Because teaching is one of the most important parts of your work in higher education, it merits regular scrutiny and upgrading. Not only is it critical for you to know what — and how — you are doing in the classroom, others who must assess your work need such evidence as well. Whether your purposes for evaluating your teaching are formative or summative, this section suggests ways you can take stock of your teaching self, identify strategies for improvement and keep a complete and valuable record of your accomplishments.

Gathering Student Feedback

Student evaluations are the most commonly used method of assessing an instructor's effectiveness in the classroom. Although they do not reflect your expertise with regard to content, they provide feedback on how well you are communicating what you know. High ratings are not guaranteed indicators of effective instruction, and low ratings, likewise, do not always indicate ineffective instruction. What student evaluations do provide is an indication of how students feel about some of the specific teaching practices and activities used during a specific period of time. The results can inspire you to ask yourself questions about the teaching and learning objectives you've selected for a class, about your role as the instructor, and about your expectations for students' learning.

End-of-semester evaluations and written comments are standard methods for obtaining information about your teaching. Generally, students are able to report on the extent to which a teacher appears prepared for class sessions, communicates clearly, stimulates interest and demonstrates enthusiasm. However, if you're interested in what and how students are learning and would like to use their feedback to improve your teaching, consider conducting periodic and midterm classroom assessments. Here are some suggestions:

Informal classroom assessments

Informal assessments (one-minute paper, muddiest point, concept dump) can be conducted at the end of a class session or through student journals. You can ask students to respond to a fairly general question ("What is the most important concept you learned this week?" or "What course activities are helping you learn best?") or you can structure questions to focus more closely on specific aspects of your teaching ("What effect has our use of think-pair-share sessions had on your learning?"). Students' comments can reveal that they are learning what they need to learn or that certain class activities help or hinder their learning.

Questionnaires

Questionnaires obtain responses from the whole class and allow for an anonymous (and therefore probably more candid) response. Use questionnaires at the beginning of a course to get information about the students (e.g., prior course work or experience with the subject, preferred modes of teaching and learning, special problems a student might have). Midterm questionnaires can give you an early warning about problems in time to make changes that can benefit students. End-of-term questionnaires can yield meaningful responses to questions about the overall effectiveness of the course.

Interviews with students

Interviews are a well-established way of finding out about students' reactions. If sufficient trust and rapport exist, you can conduct the interview yourself. Most instructors, however, ask an outside person to interview students to ensure anonymity and objectivity.

The interviewer puts students into small groups of no more than six and asks them to talk among themselves about what is going well in the class and what is not going well. Each group then reports to the class as a whole. The interviewer asks for clarification when necessary and tries to get the groups to reach consensus about the most significant issues affecting learning in the class. The entire process can be completed in 15-20 minutes.

The results of the interview are reported to the instructor confidentially and without identifying individual students. Although students know better than anyone what their own reactions are, they also can be biased and limited in their perceptions. They occasionally have negative feelings, often unconsciously, about women, people who are ethnically different from themselves, and international teachers. Perhaps more significantly, students usually do not fully understand how a course might be taught, either in terms of pedagogy or content. Hence they can effectively address what is, but not what might be. Information from someone with a professional understanding of the possibilities of good teaching can help supplement and interpret students' perceptions.

Responding to Feedback from Students

If you are relying on students to provide some information for a comprehensive assessment of your teaching, it's important to respond to their feedback as soon as possible. There's no need to provide the results for every item on a questionnaire or every question asked in an interview, but you might want to discuss two or three items to which the group responded favorably and two or three items that you hope to improve. If informal assessment efforts reveal some common concerns or misunderstood subject matter, you should address those issues in class. If you've decided to make changes based on student feedback, explain what you intend to do differently and why. Clarify confusion regarding goals and expectations.

Be sure to identify the changes you have control over and intend to change (e.g., better overviews, clearer instructions), changes you will not make (e.g., number of tests given), and those things you cannot change because you have no control over the situation (e.g., size of the class). Remember to thank students for their input. Tell them how important it is and be sure to implement the changes you negotiated and/or promised to make.

Try to maintain a positive attitude when discussing feedback results with your students. The manner in which you request feedback and discuss the results of the survey will indicate to students whether you take their feedback seriously. Avoid being defensive, angry, preachy, or overly apologetic.

Using Student Feedback to Improve Teaching

Asking students to critique your teaching performance can be an enlightening as well as beneficial experience. Here are some helpful hints as you consider student evaluations:

  • Take several days to think over students' feedback before reacting to any positive or negative comments.
  • Feel good about glowing comments you receive about your teaching, but keep them in perspective.
  • Keep unfavorable comments in perspective, too. Negative reactions from one or two disgruntled students may not accurately reflect the perceptions of the entire class. Some negative comments are meant to be constructive, however.
  • Look over all the comments before discounting them.
  • Start small. Don't try to change too many things at once. Start with small, low-risk changes.
  • Realize your students may not always understand your intention. They may misinterpret your intended humor and high standards as coldness or lack of caring, or your easy-going style as incompetence. Recognize that such misinterpretation occurs, learn from it, then move ahead.
  • Avoid complacency because you continually receive good or negative feedback.

Good teaching takes constant work and re-tooling. Remember, the feedback is based upon perceptions, which can and do change.