Using Online Student Learning Evaluations to Improve Instruction

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University
Online Learning
My first experience teaching an online course occurred in the late 1990s when Drexel University’s College of Information Studies asked me to convert my face-to-face digital research course to an online format. My  primary focus  was just getting things to work. Quality learning experiences were an afterthought.
Fast forward to 2017 and after a ten-year gap I agree to teach online again, this time for San Jose State University’s (SJSU) iSchool program for aspiring librarians. Despite my prior experience teaching online, I took a mandatory 25-hour mini-course in online instruction. It reinforced much of what I learned in other professional development experiences, but also introduced me to Canvas.
Less anticipated was the robust expectation to achieve continuous learning. SJSU takes online education seriously and the institution requires that all online courses adhere to the Quality Matters ™ framework. Their high-quality standards require instructors to complete continuous learning modules in any semester they teach. One of these sessions got me thinking differently about student evaluations. Instead of perceiving them as a necessary evil, I discovered they can serve as both motivator and shaper of quality instruction.
In the online session “SOTES Strategies and Lessons” I learned that student evaluations, when analyzed in aggregate, help instructors to modify their educational methods to align with student learning needs. SOTES, (Student Opinion of Teaching Effectiveness) is SJSU’s student evaluation system. No doubt every instructor reviews course evaluations seeking clues that lead to substantive learning improvement. Instead of tweaks to assignments or syllabi, SOTES can lead to fundamental pedagogical change.

The SOTES session gave twelve tips – focusing on ways to anticipate what most helps students learn and succeed - to influence how educators can design a better learning experience.


Be Practical to Demonstrate Relevance

Theory is important but these mostly adult learners, often working in the field, want concrete examples and anecdotes. Use practical assignments and explain how students will benefit later.


Create Assignments to Enhance Learning
Students want assignments directly relevant to what’s in the lecture. Their top two requests: avoid giving busy work; structure assignments into smaller blocks that build on each other.


Emphasize What’s Important
Provide a verbal or written summarization of the top takeaways from a learning module’s content. Keep reiterating key concepts. Share your observations on the best ideas from course discussions. At the start of each week, I summarize what students should know from the prior week, where they demonstrated competency, where improvement is needed, and how it will apply to new content.


Respond, Respond, Respond

We are told to quickly and comprehensively respond to students’ questions and comments, in discussions or emails. The SOTES clearly confirm that. Respond in a variety of communications formats (audio, video, email, etc.) and keep it cordial and respectful. Avoid putting students on the spot or making them feel regret over their question or comment.


Set the Atmosphere
Online learning is about more than content and assignments. Students expect a patient, positive and encouraging instructor who is present, well organized and gives students opportunities to interact and learn from each other. The right classroom culture facilitates learning.


Easy to Approach
If the atmosphere is right, students will feel they can easily contact and communicate with their instructor. My course was asynchronous, but I offered a weekly synchronous office hour (varying days/times) in order to create connection and elevate students’ comfort level in reaching out to me.


Appreciate Student Diversity
Students respond poorly to an instructor who plays favorites with respect to differences in age, gender, race or work experience. Pay attention to differing backgrounds in student’s self-introductions and commit to treating students equally.


Passion Speaks Loudly
Set the tone by being the champion for the course topic. Instructor enthusiasm is contagious. If the instructor lacks excitement for the topic, students will too.


Challenge Them Intellectually
Students want “make us think” activities that require more than answers to rote questions. Encourage creative thinking by allowing students to develop multimedia projects in which they apply course concepts to their own experience.


Fair Grading Matters
Creating clear assignment instructions and rubrics to guide students is no easy task, but taking time in advance to think through the details of assignment grading will minimize grading disputes or claims of unfairness.


Make the Complex Understandable
Students expect their instructor to make the abstract concrete through the use of realistic examples. Communicate your personal experience in lectures, assignment instructions and discussions.


Provide Meaningful Feedback
Give praise for work well done as well as constructive criticism. Be specific in pointing out what students get right and where they need to improve. Add comments to graded assignments and return them to students while they can benefit from feedback.


Whatever personal opinions online instructors hold about student evaluations, it feels much better when they reflect a uniformly successful learning experience. Learning those factors that lead students to judge a course as successful and an instructor as competent, organized and responsive, greatly shift the odds of a positive outcome in the instructor’s favor. The SOTES session changed how I think about student evaluations. I now see them as a valuable resource for course design, not simply an after-the-fact measure of “How’d I do?”. Though mostly applicable to online learning, these dozen tips could work equally well for face-to-face courses. I encourage you to put them into your practice.

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