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Interpreting Student Comments on Course Evaluations


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When it comes to feedback about course quality, students and teachers aren’t necessarily using the same yardstick.  “How hard is it to get a good grade?” is a typical student concern and priority affecting course feedback.  If teachers, administrators, and students hold different expectations about the course and about learning in general, the academic process falls short of its potential. Viewing student feedback through alternative student lenses helps teachers better understand end-of-course feedback.  Careful consideration of student feedback helps teachers and academic leaders sensitively manage these divergent views, which leads to increased student satisfaction.  More importantly, viewing course feedback through a student lens should improve learning and retention as it fosters changes that align teachers’ and students’ expectations and beliefs about learning. Below are three examples of common student comments followed by a suggestion of how we could better interpret what students are telling us. Discussion of the feedback and possible interpretations can lead to policy and instructional changes that facilitate closer alignment of expectations regarding rigor, assessment, and learning. Student comment:  Problems on the exam were nothing like those in class/problem sets. Interpretation: We could assume students are not paying attention, are not spending enough time on assignments, or are simply not studying hard enough. But, this kind of comment also reflects the differences in the way novices approach problem solving compared to experts. If students’ past learning experiences emphasized memorization, college teachers’ expectations of knowledge transference may result in student frustration about exams and grades.  We can reduce the chances of students feeling this way when we incorporate reflection to help students gain insight about the problem-solving process.  We can intentionally mix a variety of problem types in low-stakes practice to develop students’ ability to recognize scenarios rather than memorize steps. That way, when students face new or different problems and scenarios on exams, it feels more like an appropriate demonstration of learning than a “gotcha” question. Student comment:  It might help if we knew what we will be graded on.  I felt like the grading was unjustified. Interpretation: Students’ intense focus on grades may be only one explanation for these kinds of statements. These comments no doubt allude, in part, to the very real difficulty in explaining our grading choices to students in written or oral feedback on their writing. But the perception of being graded unfairly may also reveal a more serious misconception of what is being evaluated: not the ability to convey information (or the “right” information), but the ability to construct a persuasive argument. This misperception may signal a failure to appreciate expectations associated with college-level writing. We should avoid assuming that newer college students understand grading practices. The more we know about our students, the better equipped we are to determine where they are in the learning maturation process. For example, students near the start of their college experience are unlikely to be aware of or share their teachers’ assumptions and beliefs about how learning happens, or even the purpose of higher education. Students just entering college are also unlikely to view the educational process as an experience that goes beyond learning content and may dismiss the importance of developing new attitudes and perspectives and learning about themselves as learners. Student comment:  I did not learn in this class because the teacher did not teach.  I did not come to college to teach myself. Interpretation:  Many students expect college classes to entail the teacher standing in front of the room “telling.” It’s what they’ve experienced until now and anything that deviates from that expectation can produce discomfort. It’s also how they view the process of learning itself. Novice learners may believe that gaining knowledge is as simple as listening to and repeating the views of an authority figure. From that perspective, group work in our classes and engaging “students as teachers” may be interpreted as the teacher shirking responsibility for teaching. This kind of course feedback can also reflect resentment of preparatory work. Putting the classwork into context should help to reduce resistance and frustration. Some ways to do that include explaining why first exposure outside of class is necessary, making the prep work low-stakes, assessing prep work leniently (for effort rather than accuracy) or as part of formative assessment, not summative. All of these instructional approaches reinforce the message to students that learning requires active engagement, and that the reason we’re using these strategies is because they will help them learn and not because we didn’t feel like “teaching” that day. Derived from Hodges, L.C. & Stanton, K. 2007. Translating Comments on Student Evaluations into the Language of Learning. Innovation in Higher Education, 31: 279-286. Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business economics at Penn State Berks.