Tell me where it hurts: Designing mid-semester course evaluations


Beck Wise

Image Credit: 

Christiaan Triebert, 'Teddy Bear Hospital'

For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve made a point of checking in anonymously with my students at mid-semester, asking them what’s working and what’s not to ensure we can all get the most out of the time available to us.

This is something that a lot of instructors do, of course, but the implementations vary, from formats which mimic university-mandated end-of-semester evaluations to formal or informal conversations with students. I administer mine as a one-page paper questionnaire in my otherwise-paperless class, leaving students to write anonymously while I wait outside at the beginning of the classroom. 

I’ve tweaked the questions over time, trying to come up with phrasing that is clear and concise, but my questions have generally set up pairs of binaries: What do you like? What do you not like? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to do less of? What should we stop doing? What should we start doing? The survey always ends with a few yes/no questions – which, despite requiring zero effort, strangely tend to go unanswered more than the open-ended ones: Are you getting the support you need to meet your goals in this class? Are our discussions helpful? Do we address a range of viewpoints?

But the single best question I have asks students for a gestalt rating of the class. Our university-wide surveys ask for this too: ‘Overall, the instructor/class was: very unsatisfactory; unsatisfactory; satisfactory; very good; excellent’ – and looking through the department and university averages, results for this tend to hover between ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’. Good news for the department, of course, but I can’t help wondering what ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ even mean in this scenario. I’m also not sure that ‘satisfactory’ reads as a genuinely neutral middle option – and if averages are that high across the university, I can’t help but wonder whether responses reflect students’ real assessments of their instructors. 

OK, maybe I’m an over-thinker, but I decided to go with a more intuitive ‘overall’ rating: a children’s pain scale. For those who are unfamiliar with them, children’s pain scales ask kids to compare their pain to a series of six expressive faces, ranging from a big grin (‘0 / no hurt’) to a sobbing grimace (’10 / hurts worst’). They’re designed to get answers out of kids who can’t conceptualise their feelings on a numerical scale or who don’t have the language skills to accurately describe how they feel – and they’ve proven effective in my course surveys.

Part of this, I think, is that they serve as an icebreaker of sorts – the surveys don’t look institutional with the row of faces across the top (although, of course, those are taken from another kind of institution). It seems, though, that they give students a more accessible (visual) vocabulary for assessing their sense of the class. And it offers up results that differ markedly from my end-of-semester results on that numerical scale: my mid-semester check-ins reveal that my class ‘hurts a little more’ (just on the good side of the middle of the scale), but my end-of-semester results still hover in the ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’ range, leaving me totally convinced that survey design does skew results. 

(It’s worth noting that I do make adjustments based on the mid-semester questionnaires that could result in improved ratings – but the changes are minimal and my most-frequent response is ‘More people complained about people not talking than actually talk, so that one is on you guys’, which I rather doubt contributes to better feelings about me and the course in the latter half of the semester.)

Not convinced? It’s also really fun to look through surveys that come back with students’ chosen faces adorned with a dazzling array of top hats, monocles, eye patches and mustaches.


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