Published: Feb. 24, 2021 By

I have a friend who looks forward to getting his student course ratings back every semester. His scores are usually high, and students have always gushed about his teaching. A few years ago, things started to change. His scores decreased, and student comments were increasingly critical. This took my friend by surprise, as he hadn’t made any changes to his course or instruction. He spent a week feeling depressed. 

After a week, my friend’s mood improved and he chose to take a more productive approach. After speaking with his colleagues, he learned that his peers had been introducing innovations into the classroom while he was using the same strategies he always had. His students were communicating that it was time for him to catch up, and he decided to start listening.

The purpose of the student course ratings (CU’s FCQ) is to collect information about students’ experiences in a single course, looking back at one semester. CU Boulder’s new FCQ, launched in fall 2020, was designed by faculty, staff, and students to better facilitate student feedback and provide faculty with information to identify areas of strength and areas in which they can improve their practice. Essentially, the FCQ is a communication tool between student and instructor.

How can the new FCQ help you in your teaching practice? Taking time to review your scores and comments can guide small changes that can make a big difference. Here are a few ideas:

Look for patterns in your FCQs over time.

As you review the data, what are your overall impressions? Of the 16 FCQ items, which have the highest ratings and which are rated lowest? How do the scores relate to your goals for the course? For instance, if your large online lecture course received low average ratings for the item “I was encouraged to work and learn collaboratively with my classmates,” it might make sense for the scores to be low. But we also know that students learn better when they work with others, so are there small ways in which you can prompt students to work collaboratively

Read student comments and identify major themes – the things they mention most frequently (e.g. “gave great examples” or “exams were too difficult”). How do these align with your conversations with students or your impressions of the course? 

Analyze the information and reflect on what you are seeing. What do you think is working well? Where are the sticky places where students have difficulty? If there was a particular course or semester in which you struggled, what can you identify as the specific issues? What strategies will you use next time to address these issues? 

Don’t wait until the end of the semester to get student feedback.

In my last post, I discussed the value of asking students for midcourse feedback. By using your own survey, you can write questions to get feedback on things that are specific to the course. And by checking in with your students during the course of the semester, you can make adjustments to instruction or offer support where they need it.

Get a second set of eyes on student comments.

Student comments can be uplifting, hurtful, or confusing. If you are not sure what students are telling you, ask a trusted colleague to help you interpret them. Don’t let a couple negative comments have a disproportionate impact. And on the flip side, don’t let comments from your biggest fans give you a false sense that everything you do is great.

Treat outliers as, well, outliers.

Be aware that many factors can affect student ratings, and ratings fluctuate over time. Small differences in ratings are common and are not necessarily meaningful. Look for patterns and then review the ratings that stand out. What do you do when you find outliers in your research data? There will always be students who are unhappy or disengaged, no matter what you do. It is good to reflect on the semester and try to identify why you might be seeing these results, but in general, outliers are not representative of the student experience and should be considered in the context of all other information.

Do not compare yourself to other faculty.

It is tempting to look at others and think they have the magic touch, but good teaching does not happen by magic. Good teaching can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. Focus on your own situation and learn how to make your style work better for you.

What if you are ready to innovate, but worry that students won’t like it? Faculty often fear that when they introduce teaching strategies such as active learning, inquiry-based learning, or other high engagement activities, their course ratings will drop. It turns out that there may not be any evidence to support these fears. In my experience, students are generally good sports; when they understand that the strategy is meant to help them learn, they will try what you are asking them to do. Be transparent about your goals and be open to their suggestions. 

What if, like my friend, your FCQs put you in a dark mood? Remember that student perception is only one part of the whole picture. Sometimes, bad semesters happen no matter how hard you work, but don’t let it define you. If you want to dwell on negative responses, give yourself a day or two and then stop yourself! Use campus resources like CTL Consultations or faculty mentors in your department or in Faculty Affairs to help you identify your next steps.

Further Reading:

On the care and handling of student ratings

Talking with Students about Evaluations

How to Make Course Evaluations More Valuable

Using Multiple Course Evaluations to Engage and Empower Your Students and Yourself

Teaching Large Classes