Evaluating your teaching, subjects and courses
Version 1.0, November 2014
Evaluating your teaching, subjects and courses is an important aspect of university teaching. It helps you develop a sense of the job you've done and how you might improve it. It is also important to underpin decisions about changing your teaching, subjects and courses with data, and preferably from a range of sources. The information below is intended to help you make decisions about how best to approach the evaluation of your teaching.
It is likely you will have different reasons for collecting student feedback. One reason could be that you want to use the data to apply for a teaching citation, excellence in teaching award, or for promotion. Another reason might be because you want to improve some aspect of your teaching and/or subject. And yet another might be that you want to use the data to inform improvements to student learning. All these reasons are important. Your first job is to establish your purpose: ask yourself, what do you want to use the data for? Once you have your purpose/s firmly at the front of your mind, you will be in a better position to make a judgement about how best to read, interpret and use the data from the survey.
La Trobe has a comprehensive system for collecting feedback from students across a range of different contexts. Remember too that the surveys used at La Trobe allow you to add additional questions. This means that you can add specific items about aspects of curriculum, teaching and learning you would like feedback about, for example, an innovation in the LMS, the use of a new technology, a specific assessment task.
While student feedback surveys are important, they are not the only means you can use to collect information about your teaching or students' experiences of learning. You may want to use student focus groups (facilitated by an outsider) or collect data from assessment tasks or look at the spread of outcomes across the subject.
Reading, responding to and reporting your student feedback
Reading your statistical report
Reading and knowing how to respond to feedback can sometimes be quite an emotional affair. It is easy to get caught up in the negative numbers and the critical comments students write about you, their perceptions of your teaching and/or lecturing, and their more general experiences of learning. So your first job is to develop some perspective about this.
In some cases, you will be the only teacher or lecturer in the subject. In other cases, you will be teaching within a team of other academics and colleagues in your department or discipline. This context matters. Try to be aware of the impact on students in being asked to complete the same survey for multiple teachers and lecturers in the same subject. Over-surveying students can sometimes harm the quality of feedback they provide.
Decide whether you want to look at your feedback on your own; or whether it might be helpful to take a more collegial approach to the task. Invite your colleagues together to look collectively at students' feedback and how you might design a response individually, and together. You might invite tutors into the conversation as well.
The university generates a statistical report for all the surveys it supports. Before you look at the questions themselves, take a note of the following:
- Response rate: expresses the total % number of students who completed the survey out of the total number of students enrolled in your class. Ask yourself this: is the response rate on your report a reasonable representation of the majority of the students in your class (say, 60%)?
- Mean: expresses the numerical average of all of the students' responses to an item. Generally, the higher the mean, the better your evaluation. The surveys at La Trobe operate on a scale of 1-5.
- Standard Deviation (SD): represents the distribution of students' responses around the mean. It indicates the degree of consistency among students' responses. Generally, a small SD suggests a high degree of consistency, while a large SD, indicates considerable inconsistency.
- Median: expresses the greatest number of students' responses to an item.
First, try to unpack the patterns (positive and critical) in the statistics and in students' comments across the subject. For example, are there particular items about assessment, feedback, using the LMS that stand out? If there a wide variations between members of the teaching team, aim to have a positive, supportive and reflective conversation about why this might be the case.
Second, look for the themes that emerge in students' comments within the surveys. Are there common areas across all the feedback that could help improve the teaching? There shouldn't be more than four or five common aspects.
Finally, make a list of the issues/challenges that require a collective decision between you and the Subject Coordinator. Since some of the comments students write will have to do with the design of the subject, pass these comments on to the Subject Coordinator for their consideration and action.
Closing the feedback loop
Making judgements about what to change and what to keep the same about teaching and lecturing is never an altogether easy task. If you are an experienced teacher, you will recognise the issues that come up time and time again. Pay attention to these. They are probably the crucial issues.
Resist the tendency to change everything according to students' experiences of their learning. Your job is to take account of the student experience, not to be dictated by it. You should aim to report how you plan to respond to students' comments, to both the Subject Coordinator and the students in your tutorial. This idea of closing the feedback loop is about signalling to students that you value the time they spend providing feedback and that you will read it, consider it and act on it. Again, this does not mean giving students what they want or ask for. It does mean however, helping students see what you will act on, what you've decided against acting on and your reasons for it.
One quick way to close the feedback loop is to post a summary/paragraph on the subject LMS site or include it in the next year's Subject Guide. You could also try emailing students in the subject (the final, farewell and good luck message) to let them know how their feedback has informed improvements to the subject. Another way is to use a Responding to feedback template. The response template is intended as a brief one pager that tells the story of your lecturing or teaching in the subject, and what you've done to improve it. It can also be a very useful archive document for the department, especially when subjects contain different teachers each year.
Remember to consider peer review
Peer review (including observation) of teaching and curriculum is under-utilised in universities. In many cases, this is because teaching is largely seen as a private activity. Inviting a trusted colleague into your classroom to observe your teaching, can in many cases, affirm your good teaching practices. Your colleague's feedback can provide opportunities for you to refresh what you do in the classroom as well.
Observing someone else's teaching, or having your own observed is not the only way to participate in the peer review of teaching. You might try inviting a colleague to review your Subject Learning Guide, to read over an assessment task and offer you feedback, or to sit with you and review the data from student feedback surveys in order to develop a set of actions. All these forms of activity are aspects of the peer review of curriculum.
If you are interested in participating in a process for peer review of teaching, you might like to consult the following resources:
- Peer Review of Teaching for Promotion Purposes: a project to develop and implement a pilot program of Peer Review of Teaching at four Australian Universities – housed at the University of Adelaide (funded by the Australian Teaching and Learning Council, ALTC).
- Harris, K., Farrell, K., Bell, M., Devlin, M., & James, R. (2008). Peer Review of Teaching in Australian Higher Education: A handbook to support institutions in developing effective policies and practices. An Australian Learning and Teaching Council funded project with the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne and Centre for Educational Development and Interactive Resources, University of Wollongong.
- Peer review of teaching in blended learning environments – a project housed at the University of Technology, Sydney (funded by the Australian Teaching and Learning Council, ALTC).
Leading the evaluation of a program or course
Leading curriculum change and evaluation at program or course level can be a complex business. You may find yourself responsible for leading change if you have one, or a number of the following responsibilities: a School-based Teaching and Learning Director, a Curriculum Fellow, the Chair of a Working Group or faculty-based Teaching and Learning Committee or an Associate Dean (Academic).
Depending on the faculty you're in and the level of your leadership role and responsibilities, it is likely you will have access to some aggregate student feedback data from the suite of surveys available at the university, as well as the data completed by graduates. The Planning and Institutional Performance Unit (PIPU) will be able to help you obtain the data you need to support the review process.
Your approach to course or program level evaluation will depend on the purpose. You'll need to ask yourself:
- What are the questions that the evaluation needs to answer?
- What are the intended outcomes of the evaluation process?
- Who are the stakeholders (staff, industry, professional bodies and students) and how will you collect data and communicate with them?
- What kinds of data are needed to answer the questions?
- Who should read and be expected to act on the recommendations?
There are several useful Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) projects and resources (formerly ALTC) to support curriculum evaluation at a program or course level:
- Embedding and sustaining leadership development for course coordinators through tailored support during curriculum review (led by the University of Ballarat)
- Closing the gap in curriculum development leadership (led by the University of Queensland).
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