Are course evaluations effective?

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There is perhaps no greater magnet of rage, depravity and ignorance than an Internet message board, at least generally speaking. The stereotypes are true that the anonymity that virtual complaint space provides allows anybody to air their complaints without the risk of consequence. As a result, oftentimes message boards, and therefore the opinions found within, are dismissed.

At the end of each semester in each class, professors are required to hand out course evaluations. By now, almost everyone in the school has already seen the formal process, number two pencils and all. There is usually a quantitative data collection portion which asks students to rate specific aspects of the course organization, content and professor ability on a predetermined scale (a “very good, good, average, bad, very bad” sort of deal), as well as a space for students to write comments.

According to the collective agreement for Brock University faculty, teaching evaluations are an “essential component to the commitment to teaching excellence”. Those are extremely strong words from such a central document; this statement and its focus on reviews and comments is worthless however, if the faculty don’t believe it.

Ultimately, many students don’t believe that course evaluations are important because they feel their professors and instructors don’t take their criticisms about the course into account. In fact, from the poll results below, we can see that 37 per cent of students who voted agreed with the option: “I don’t think course evaluations make any difference to professors’ teaching and course planning”. Some of them are right (we all know a few professors who have used the same PowerPoint since the fall of the Berlin wall), some of them are wrong, but still, can you blame them?

Would you pour your heart into a document that you believe is going to be thrown in the dumpster behind the Glenridge building before any real engagement with the comments or results? This represents a self-fulfilling prophecy for course evaluations, however, students don’t put effort into evaluations because they assume they will not be taken into account, and the professor doesn’t take them into account because effort is not being made.

Whether you believe that professors make use of your provided opinions or not, if you choose not to write thoughtful comments and take the evaluations seriously, you are making that a reality.

Of course, the guilt doesn’t fall solely on students, and certainly doesn’t fall upon all students.

According to the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation,“almost 60 per cent of faculty reported they use the evaluation of teaching forms to improve their course and teaching”.

Furthermore, “approximately 50 per cent of faculty reported that evaluation of teaching forms are used at the departmental level for the purpose of promotion and tenure”.

There are no names signed at the bottom of the sheets, there is no accountability on the side of the students and there is undoubtedly going to be a few comments that are more mean than constructive. Even still, it would be a crime to banish all the comments across the board as worthless simply because of the form on which it appears. Course evaluations are currently the only consistent channel of providing information, critiques and ideas to professors about courses and teaching methods. They might not be the best gauge of student interest and engagement, but they’re available (and mandatory), so you might as well make the best of them.

To sum up 12 weeks of reactions and opinions about a course, professor or syllabus is asinine. Furthermore, a document at the end of the semester is far too late. If the university is able to set up midterm examinations, why do they not invest in midpoint course evaluations as well?

If course evaluations are going to be the sole form of organized, official communication between students, departments and professors, then we had better start evaluating our course evaluations. The University represents almost 18,000 unique opinions and that is a resource being wasted by these limiting forms.

Let us know your thoughts by tweeting @TheBrockPress #evaluation


“The results [of course evaluations] are not released to instructors until after grades have been submitted, and those results do make their way through various levels of administration.

Such evaluations are not perfect, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that a form allows only limited responses and directs responses in certain ways. Furthermore, if those who complete the evaluations don’t take them seriously, then the results are not as useful.

Having said that, evaluations can provide helpful comments, and I know that professors and administrators do think about the feedback received. Unfortunately, the results of those thoughts won’t be seen by the students who provided the feedback, because any changes can only be implemented in future offerings of the course. As a result, if students have immediate concerns or questions about the way a course is designed, they should find a way to express those concerns to the instructor before the course ends. (For example, I once received a comment on a course evaluation that told me the microphone didn’t project my voice loudly enough, but of course by the time I read that comment, the course was over as well as any opportunity to change the volume!

– Ann Howey, Chair, English Language and Literature

“I think the effectiveness of course evaluations varies considerably partially due to the disparity in the quality of input provided by students and partially due to the extent of how much of this information instructors choose to incorporate into their courses. In regard to the comments sheets, some students provide detailed, thoughtful feedback. This can be a valuable resource for instructors looking to increase the effectiveness of lectures, enhance the relevance of course content, and improve the overall learning experience for students. I’ll often use this feedback to tweak the courses I teach, however, certain aspects of a course are more flexible and open to change than others.”

– Geoffery Hoover, lecturer, Goodman School of Business


“Course evaluations are one valuable way that we can get a good sense of what is working in a course, and what might not be working quite as well. Course evaluations are primarily read by the professor and taken into consideration when revising the course. The quantitative information is also reported to the department Chair and to the Dean of Social Sciences. The course evaluations also play a role in more formal evaluations of professors, e.g. when we are up for tenure and/or promotion, or in the end of term evaluation of stipend instructors and teaching assistants.”

–Rebecca Raby, Chair, Child and Youth Studies

“For myself, I take course evaluations seriously, and I would hope that students take them as seriously as I do. Because they are anonymous, the comments students give have the benefit of frankness and can provide feedback of great value for rethinking and improving course content, structure, and delivery. There’s always room for improvement.”

–Barry Grant, professor, Popular Culture and Film

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