into a few headscratchers. One student was bothered by how “opinionated” I am. Um? You’d rather have someone who doesn’t care enough about the subject to form opinions? All-righty then…

    Generalizing this a bit: criticize the course content and delivery, not the instructor’s personality, please. Consider it a useful job skill, even: you’ll have to cope with folks whose personality happens to clash with yours.


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