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Faculty Facing Low Student Ratings
Dr. Gregory Plyczech reviewing student ratings
Dr. Plyczech reviews student ratings after teaching a new systems engineering class.
Dr. Gregory Plyczech has created a new course in Aerospace Engineering. His end-of-term student evaluations, however, were lower than expected. Concerned about the effect of low ratings on his tenure plans, he reviewed his student ratings with an instructional consultant.
Full Story:
Dr. Plyczech, an Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering at a large university, created a course last year on systems engineering for space missions and has only taught it once, last semester. He spent a good deal of time before the term preparing all of the course materials, including the syllabus, reading lists, lectures, and handouts. He also assigned individual writing reports and group project.
Strategies Menu
Despite this effort, his student evaluations from the first semester were much lower than he expected: 2.8 out of 5. How surprising since he felt that the class went pretty well for the first time teaching; he thought he had provided a unique and inclusive learning environment and made himself available for students' questions.
In reading the students' written comments he noted that many students complained about the frustrations of working in groups. Others were frustrated by the sheer magnitude of the projects. Some students claimed they didn't learn much from the lectures though they appeared to learn from the projects.
Student ratings are one of many methods to evaluate your teaching.
Fearful of how low student ratings would impact his tenure case, Gregory addressed his disappointing evaluations with an instructional consultant. The instructional consultant and Dr. Plyczech discussed some ways to learn and make improvements from these ratings.

  1. Students' comments on the ratings can be ambiguous. Focus on identifying the key problems in class. Try looking at all of the comments for one question to identify patterns. Student ratings can be difficult to interpret for multiple reasons. One factor could be the diversity of student experience; some things may work well for some students but not for others, so the student comments may be contradictory. Also, comments may be emotionally laden. Distance yourself emotionally from the negative comments in order to objectively look for the improvements.
  2. Many students require instruction in the non-technical skills necessary for effective team work, such as listening, delegating work fairly, or managing conflict (often termed “soft skills”). Such instruction will help prepare students for the challenges that often arise in collaborative working groups, and thereby increase both student learning and student satisfaction.
  3. Course design is an iterative process. Even the best of instructors can't predict the ways the class will turn out; therefore, all instructors iterate the course design. Remind yourself that class won't be perfect the first time. It takes most faculty 3 or 4 iterations to be satisfied with their course.
  4. Use multiple classroom assessment techniques. Classroom assessment techniques give you data about your students' learning in an ungraded, non-threatening way. They are quick, like the Minute Paper, and help you identify problems and misunderstandings early in the term. In a new class like this, consider using an early course evaluation by having an instructional consultant or your department chair sit in one class session partially into the term and give you feedback. Getting a sense of your teaching at this time in the course allows you to make changes and to impact the course.
Gregory reviewed his students' comments in light of these issues and determined that the key problem was that students struggled with the group project, e.g., agreeing with teammates, fair workload across team members, and the excessive time commitment. The next time he taught the systems engineering class he offered tips for working in a team, and he changed the project's grading so that team members could rate each person's level of participation.
Interpreting student ratings
Some faculty find student ratings difficult to interpret objectively and constructively. The links below offer suggestions for finding useful information within student evaluations.

What Do They Know Anyway? II. Making Evaluations Effective
A chemical engineering professor explains how to conduct and interpret student evaluations.

Interpreting Student Evaluations
Advises how to view both the numerical scores and the students' comments.

Using Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching (PDF)
Explains how to make sense of the ratings, especially written comments, but in turn reflect on the teaching process. Offers tips for improving in the four main teaching areas usually addressed by student evaluations.

How to Evaluate Teaching (PDF)
Triangulation of data from multiple sources—data about an instructor's effectiveness at teaching—is the point of this article, which suggests that student ratings should be only one of multiple ways to evaluate one's teaching and to persuade a department of one's success.
Group work: assigning & mentoring
Students working in small groups for a project that lasts a class period, several class periods, or even an entire term is known as cooperative learning. These sites offer tips for incorporating cooperative learning activities into your course and for preparing students for group work.

Cooperative Learning in Technical Courses: Procedures, Pitfalls, And Payoffs
Based upon research with undergraduate chemical engineering students, this paper explains procedures for implementing cooperative learning in courses that stress quantitative problem solving.

Cooperative Learning: Effective Teamwork for Engineering Classrooms
Provides an overview of types of learning groups and explains what makes an effective group learning experience. Written by a professor of civil engineering distinguished for his engineering education research.

Tips for Working Successfully in a Group
These 10 tips suggest plainly how students brought together in engineering projects can work together effectively. The tips come from Randy Pausch, a professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, who regularly forms student teams in his classes and research groups.

Progressing from Small Group Work to Cooperative Learning: A Case Study from Computer Science
This paper from the Journal of Engineering Education describes results from assigning group work projects in a computer graphics class.
Revising a class
Effective course design begins with understanding the students, then understanding the courses goals and objectives. Revising a class can mean incorporating feedback from previous classes.

Preparing or Revising a Class
11-page chapter helping one to plan a course, develop learning objects, select appropriate teaching activities, and create a syllabus.

Teaching Best Practices: Course Design – Scope and Content
Tips for designing a course's scope and content.

Planning a Course
Multiple articles explaining important steps in designing or revising a course, from defining learning objectives to writing a syllabus.

Ohio State University Teaching Handbook: Course Preparation (PDF)
Tips for designing a course's scope and content.
Classroom assessment
Though student ratings are one way to assess whether students found the course effective, they occur so late in the term that changes can only affect subsequent classes. Classroom assessment techniques are quick and easy methods that can be implemented any day of the course to assess how well the students are learning.

Do You Know Where Your Students Are? Classroom Assessment and Student Learning (PDF)
A 4-page article that explains different techniques for getting feedback on your students learning and offers a three stage approach to classroom assessment: (1) do a quick assessment, (2) evaluate the assessment, and (3) open the dialogue with your students. Don't miss the 8 short points of advice on the last page.

“How Am I Doing?” Early feedback from instructors to students and from students to instructors (PDF)
Not only do instructors need to assess how much the students are learning, students also want to know early in the term whether they are succeeding in a course. This article discusses techniques instructors can use to accomplish both.

Classroom Assessment Techniques - Overview
Thirteen different techniques for assessing student learning, field-tested by faculty from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.
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