Reading Student Evaluations

Steven Volk, February 7, 2010

By now, as you well know, there is a very large literature on student evaluations of teaching (SETs). A lot of the research points to the validity and reliability of these instruments in terms of measuring very specific areas of a student’s experience in a completed class. Some writers continue to argue that they are a worthless exercise, citing evidence that evaluations handed out after the first day of a class will yield strikingly similar results to surveys conducted at the end of the semester, that they are a measure of the entertainment-value of a class, not any value added in terms of student learning, or that they can be easily influenced (just hand out doughnuts with the questionnaires). I have come to accept three basic realities about the use of SETs: (1) on a broad level, they help to identify outliers – a class which seems to have been extremely successful or highly troubled; (2) they should not be used as the only evaluation of teaching (peer evaluation and a study of course syllabi are strongly recommended as well); and (3) SETs are not a substitute for an assessment of student learning in a course. But, when read carefully, they can tell you something about your teaching on a very specific level. The question is how to read them to get that information out, and on that score, there is very little literature. So here’s a first attempt at this question, a kind of “SETs for Beginners.” Continue reading