Student course evaluations (SCEs) are now a standard feature in higher education. However, despite the effort and credence given to SCEs, in many cases students don’t seem to take them all that seriously. They have a general impression of the course and the instructor, and use that to gauge their answers to all the questions on the rating form.
Recognizing the shortcomings associated with traditional SCEs, my institution (and others) have expanded the approach, making the evaluations more reciprocal. Students are asked not only to evaluate the course and the instructor, but also to rate their own engagement with and commitment to the course.
Elements of our SCE instrument are fairly typical. There are the usual questions that ask students to evaluate the course, in terms of clear objectives and expectations, and the extent to which they were accomplished, organization of the content, and so on. It also includes questions that ask students to evaluate the instructor on things like the instructional methods used (lecture, discussion), clarity of the explanations, ability to communicate, and the like.
However, we now ask students to evaluate themselves with questions; for example, “I contributed extensively to class discussion”; “When I didn’t understand I kept my concerns to myself”; “I worked extremely hard in this course”; “I prepared drafts of my assignments and asked the instructor for feedback.”
We use a Likert-style survey format, asking students to place their assessment on a continuum between two polar statements. For example, we used the continuum from “I was unsure in the beginning what the course objectives and expectations were” to “The course objectives and expectations were clearly communicated from the beginning of the course.” Early on, we placed all the positive statements on one side of the form and the negative ones on the other side, but we found that structure encouraged students to rate their performance similarly on all the questions. We suspected they were not reading the questions carefully, or not giving a thoughtful response. We were able to reduce this tendency by scattering positive and negative statements down the two sides of the form.
The usual design of SCEs gives students the opportunity focus on the shortcomings of the course and the instructor, without any acknowledgement of their own role in the learning process. However, course outcomes, for individuals and the class as a whole, are the result of what both teachers and students contribute to the endeavor. The lack of student accountability and the focus on shortcomings can be quite devastating for diligent instructors who have put forth effort to prepare and present material in the course. Should students who have not made a corresponding effort be encouraged by the format of the evaluations to respond with a string of complaints?
Reciprocal evaluation makes it easier to distinguish between students who have been committed to the learning process and those who have not done what they needed to make the course a successful learning experience. For example, if a student marks a high rating on a question like “I found it difficult to understand the instructor” and a low rating of a reciprocal item like, “When I didn’t understand I asked the instructor,” that’s not a student who is making an effort to understand the instructor. Reciprocal evaluations allow the instructor to view that evaluation differently than if the student was confused but regularly asked for clarification.
Are students being honest when they fill out these self-evaluation questions? That is an issue in the culture where I teach. Our students have the tendency to portray themselves in the best possible light. We try to address this problem by explaining our reasons for making the evaluations reciprocal. We also let students complete them anonymously. In general, so far, we have been pleased with the results. They are certainly an improvement over what we were getting before we made them reciprocal.
Faculty at my institution are encouraged to complete the “feedback loop” by responding to the feedback students provide on their evaluations. We should tell them about changes we intend to make to the course structure and our teaching methods in light of their feedback. And if we haven’t made a change they’ve recommended, we need to explain why.
Recently we have been thinking about making the evaluations reciprocal in the faculty direction. What level of engagement and commitment did faculty make to the course? Answers to a similar set of faculty questions could promote honest self-assessment and change.
Serious instructors want useful feedback. Through making course evaluations reciprocal we believe we are providing more meaningful feedback on the teaching-learning dynamic that takes place in our courses.
[If you would like a copy of our reciprocal SCE form, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Perry Shaw, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Beirut, Lebanon.