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Improve your Course Evaluations by having your Class Write Letters to Future Students

Red mailbox set in whitewashed brick wallAs we’re drawing to the close of the spring semester, it’s a good time to not only be thinking about final assignments and exams but to consider your final student evaluations. We’ve talked frequently about course evaluations here at ProfHacker: Jason talked about working with the numerical output from evaluations; Heather made some suggestions for what to do when the evaluations are just plain wrong, as well as sharing reader’s suggestions; Mark talked about the best time to read those evaluations; Ryan discussed the lessons he learned from his evaluations last spring and how he changed the next iteration of his course; and I’ve previously covered how to improve student participation on evaluations. Why spill so much (digital) ink on evaluations, when we all know that they are an imperfect measure of what happens in a college classroom? Well, if we’ve got to do them, we might as well make them as useful as possible.

Last semester I tried something new with the qualitative portion of my evaluations: I asked the students to compose a letter to those who would take the course the next time it was offered. (EDIT: When I was writing this post, I couldn’t recall who had given me this idea. I’m pleased to now give credit to Patrick Williams, who suggested it). Here’s the exact prompt: Write a short letter to future students in the class, letting them know whatever you think is most important about the instructor, the course, the assignments, and the reading. I had two reasons for this new format. First, my past format for evaluations breaks everything up into three or four questions with equal amounts of space allotted to each question. This prompt would allow them to spend more time on the subjects that they wanted to talk more about and vice versa. Second, I hoped the freedom of the form would result in the students creating a bit of narrative that resulted in them sharing more specifics about the class.

After getting the evaluations back, I can say that the new format accomplished both of these goals. What’s more, I found that the students wrote, on average, far more on these evaluations than they have on past ones that I have provided. And in writing something directed at fellow students rather than me or some faceless, unknowable bureaucracy, I’d say that the students were much more candid. This means that they are more direct in talking about my strengths and weaknesses. And while it’s nice to hear the former, it’s the latter that will actually help me do a better job the next time around. If you’re interested, you can read them for yourself (PDF).

Overall, I’m very pleased with this reformulation of my evaluations and have been recommending it to friends. I know that not everyone can write their own qualitative evaluations, but would you ask your classes to write letters to future students? Do you have a different format you use for class evaluations? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Letter Box at Epworth Post Office / David Wright / CC BY 2.0

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