Why students should fill out course evaluations

By: Terry Cooney, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts 

The invitation comes every semester: please sign on to this special website and complete evaluations for the courses in which you are enrolled. Some students complete these surveys regularly and consistently, but some rarely do. Why should you care about student evaluations of courses? Who are you helping if you fill them out?

First, you are helping faculty. Faculty take the collective results of these evaluations seriously. Most faculty want to be the most effective teachers they can be, and they care about how students experience the work of their courses and how they learn. Students do not stay the same over time, and what was effective in previous years may not always work as well now. In their annual reports, faculty provide written reflections on their student evaluations, and frequently they describe adjustments or changes made because of the comments of students. When you complete student evaluations in thoughtful ways, you help strengthen teaching and you contribute to the positive experience of other students.

Second, you are helping the University maintain a strong academic program. Student course evaluations shape how faculty are assessed as teachers. Faculty are required to include student evaluations from all courses in their annual review files as one source (not the only source) of evidence on their teaching. These files are also part of the evaluation process for tenure and promotion. Colleagues, department chairs, deans, and sometimes the provost and president review these files. Student input makes an important contribution to the evaluation of faculty as teachers, whether that leads to a search for improvement or a celebration of evident ability and commitment.

Third, you are helping yourself. Students can learn important lessons from the process of completing student evaluations, if they are thoughtful and constructive in their comments. A person I know who consults with a range of large organizations asserts that one of the most essential skills for a person who hopes to rise in a profession is the ability to give, and receive, direct constructive feedback. Students may see models of such feedback in faculty evaluations of their work, and making good use of that feedback is often the mark of more successful students. Student evaluations of teaching are an opportunity for students, in turn, to develop the habits of professional critique and to balance recognition of strengths with suggestions for change. You will be helping your future self when you take the responsibilities of evaluation seriously.

What might taking evaluations seriously look like? There are many ways in which to consider your experience in a course: Have you been asked to stretch to learn something new? Have you been given guidance and feedback to help you improve? Have patterns of instruction in the classroom tried to engage you in questioning or discussing the material under study? Have you been asked to cite evidence to back up your claims or opinions? Have you, and has the instructor, considered alternative arguments that might read evidence differently?

As you ask such questions, one additional query you should perhaps keep in mind is the question of how much or how fully you as a student have invested in the course. Have you done the assignments fully and worked to understand the ideas or applications involved? Both federal and state guidelines for college courses hold that for every credit hour granted, there should be at least one hour of class time and two hours of out-of-class work each week. Thus, each three-credit course should involve three hours in class and six hours of work outside of class weekly. This provides a guideline by which you might ask not only how fully you have invested in a course but also how fully the faculty member has structured work to provide the expected value for you in the course. A few students use course evaluations to assert that courses should be easy and expect very little of them; they are apparently willing to pay full tuition for a fraction of an education. I encourage students to consider when they are filling out student evaluations whether a course is asking from them as much as it should, whether it is providing full value in its expectations of time invested and quality of results. What you do now does matter to your future.

A final word: Thank you to all those students who do fill out student evaluations and who take the time to comment thoughtfully on the faculty member’s efforts to structure approaches to the material, provide meaningful feedback, and extend support for learning. Faculty members appreciate the enthusiasm and generosity they often find in your remarks, and they appreciate the suggestions and assessments you provide. Evaluations matter.

Terry Cooney

Dean, College of Liberal Arts

Rector, The Honors College

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