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Home / Blog Post / Do They Say What They Mean? Unpacking the Course Evaluation for Improving Student Success


May 8, 2018

As the final exams and papers flood our desks and we prepare to wrap up the semester, we’re left with a final task: reviewing end-of-course student evaluations. Evaluations offer an opportunity to hear from students, but their voices are sometimes confusing. For example, you can find comments like “the class discussions were the best part” and “too much discussion” in comments from the same course. This leaves us with the question: How do evaluations help us improve teaching and learning in our courses?

First, course evaluations provide data. It is, to be sure, flawed data. Research demonstrates that reviews are often based on variables unrelated to teaching effectiveness or achieved learning outcomes.[1] Biases related to race and gender may also taint our data. Nevertheless, looking at the numerical scores and the qualitative comments offers opportunities for understanding and improvement.

The following are some suggestions on how to constructively review course evaluations:

  • Review the quantitative data on its own first. Many of us tend to get sidetracked by a single bad comment. Reviewing the numbers first can blunt that reaction.
  • Consider the data within the context of the course. What was the class size? What day and time did the course meet? How many students responded to the end-of-course survey? What average score did each measure receive from the class? Look for trends and patterns in the responses from course to course. Did you add new teaching techniques or material?
  • Look for patterns and themes in the qualitative comments across courses and across semesters. One negative comment in one class might mean nothing, but if several students have the same negative comment in the same class or across semesters, solutions are worth exploring.
  • Analyze the results when you have quiet time to take notes, as close as possible to the end of the semester or even during intersession. Take the time to reflect on the goals of your course, your teaching methods, your strengths, possible improvements, the pace of the course, how to scaffold and chunk the content more effectively, the themes and patterns that emerge, and which assessments, assignments and activities were the most effective, according to you and according to the students.
  • Avoid the kneejerk reaction to disregard negative feedback. Fight the urge to explain away negative ratings or feedback due to the rigor of the course, the student population, or other factors outside of teaching. Challenge yourself to understand how you can maintain your rigor while improving student perceptions of the course experience.
  • Know that all faculty receive negative comments. In a recent article for The Chronicle, Kevin Gannon helpfully notes, “Teaching is a difficult gig for many reasons, but chief among them is the degree to which we tend to tie our sense of identity and self-worth into our classroom performance. Because of that, we may lack the critical distance necessary to reflect honestly about our own pedagogy.”[2]

The most important thing is to understand how you can use student feedback for improvement. When you are ready, TLS is here to help!


Here are two examples of how to use responses on student end-of-course surveys.

If your students rated you poorly on this measure:

“The instructor clearly defined and explained the course objectives and expectations.”


  1. At the beginning of each class session, share with your students the three key points you want them to take away from the session, and how those points relate to the course outcomes.
  2. During the session, use an active learning strategy like a minute paper, think-pair-share or poll to reinforce the key takeaways.
  3. At the end of the session, reiterate those three key points again.


If your students rated you poorly on this measure:

“The instructor was available outside of class either electronically or in person.”


  1. Make sure your office hours are on the syllabus and regularly encourage students to call or come by.
  2. Encourage students to email you.
  3. Provide a way for students to ask questions anonymously (i.e. in a Blackboard discussion).
  4. If you are on social media, encourage communication through any those channels.


Other Considerations

  • Invite a teaching and learning consultant to conduct a Quick Course Diagnosis with your class mid-semester. This tool shows you what your students see as strengths and weaknesses of the course. Conducting this mid-semester can shed light on any potential problems before it’s too late for correction.
  • Send your end-of-course evaluations to a teaching and learning consultant for a qualitative analysis of the results and comments. With just a quick phone consultation, TLS consultants can discuss strategies for improvement based on the students’ comments.
  • Encourage students to complete the end-of-course survey and to be honest with their responses. Assure them of confidentiality and give points to those who complete the survey.


Just keeping in mind these few tips can help you see your student evaluations in a completely new light.


More Resources


[1] Student Ratings of Instruction: A Literature Review. Rice Center for Teaching Excellence. http://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2015/02/01/studentratings

[2] Kevin Gannon. In Defense (Sort of) of Student Evaluations of Teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  May 6, 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/article/In-Defense-Sort-of-of/243325?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_9