Student Evaluations

In spring 2022 TLAC partnered with the Office of the Faculty Ombuds co-sponsored an event titled, "Discussion on Alternatives to SRIS for Student Feedback." With an abundance of research demonstrating the harm student evaluations can cause to instructors who are members of underrepresented minorities, women, and English as second language speakers, this facilitated discussion focused on faculty experiences, ideas, and challenges regarding WCU's use of Student Rating of Instructor Surveys (SRIS), including ways we can productively solicit feedback from students about our teaching in alternative and additional ways to using SRIS.  Joining TLAC Faculty Associate Janneken Smucker and Ombuds Joan Woolfrey were a panel of faculty members—Professors Dara Dirhan (Nutrition, CHS), Lauri Hyers (Psychology, CSM), Matin Katirai (Geography and Planning, CBPM), and Michael Rosario (Biology, CSM). 

Below is a summary of takeaways and resources from this discussion, supplemented with research compiled by the APSCUF subcommittee on Social Justice.  

Bias in Student Evaluations

Research indicates that SRIS and student evaluations in general are inherently biased, and updating or revising them will not change that bias. The race/gender/sexuality of a professor is clearly a major factor in how students evaluate instructors. Other factors, including whether a course is required or challenging or scheduled at an undesirable time also negatively affect students' evaluation of teaching.  APSCUF's subcommittee on Social Justice has been working with the Union and the Provost’s office to try to address this issue. This group will create a set of trainings to cultivate faculty evaluators who will be able to identify bias in SRIS scores and to have a process for the way those scores are interpreted by departments and by members of the Tenure and Promotion Committee.  Faculty working on topics related to institutional bias who are interested in collaborating with the above group should contact one of the members listed above.

The following resources provide an introduction to the issue of bias in student evaluations:

  • St. Olaf College, "Bias in Course Evaluations." Site summarizes and links to studies and reports of evidence based large-scale studies of the gender and racial biases inherent in student evaluation tools and processes.
  • MacNell, L., Driscoll, A. & Hunt, A.N. "What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching." Innovative Higher Education, 40 (2015): 291–303. Study presents findings based on student evaluations of online teaching with instructors switching their genders to assess gender bias. 

Student Perceptions

Students do not have a clear idea of how SRIS or other student evaluations are applied. Many have misconceptions of their significance. While these are merely anecdotal, it's important to understand, and when possible, counter students' incorrect perceptions. 

  • Some students believe it is detrimental to professors if you give them all 6s, so some do not give out the highest score
  • Psychology Professor Lauri Hyers conducted an informal poll of her research lab students and found many student misperceptions of the purpose of SRIS. Review her full findings here. Some of her study's key takeaways include that: 
    • students do not feel qualified to evaluate teaching methods
    • the SRIS questions are often hard for the students to assess, which may lead to apathy or otherwise blowing off the evaluation
    • some students are cynical about SRIS because they have provided criticisms of professors' teaching without any changes resulting from that feedback
    • some students admit to rating teachings they personally like higher on these surveys, rather than focusing on assessing their teaching

Communicating with Students about SRIS

We know that student evaluations of teaching only tell part of the story about any classroom and instructor. While WCU uses SRIS scores as part of its larger evaluation and promotion process, it is not worth overthinking or getting stressed about SRIS. However, students’ perceptions of a course certainly matter and can provide a window into how our actions and intentions come across to them. One way to make SRIS less daunting is to connect the language from the SRIS to your own teaching. For example:

  • Review “course requirements and grading procedures” regularly. It’s a good idea to review this before major assessments. Help students understand what is expected of them.
  • Remind students once you have addressed or “met the course objectives published in the course description or syllabus.” Help them understand what and that they have learned. This can be done at the end or beginning of a class or a unit.
  • Help students understand what it means to have a graded assignment or paper returned in a “timely manner” especially in the context of the type or level of class they are in. Explain how your approach as well as the values you ascribe to grading impacts the amount of time it might take to return their assignments.
  • Explain how you’ve “organized this class in a way that helped [students] to learn the material.”
  • Highlight moments that reflect a “good use of class time.” Prepare students to make the most of class time, particularly when structuring group-work or collaborative learning exercises.
  • Help students understand the value and rationale behind pedagogical practices. Be sure to provide them guidance so they do make good use of these modes of learning.
  • Be explicit about communicating what and how you’ve thought about and prepared for the class.
  • Let students know that professors have no control over when or where classes meet, and that those factors should not be used in evaluations.
  • When preparing students for SRIS, or administrating the survey for a colleague, use the opportunity to inform and educate students about how the university uses the survey as part of its tenure and promotion process and encourage them to reflect on their own biases.

Soliciting and Applying Student Feedback

Although SRIS and other tools have inherent flaws, there are other ways to productively solicit and apply student feedback on teaching methods and courses. We encourage instructors to experiment with alternatives to SRIS, that may be less useful for the tenure and promotion process, but may yield important feedback on how to improve the craft of teaching.  We hope faculty agree that student feedback on our courses is essential.

Suggestions include:

  • Consider telling current semester students how you are addressing the feedback you have received in the prior semester(s). If you're feeling really brave, look at Rate My Professor and explain how you're responding to that  too.
  • Conduct an informal mid-semester evaluation with students, allowing them to tell you what is working and what they would like to change. Responding to that feedback may raise the SRISs scores at the end of the semester.

Using Evaluations for TEP

SRIS scores are one part of how WCU's Tenure and Evaluation Committee assesses teaching effectiveness, however it should be only one factor, along with peer observation and a faculty member's narrative and supplemental documentation regarding teaching. The following resources address why student evaluations are problematic when specifically used in the tenure ane promotion process.

Special Circumstances

Some programs, including Nutrition and Nursing, need to provide results from student evaluations to credentialing bodies, so they implement their own tools in addition to using SRIS as required by the university.  We welcome the insights of these and other programs who currently use alternative devices for evaluating teaching, recognizing that there is no one perfect solution.