Guest column by Rob Nelson | Course Evaluations

Filling out your course evaluations is a gift. It is a gift to your instructors, who will use them to improve their teaching. It is a gift to your fellow students, who will use them to choose their courses next year. It is a gift to department chairs and deans, who will use them to help teachers improve and to identify those teachers who should be nominated for awards that recognize outstanding teaching.

I remember well the first time I prepared to review my course evaluations. I felt nervous, even a little scared. I felt like I had done a good job teaching. I had several students tell me they enjoyed the class. I'd had an older colleague sit in on a few lectures and provide feedback. Most of my students had done well in the class.

But the course evaluations were the real test. What would students say when they had the freedom to tell me anonymously what they really thought? Although my numbers were pretty high and many of the comments were positive, the critical comments - my lectures seemed unfocused; my voice didn't carry to the back of the room; my exam questions came out of nowhere - felt pretty brutal. They also inspired me to improve.

I do not teach as much now, but when I do and get my evaluations, I sift through the one-liners - "great class!," "enjoyed the lectures!," - for the comments that provide critical and therefore useful feedback. There is nothing more valuable to my efforts to improve my teaching than a student taking time to give me thoughtful, detailed comments about their experience in my course. I am not alone.

Any teacher most values the constructively critical comments that lead them to understand how to do a better job. I would argue that the biggest impact that students make on improving teaching at Penn, or any university or college, is to provide that kind of detailed, objective feedback.

Access to years of this course evaluation data is a gift from students in the past who started handing out course evaluations at the end of the semester. Those students began publishing the results and a distillation of the comments in a book they called the Penn Course Review (PCR).

Fast forward a few decades, and the PCR became a website now managed by Penn Labs. Student ownership of course evaluations is a powerful example of how students actively shape their educational experiences at Penn. Every student who completes an evaluation advances that legacy and benefits every future student who uses PCR during registration to guide their decisions.

While instructors and students benefit as individuals from course evaluations, there are also major benefits to the institution. All Penn instructional faculty are evaluated as scholars and teachers when they are appointed, reappointed or promoted. One of the primary means of evaluating teaching in this process is the course evaluation. In this way, students directly influence some of the most important decisions that are made at Penn each year: which professors are promoted and granted tenure.

Department chairs and deans review all teaching evaluations in their program or school. That review helps these campus leaders identify those who need to improve their teaching. Those teachers are usually directed to the Center for Teaching and Learning or an experienced colleague to get help. Teaching evaluations are also used to help identify Penn's best teachers. On Tuesday, April 19, the Provost hosted the annual teaching award ceremony, which honored twelve Penn faculty members for their teaching excellence.

The opportunity to evaluate your instructors and your classes is one more item on a long list of things to do before you leave for the summer. But it is the single thing that every student can do to make Penn better. Please take the time. Give this gift!

Rob Nelson is the Executive Director for Education and Academic Planning in the Office of the Vice Provost for Education.