But one way to counteract this is to develop your own instruments for evaluating student learning that are more informative and appropriate. This post at Faculty Focus describes some methods, and I mention some here. For example, I give out a midterm self-evaluation (available here) that students are required to turn in. It asks, among other things, how challenging the course is, whether it meets their expectations, how well they're meeting the course learning objectives, what helps and hinders their learning, what changes they'd suggest, etc.
I've found this to be an enormously useful tool. Let me point to four reasons why:
- It's required, which the 'official' student evaluations aren't. So I get a high rate of return.
- The 'indirection' has a positive effect on the quality of the feedback I receive. I call it a 'self-evaluation' rather than a course evaluation, but in evaluating their own learning, the students are obliquely evaluating the course. My observation has been that, for whatever reason, when students are compelled to think about themselves in the context of a learning environment, they are actually more thoughtful than when they are asked directly about the learning environment.
- Since it's in the middle of the term, I can actually put the feedback to use during the course. And since I share the feedback with the students, this helps to remind them that I'm listening and we're on the same page. Discussing Lang's On Course, I wrote: "Students are willing to forgive our missteps and will tolerate high academic standards if they see that we are acting in good will. Hence, when students give us feedback and we not only acknowledge it but also indicate how we intend to incorporate that feedback in the future, we engender that good will -- and better evaluations result." The effect of showing that you're listening is a powerful one.
- Students react positively to this because it seems customized for the learning experience they're actually in, instead of being a standardized institutional form. They seem less skeptical that the information I gather won't just end up being tabulated and forgotten.