Course evaluations help improve teaching, learning at Iowa State


Blake Lanser/Iowa State Daily

As the semester draws to a close, class evaluations begin to populate students’ Cymail accounts.  Class evaluations provide students an anonymous way to rate their professors and give them the feedback that they need to better their courses.

Michaela Ramm

Would you rate this course as excellent, good, average, bad or horrible?

Course evaluations are beginning to reach thousands of ISU students’ email inboxes just before Finals Week.

Allyson Kocour, sophomore in history, is one of many students who is left wondering: does anyone actually see these things?

“I honestly don’t know if [instructors or professors] read these,” Kocur said.

The answer: yes, they do.

“Yes, I use them,” said Jay Newell, an associate professor journalism and mass communications. “Absolutely, we look at the numbers and we look very carefully at the comments students make. Those are important to understand what’s going on.”

The course evaluations work on a system called Class Climate, which was created by Scantron, the same system that grades most students’ tests. Iowa State began using Class Climate in the fall of 2011. The goal of these questionnaires is to enhance learning and teaching. 

“The comments that students type out, the professors do read them,” said Laura Bestler, program coordinator at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. “They really do. I can tell you that instructors look at the good, the bad, the ugly.”

So far, around 200,000 class evaluation emails have been sent out over a two-to-three day period.

Bestler said the average response rate every year from students is between 60 and 62 percent. The response rate is calculated by comparing the number of students in a class and the number of responses that are sent back.

The feedback from students is encouraged to be specific and constructive. The intent is that instructors can improve their teaching methods and the overall course.

Bestler said responses help professors weigh what they need to advance or tweak so that the class is better for the students.

“The more students respond, the more they pay attention,” Bestler said.

Shane Goodall, senior in industrial engineering, is among those receiving emails this week about evaluations. Goodall said he takes his professors’ word for it when they say they do read the comments students post.

“Some of the evaluations, we just find out little stuff,” Newell said. “Things like they can’t hear me in the back row. It’s pretty easy to take, and it’s easy to modify because the professors here really, really want to do a good job in the classroom. They like getting feedback.”

Goodall said he does complete the surveys he is sent.

“I’ve received three so far, and the way I do it is to get it done as soon as I get it,” Goodall said. “Mostly because I hate getting the emails three days later. I just feel like I’m doing my part to help the university have better classes.”

Newell said he has received both positive and negative constructive comments from students.

“I’ll ask students, ‘did you read the book?’ and about a third of them will say that they didn’t,” Newell said. “That’s quite helpful to know because if I want them to read the book, then I might have to build in more assignments that drive students to the textbooks. Or even consider getting rid of the textbook.”

Course evaluations from Class Climate are limited to the end of the semester, however. Newell said his only problem with the software is that it’s only offered once during a course.

“Personally I use the survey at the end of the semester, but I also use some as the semester rolls on,” Newell said. “I try to pick up information from students on what’s working. Plus I also do an end-of-semester evaluation that’s about 50 questions that helps me understand on an element-by-element basis what students are picking up on or what they’re having difficulty with.”

Not only are the course evaluations considered important for professors to improve their courses but to help further themselves at Iowa State.

The evaluations on instructors from students helps ISU professionals review their effectiveness in teaching and is considered when professors are reviewed for their tenure or a promotion.

“The first thing the university really looks at is the overall rating of the professor and the overall rating of the course on Class Climate,” Newell said. “People look at that number in relation to the average. This is required and it’s taken very seriously.”

The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching acts as the primary administrator of the course evaluations that are offered at midpoint and end of semesters. They saw a need for an effective way to measure what they call Student Evaluation of Teaching in order to enhance learning.

Bestler said the quickest way for professors to receive feedback was through an electronic software, instead of a paper system that had been in place during the years prior to Class Climate.

“Every day our system talks with the database at the office of the registrar,” Bestler said. “So if you drop a class, you would no longer be in that class to receive a survey. Our system is updated every 24 hours with the most current information.”

Each college at Iowa State has their own departmental administrators to distribute the evaluations to the appropriate students and review the results at the end of the evaluation period.

The results of the course evaluations are read by the administrators, who then hand it off to departmental chairs. Then, instructors and teaching assistants who teach the courses receive a copy after final grades have been submitted.

The responses on the course evaluations are completely anonymous and cannot be linked to a students’ name or ID number.

“The biggest goal is to help improve teaching and education at Iowa State,” Bestler said. “Because of the quick and immediate feedback instructors get, they can look at and enhance for future semesters.”

The course evaluation period will last until Dec. 14.