Teaching Tip Tuesday: Getting >75% Response Rate for Virtual Student Evals

Let me preface this post by acknowledging that student evaluations are problematic (especially as a measure of teaching excellence) because they can be abelist, racist, sexist, and xenophobic–not to mention irrelevant to the actual teaching. I myself have received creepy comments about my lips and complaints about the quality of desks in the classroom. They are, however, a necessary component of teaching performance evaluation in many higher ed institutional contexts.

In the time of Covid-19, evaluations have largely become virtual if they weren’t already. As many more of us now know, it is notoriously difficult to get high response rates from students in online classes or with virtual evaluations. Before I taught my first online class (pre-pandemic), I was forewarned that I’d be lucky to hit a 30% response rate in an asynchronous online course. So I developed a plan to address this issue:

  1. I built them into the final course module as an action item, giving instructions and a link to the evaluation portal. Associating course evals with the other end-of-term tasks seems to work better than treating them as an “extra” task thrown in at the end of an announcement.
  2. I offer extra credit if they make it to at least a 75% rate. I take care to let them know I can’t see *who* has submitted an eval or the evals themselves (until after final grades are posted), but I can see the response rate. I’m honestly not sure if this makes any difference because if they’ve made it to the end without disappearing or dropping, chances are they really don’t need the extra credit (hello, labor-based grading!). My thinking is that it couldn’t hurt. Also, it does take the student a good amount of time at a particularly busy point in the semester, and I believe that all labor should be compensated.
  3. I send at least three reminders before the evals close with a live link to the eval platform. Research for online courses tells us that students engage the most through links in reminder emails. Repetition is key. How thankful are you when you get reminder emails for various events and tasks? In these reminders I also give them updates on the response rate (e.g. 31%, 64%), and I always see an uptick after these reminders go out.
  4. I suspect this is what really matters to my success I getting over a 75% response rate: I tell them honestly how much their perspectives matter to me. I let them know that some of my best ideas for the course have come from former student evals. I tell them I trust them to give the class a fair assessment.

You might be wondering: Why even bother with all this given the aforementioned problems with student evals?

First, as an early career academic, student evaluations are a significant factor in my present and future job prospects. At my institution, they are part of my annual review. If I were to go on the market again, they will be one of the ways I demonstrate “teaching excellence” (you might also save unsolicited praise emails from students for this purpose). It is what it is, so I may as well make the best of it.

Second, think about who is most likely to leave a review on an Amazon product – mainly those who *loved* the item and those who *hated* it. Personally, the reviews I find most helpful are the folks in the middle (and yes, I realize I’m comparing my class to an Amazon product). If you don’t attempt to get a majority of the class to do an evaluation, you’re going to get a pretty skewed dataset.

Where this falls apart for some teachers is when we feel like we delivered a rather horrible course. The last thing we want to do is encourage students to review it. Believe me, I’ve been there. Even without a pandemic, there’s a myriad of reasons why I’ve felt like I’ve royally screwed up a course. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t sometimes pretend evals didn’t exist in some semesters over the past 10 years. But trust me when I say that you are always harder on yourself than your students will be on you. Especially if you’ve done your best to cultivate a bond of trust with them.

This brings me to my final point. Students are less likely to spring a horrible eval on you if you’ve given them a multitude of chances to provide feedback on the course. This could look like anonymous feedback in your LMS, regular reflections on their work, and/or soliciting their views within the course itself through polls or dialogue. Giving them the chance to air a genuine grievance, suggest a new approach, and/or shape the course itself is all part of a student-centered approach that builds that bond of trust.

Do you discuss evals with students? If so, what do you tell them? If not, why not? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).

One thought on “Teaching Tip Tuesday: Getting >75% Response Rate for Virtual Student Evals

  1. Pingback: Negativity Bias | Tawnya Azar

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