Evaluation of courses, teaching and the education programme

Higher education needs to be under continuous revision and improvement not only to satisfy the needs of a changing society, but also to attract students. Regular evaluation of study programmes, the individual courses and the teaching is crucial. Evaluation can be done in different ways, e.g. by students, former students, employers or experts from other universities; a self-assessment by the education institution itself might be done as well.

Student course evaluations

Students are the "consumers" of higher education; it is important, therefore, to get their evaluation of the teaching. The aim of teaching is to promote effective student learning, and students usually give positive evaluation if they have learnt from the course, and the teaching has facilitated their learning.

Student course evaluations should be done in every course (module) included in the education programme. There should be a course evaluation at the end of a course, and preferably there should also be a mid-course evaluation, giving students the possibility to have an impact on the course they are taking. It is important that the issue of course evaluation is discussed with course faculty, departmental head and students so that everyone understands and agrees upon the purpose, process and outcomes -otherwise such evaluations might be seen as a threat.

Course evaluation can be done through questionnaires to be filled by each student (or by groups of students), and it can be done through oral discussions. Course evaluation questionnaires often focus on assessment of an individual teacher as a basis for decisions about promotion and salary increases. Such evaluation might be needed, but should not be the main purpose of student course evaluations; these should, first of all, aim at improving the courses and the teaching! The students' ratings and comments will help to identify what could be changed in a course, e.g. in content, methods for teaching and examination, teaching materials, as well as in course organization and administration.

The issue whether written course evaluations should be anonymous or not is important, and the answer is both yes and no. By making them anonymously, students feel at less risk of being "punished" if they are critical. However, if these evaluations will influence a teacher's possibility for promotion or salary increase, it seems fair that the forms are signed by the students; but that requires that someone not involved in assessing and grading the students administers and transcribes the course evaluations. An option could be to let students do evaluation in groups; the extremes are then usually balanced out. In all cases, however, it is important that students are told also to comment upon what was good or bad, and why, as well as how things could have been done better.

Some questions in a course evaluation questionnaire could be the following (leave space for comments under each question): Rating scale
ranging between:
What is your overall impression of the course? (very bad - very good)
Do you find the course objectives relevant and meaningful? (not at all - fully)
Were the objectives of the course fulfilled? (not at all - fully)
Questions specific to various parts of the course. (very bad - very good)
What do you think of the teaching methods used? (very bad - very good)
How were connections between theory and application? (very bad - very good)
Opportunities to reflect upon and process the topics? (very bad - very good)
What do you think of the examination? (very bad - very good)
Did you do your best to learn from the course? (not at all - very much)
How was the workload in relation to the course credits? (too low - too heavy)
How was the course organization? (very bad - very good)
What do you think of the course literature? (very bad - very good)
How do you feel that your understanding of the subject:  
was before the course? (very bad - very good)
is now, after the course? (very bad - very good)
What was the best with the course? (comments only)
What would be the most important improvements to make? (comments only)

The rating scale might, for example, range from 1-5 or from 1-9. Choosing the latter scale means that the ratings easily can be grouped into three categories if desired (1-3, 4-6, 7-9) when data are compiled.

Evaluation results should be compiled; Microsoft Excel, for example, can be used to [Summarize ratings], whereas students' comments, might be summarized manually. The evaluation results should be distributed to the teachers involved in the course and to the department head / director of studies. Nasty comments about an individual teacher might be better to give just to the person concerned, and possibly also to the department head / director of studies. Most people getting an unfavourable evaluation will become better teachers only if the criticism is handled with care; otherwise it might rather have a negative impact on their teaching. One should also keep in mind that there is no reason to worry too much about negative evaluation results unless they are repeated in several years. Students should also be notified of the importance to give constructive criticism.

Student course evaluation results should not only be compiled but also be interpreted. Analyse why students reacted negatively on specific parts, and discuss whether, and what actions are required. It can be useful to write a [Course Report] (1-2 pages) giving some background information about the course, plus summarizing the students' evaluations and the teachers' experiences of the course, as well as providing suggestions for improvements. The report can be distributed to students, to teachers involved, to department head / director of studies, and to the teaching committee for the education programme (if there is such a committee). The report will be useful when planning the next year's course; it also demonstrates to students that their evaluations are considered. Teachers could also do a self-evaluation of their teaching and compare that with the results from the student evaluations.

Evaluation of the education programme

It is important to evaluate not only individual courses, but also the education programme as a whole. This is necessary in order to see that the education objectives are fulfilled, that the individual parts fit together, that important parts are not missing and that the programme is in phase with changing demands in society, nationally and internationally. Programme evaluation can be done at different levels: by students, former students, teachers and employers, by peer-reviews and at ministry or other authority levels. The individual university teachers are usually involved in parts of this evaluation, and should also actively consider the results.

Continuous evaluation by graduating students

Evaluation of the education programme can be done continuously by the students completing their BSc or MSc degree, for example. Such an evaluation might contain a large number of questions to be graded and commented on by students, who can also be asked to give suggestions on how the study programme could be further improved.

Some issues to include in student evaluation of education programmes could be:

  • fulfilment of the objectives of the education programme
    (plus questions on specific parts of the objectives)
  • length of the education programme in relation to the content
  • teachers' commitment, subject knowledge and teaching skills
  • amount of compulsory courses, and possibilities to elect courses
  • co-ordination between courses (in content, in schedule etc)
  • demands in relation to credits assigned
  • thesis work and supervision
  • internships and professional insights
  • internationalization
  • multi-disciplinary approaches
  • study counselling
  • facilities and social environment
  • tools for life-long learning
  • overall impression of the education programme
  • the best aspects of the programme
  • suggestions for improvements.

The only cost for this evaluation will be the labour required to [Summarize ratings] and comments regularly.

Follow-up evaluations by former students

It could be worthwhile to do follow-up evaluations of the study programme by former students who have been working for 1 or 2 years after completing their degree. They are in a good position to tell what knowledge and skills gained through their education were the most useful in their jobs, and also what they have been lacking.

Periodic evaluations

In addition to continuous evaluations by students, more thorough evaluation of an education programme is needed at regular intervals, e.g. every 5-10 years. The decision to do such evaluation is often taken at ministry level, and it might include a self-evaluation performed by the education institution (involving students, teachers and employers), as well as national and international peer-reviews. Important areas to cover might include the following:

  • Background information, e.g. i) objectives, formal contents and organization of the education programme, ii) numbers of student applicants per seat and their age, sex, social and ethnic background, as well as fulfilment of prerequisites, iii) access of teachers, their qualifications and possibilities/incentives for developing those, iv) facilities and financing.
  • Implementation of the education programme: such as i) contents and their academic and professional quality, ii) teaching methods, iii) examination methods, iv) links with research, v) national and international co-operation with other academic institutions and with industry, vi) physical and social working environment as experienced by students and teachers and vii) study counselling, viii) student influence, responsibility and systems for student evaluations. , e.g. i) fulfilment of objectives, ii) examination results, iii) results from students' evaluations, iv) percent students completing the degree in the time allocated, v) internationalization achieved, vi) percent students getting a relevant job, vii) employer satisfaction and viii) tools for life-long learning.
  • Results

An evaluation of the education programme can preferably include analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). It is also important to discuss the relevance of the education objectives and the tools to reach them, as well as the efforts for continuous quality improvement of the education programme. The evaluation should give suggestions for improvements. It is essential, though, that these suggestions are discussed with faculty, students and stakeholders before the final evaluation document is produced.