A few years back a small group of faculty at our college were charged with redesigning a student survey of instruction for our online and hybrid courses. The resulting evaluation was a significant departure from the previous version with much more focus on student effort and expectations.

Teacher Evaluation Form CC-BY-NC-SA by Kevin Lim on Flickr
Teacher Evaluation Form CC-BY-NC-SA by Kevin Lim on Flickr

Instead of asking students questions along the lines of “Was you professor prepared for class?” or “How knowledgeable was your instructor about the course material?” – questions designed to evaluate instructor performance – the new and improved version took into consideration student investment: What grade do you expect to earn? How much effort did you put into the assignments? How much time did you set aside for course study each week? These kinds of questions help students to consider their own expectations and whether they align with their actual effort.

When asked about the quality of a thing (whether a product, service, or experience), we are actually being asked whether it met our expectations. These expectations may not be very realistic or accurate depending on past experience. When I talk with a group of faculty about innovating instruction in their courses, I suggest they tell students up front that they are trying something new and ask for their cooperation. I also suggest they warn their deans and department chairs that student evaluations may be negatively effected – students don’t always appreciate having to work at their own learning.

Unfortunately, student satisfaction surveys are all to often used as part of the faculty evaluation process. This is not only unfortunate but unfair as there is evidence that such assessments are not very useful or accurate for this purpose. A recent Inside Higher Ed article “Bias Against Female Instructors” reported on a study that showed male instructors tended to be rated higher than females regardless of the gender of the student.

In my opinion student evaluations can be useful for helping instructors, departments and programs to improve course design and delivery but they need to focus not on student satisfaction but on instructional feedback. And, they need to be performed not at the end of the semester but much earlier in the process. By asking students to provide feedback on course delivery and design earlier in the semester, faculty have the opportunity to improve instruction and at the same time, get a sense of how their students are doing in regards to learning the material.