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April 3, 2014

Teaching at Pitt:

Student evaluations of teaching

Take a deep breath, brace yourself, maybe even pour a glass of wine — your student evaluations of teaching have just appeared in your email. Instructors’ responses to the end-of-semester arrival of student evaluations vary widely. For some, the possibility of harsh critiques produces anxiety, while others relish confirmations of a job well done. Some dismiss student evaluations as simply reflecting particular students’ idiosyncratic preferences. Others welcome the feedback to help them improve their teaching.

Despite the diverse perceptions, research shows that student evaluations are, in fact, generally more reliable than other methods of assessing teaching effectiveness, such as peer evaluation or self-ratings. Unfortunately, misconceptions may lead some faculty to diminish the importance of student evaluations. Those misconceptions may include the notions that students cannot make consistent judgments, do not appreciate good teaching, and really just want “easy” courses, or that such ratings amount to a popularity contest. Perhaps most harmfully, some instructors believe that student evaluations are not helpful in improving teaching.

However, student evaluations of teaching, administered in most Pitt schools through the Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching (OMET), can be effective sources for improved teaching. The question is how best to use them. Here are some tips.

Get your mind right

Approach student evaluations with the primary goal of improving your teaching. While self-affirmation or self-critique may relate to that goal, those functions should not undermine the essential usefulness of student evaluations.

• Recall that teaching is a skill that must be developed like any other skill. The best teachers are those who honestly evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and continue to improve. In other words, even if you have received critical feedback on your evaluations, the fact that you are taking such feedback seriously means that you are on the right path to becoming better.

• Consider both positive and negative feedback. Although individuals tend to focus on one or the other, paying attention to both provides balance, and both kinds of feedback can help you to improve. You likely are not always as good as the best things students say about you, just as you likely are not always as bad as the worst things they say about you.

• Note that students have been asked to specify the instructor’s major weaknesses. If students instead were asked to evaluate your teaching generally, they might not have said anything critical. Think about how you respond when asked what you think of someone; how would your response differ if you were asked to point out that person’s weaknesses? The way in which the student evaluations are set up — i.e., to solicit both positive and critical feedback for the purposes of improvement — also mitigates against reading the evaluations as a perfect reflection of a student’s general impression of you as a teacher.

Determine action items

• The appearance of a similar comment multiple times is a fairly good indicator of a potentially actionable item. Keep in mind, however, that a single student may repeat the same critical or positive feedback in several areas of the survey, as in the course and instructor areas, for example. Just because the same comment appears a couple times throughout the survey does not necessarily mean that many students feel the same way. (By the same token, the statement by a single student that “Many students felt…” is a fairly unreliable indicator of the representativeness of that individual student’s assessment.)

• A remark that appears only once in the feedback should neither be dismissed immediately nor overly elevated in importance. It can be easy to dismiss a singular critical comment because it simply doesn’t fit with an instructor’s self-evaluation, or to disregard a positive comment such as “knowledgeable,” by arguing that the student has no basis for assessing that.

At the same time, many instructors become fixated on a student comment (positive or negative) as if it were the final word, even when multiple other comments conflict with it.

• Determine whether the criticism is warranted and, if so, in what sense. Then consider ways to act on the feedback while maintaining the integrity of the course. One semester I received several comments that there was too much writing required in my non-“W” designated course. Because I believe that writing is critical to my students’ success in that particular course, I chose to maintain the writing requirements. However, I have made a greater effort to inform my students at the beginning of the semester about the amount of writing they can expect.

• Don’t simply dismiss a “split in the data.” If one student says that your in-depth explanations of difficult concepts are extremely helpful, while another complains that you spend too much time going into detail on simple concepts, avoid the temptation to say, “Well, you can’t please everyone.” While that aphorism applies here, consider whether one remark is more legitimate than another, or whether both have legitimacy.

Use the split as an opportunity to consider other methods of meeting student needs/desires. For example, could you provide alternative activities for students who finish an assignment early or provide in-depth remedial explanations for struggling students on optional videos, viewable on CourseWeb? Of course, you ultimately may determine that the best path is to continue doing what you have been doing.

Make a plan

Focus on manageable goals. You may not be able to improve every area you identify immediately, so identify the most important, as well as the easiest and most challenging to address, and determine what will take priority. It is better to improve in one area than to attempt to improve in all areas and succeed in none.

Research indicates that areas most often correlated with improved teaching evaluations include:

  • Creating opportunities for active learning in the classroom.
  • Fostering better student-teacher interactions.
  • Setting expectations and maintaining high standards.
  • Being prepared for class.
  • Revising procedures for assessing student work.

Research also indicates that student feedback, together with a teaching consultation, is most effective for improving teaching performance and ratings.

CIDDE’s teaching and learning consultants frequently work closely with faculty and graduate student instructors to help them improve their teaching evaluations. Those consultations might consist of one meeting to go over potentially actionable items, or a longer term schedule, over a semester or more, of regular appointments (weekly, biweekly, monthly or as needed) and/or teaching observations, to work systematically on specific goals. If you’d like some help, contact us at

For more information on this subject, see Stephen Benton and William Cashin’s article, “Student Ratings of Teaching: A Summary of Research and Literature,” at

Joel Brady is a CIDDE teaching and learning consultant.