The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Student Evaluations as a Starting Point for SoTL

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Written by: Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

Faculty members across the country have begun the first weeks of a new academic semester. And, while faculty are focused on current students, feedback from fall semester student evaluations will soon be available (and perhaps already have been shared) for faculty to review and ponder. This begs the question, how can faculty use student evaluation data effectively when they’re already engaged with a new set of students? What is the best way to consider former students’ perspectives to improve current and future students’ experiences?

A recent post from “TILT,” the University of Minnesota’s Center for Educational Innovation weblog, outlines important considerations for faculty in interpreting student evaluation data, suggesting resources that could be of help to faculty in making sense of their students’ perceptions. They also mention that faculty should take student evaluation data seriously, as:

 …in general, student ratings tend to be statistically reliable, valid, and relatively free from bias or the need for control, perhaps more so than any other data used for faculty evaluation (TILT, 2014).

Additionally, the aforementioned TILT blog post provides two suggestions for faculty engaged in review of student evaluation data: meeting with someone to talk about their student feedback and gathering midterm feedback. These are both excellent ideas, as both have the ability to lead to dialogue, understanding, and change in both teaching and learning. On Illinois State University’s campus, resources for teaching-specific support (including help with “midterm chats”) can be found through the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.

Beyond these suggestions, it is quite possible that student evaluation data can act as a fertile foundation for SoTL research. By definition, SoTL research is intended to provide a systematic reflection on teaching and learning. As students’ reflections of their own experiences are inherent in end-of-semester student evaluations, feedback provided regarding course objectives, syllabus construction, specific assignments/projects, tests/quizzes, and various modes instruction might raise questions about their effectiveness in driving student learning. As faculty, we cannot assume that our students are learning because we “think” that is the case.. Rather, we must have evidence to prove it! Thus, student evaluation data can lead us to design SoTL projects to obtain such evidence.

Faculty looking to use student evaluation data as a starting point for SoTL research, should consider the following SoTL research approaches:

  • In-Course SoTL: Faculty can use student evaluation responses to inspire an in-course SoTL research project answering questions about a specific course they teach. Faculty can structure a SoTL study to investigate the effectiveness of particular pedagogical approaches (e.g., projects, assessments, reflection, small group discussions, online instruction) on student learning. While results from in-course SoTL studies may lack generalizability to other cohorts of students or to other disciplines, they are useful in making changes in a course to increase student learning for future students enrolled in the course being studied.
  • Intra-Disciplinary SoTL: Faculty can collaborate with colleagues from within their discipline to design a SoTL study to answer teaching and learning questions that become evident on student evaluations and can be applicable across course boundaries. For instance, faculty in nursing or dietetics might investigate how clinical personas develop in undergraduate students during their first practical internships. Sociology professors might investigate the evolution of the sociological imagination across courses within the major. Results from SoTL studies of this nature are considered to be more generalizable, and can impact student learning across a particular program or discipline.
  • Inter-Disciplinary SoTL: Faculty who seek to engage in inter-disciplinary SoTL research involve faculty from other disciplines (and possibly other universities) to study an aspect of teaching and learning. Faculty might share similarities yielded from student evaluations and find that multiple disciplines are seeking to better understand, for example, how technology impacts student note taking practices, or how social media impacts student perceptions of disability.

At Illinois State, the office of the Cross Chair in SoTL provides many resources to help assist faculty in developing their own SoTL projects derived from student evaluations or any other source. Please consider contacting the Cross Chair (, attending the upcoming SoTL Brainstorming workshop, or applying for a small SoTL grant to support planned SoTL work.


TILT. (2014, Dec 15). Reviewing student evaluations of teaching… [Web log comment]. Retrieved from


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