Sometimes there is a considerable difference between a professor’s evaluation of a course and those of the students. The divergence can work in either direction. Perhaps a “terrible” experience for the professor was “absolutely brilliant” for the students. Let’s be honest, however: the opposite situation is difficult news. What are the next steps when a professor thinks a course went “just fine” and the students clearly did not?

The situation is not rare, based on my conversations with colleagues as well as my personal experiences teaching at five institutions over the last decade. While students’ opinions are not the end-all-and-be-all of pedagogy, they should be taken as a worthwhile source of insight into the design of a course.

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So, what do you do when students’ opinions of instruction rate a course as leaving something to be desired?

Firstly, I recommend taking a few breaths to remind yourself teaching is a practice and not a science. Excellence in the practice of teaching requires constant oscillations of praxis and reflection. The point is to take a step back and think about what happened in a course. Ideally, this should happen on a weekly basis. In the busyness of the real world this often waits until something like Student Opinions of Instruction come your way.

Large enrollment courses are particularly prone to this situation, simply because the nature and level of contact with students tend more towards anonymity. Therefore it is all the more important to work at integrating pedagogical reflection into the regular goings-on of large-enrollment teaching. For example, you could make more time for CATs at the end of class sessions.

Secondly, I recommend looking at all the available data in order to produce some hypotheses, if not to suggest conclusive rationales for making changes in the design of your course:

  • Consider your course design pedagogy before thinking about the students’ opinions:
    • Did you try to integrate specific resources, approaches or influences into your teaching?
    • How did these inform the design of your course?
    • How did you intend these factors to influence your teaching? (For example, did you try adopting something from a colleague? Or, did you take the counsel of Donald Clark to create multiple choice assignments that do not “simply test atomic facts and words from the presented text.” How did that work out in your opinion?)
  • Turn to the students’ opinions:
    • What stands out in the students’ opinions of instruction?
    • Are there recurring themes or aspects of the course?
  • Think about your own experience:
    • What stood out for you during the term?
    • How were the class sessions?
    • What was your reading of how students thought of their assignments, class sessions, or other aspects of the course?
    • What was the frequency of your communications with students? What were the contents of those exchanges? Were there recurring themes or topics?
  • Analyze the grading data for the course:
    • Did the outcomes for one assignment “behave” differently from another (e.g. differences in the overall average or mean and deviation; differences in student participation; differences in the distribution of grades)?
    • Did students improve over the duration of the course? Can you postulate trends among those who improved as opposed to those who did not?
    • Was there a certain point in time or date for a specific evaluation where students’ grades either spiked or dipped?
  • Finally, once you have answered these questions, ask whether any hypothetical correlations emerge among your answers to these questions. Can you propose any?

Answering these questions may be useful in figuring out what was going on within your course. You may even be able to find reasonable grounds to warrant changes or revisions in your course design. By creating accounts or narratives of this data and documenting whatever changes you implement, you will be able to consider whether the changes or revisions potentially improved the course itself. Furthermore, by doing so you are then able to clearly demonstrate your care and attention to teaching not only to yourself but also to anyone who should inquire!

Embarking upon something like the process outlined above might change the students’ opinions of your instruction, too!


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences

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