Lessons from Student Evaluations (or Teaching by the Numbers):

by Tory Thorkelson

As I have mentioned previously, our university here in Korea does student evaluations of our classes online (and has done so since 2002) but the questions and format change regularly. While I do my own informal evaluations, which are entirely comment based, the numbers (or percentages) from the university versions have taught me a few important lessons that I thought I would share with you.

1) The 70%s:

Yes, there have been a handful of these in my 20+ years. In some cases, it was my fault. For example, the class that I took on as a favor to another program which had 30 students, with half at the low to high beginner levels and the other half at virtual native speaker level. I divided the class in half and told the high level students to do book reports, research projects, journals and other out of class work to meet the homework component. I interviewed them twice and had them do some presentations so I could help the lower level students more in class, I also tested a new textbook as well which looked great (and was highly recommended by a friend from another University) which turned out to be a mistake. Nobody was really happy and so my first 74% score was the result. I take much of the blame for that.

On the other hand, some were not entirely my fault. I had a medical English sophomore class. They did not believe English was important for them, despite the fact that virtually all the medical textbooks they brought to class were in English. They did not want to do medical English (I asked) and chose a textbook from a few I passed around (publisher samples) and so I tried to teach the class. There was whining and complaining, arguments over most of the homework and assignments, and general unhappiness. A number of students were absent or skipped presentation days. In the end, the grades ranged from D’s to a high of a B. I was told they could not fail as they would have to repeat the entire year. As was my habit at that time, I posted their final grades on the door of the classroom and then handed my grades in to the administration. A few weeks later, I saw the final grades for this class online and – magically – the curve ranged from B’s to A’s. My boss called me in to explain why I got a 74% for that class, and I showed her my records, copies of homework, and posted grades. She sighed and accepted my explanation. I never heard another word about it.

2) The 80%s:

Most of my classes, or about 60%, are in this range. This is not surprising as we change course offerings every two to four years. New classes in subjects I am not exactly an expert in, like Business Writing, Introduction to Communication, or Current Events and Listening which I taught for the first time last term all at least begin here. This seems reasonable since the chances of wowing my students with my knowhow in an area I am researching and preparing lessons for week by week or class by class is pretty unlikely. Scores like this tell me that a majority of students appreciated my efforts and forgave me my occasional moments of humanity (like clicking the wrong link or taking a chance on a video I forgot to preview beforehand). As long as most of my students are happy, then I feel like I am doing my job.

3) The 90%s:

These classes are mostly in areas where I know the subject well, like Tourism English or my Introduction to Acting Class where I never achieved lower than a 96%. It helps when I love the subject personally as well but I can not pretend to know how much that contributes to the final score.

Perhaps the most satisfying courses in this group are the ones like our recently discontinued Job skills and interview course which moved from the mid-80% to a 99% the last time I taught it, as I had 10 years to perfect and streamline what I was teaching to match the needs of the students and the realities of the job market. My Story of English Class has also been in the 80%s and 90%s over the years as most students find a seminar style course a hard adjustment and it moved from senior level elective to a sophomore level one but with tweaking it will get back into the 90% range again I am sure over time.

4) The 100%:

Getting 100% as an approval rating from a class is kind of like getting a platinum medal in the Olympics or discovering that unicorns and dragons exist. The fact that this was a Monday morning 9.00 am class with a very mixed group of students made it even more satisfying that they were perfectly happy with the class. I did not do anything differently from any other class I teach, but I was quickly able to get to know the students well as there were only 8 of them who came regularly to class. The got along pretty well as people and there was also a good balance of older and younger students so all of this contributed to the class satisfaction I am sure.

None of us like the idea of student evaluations being a key aspect of whether we can keep our jobs or not, especially since research shows how flawed they can be (see: https://www.aaup.org/article/student-evaluations-teaching-are-not-valid#.XIxIAlQzbcc) but they can offer important insights into your students minds which will help your teaching and courses to evolve over time if you read between the lines and do not take everything too personally.