Evaluating your teaching

The primary focus of this page is individual teacher-led evaluation and self-evaluation; it seeks to answer the question of why you as a teacher should be evaluating your own teaching. In Ideas and tools we offer suggestions for focusing on desired outcomes and designing means of collecting feedback to enable you to diagnose obstacles and take appropriate action to achieve those outcomes. We also provide examples of evaluation/ feedback tools to try out in your own teaching context or adapt to meet your needs and interests. In Oxford information we set the scene with information about evaluation that goes on around you at Oxford, the results of which you can use to inform your own evaluative efforts.

Oxford information

Teaching evaluation takes place at Oxford at different levels: from National surveys, e.g. National Student Survey (NSS), International Student Barometer (ISB) (The University’s Surveys web page gives access to these data), through department and faculty or college surveys, to evaluations carried out by individual teachers.

National and international datasets like the NSS and ISB can be of value for assisting you to improve your teaching, even though they use a broad-brush to depict students’ views. The results of the National Student Survey (all final year undergraduates in the UK) and the International Student Barometer (all full-time undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research students, except final year undergraduates, at 120 international universities) can provide insights into students’ concerns and an understanding of how they respond to elements of Oxford’s learning environment, as well as a source of comparison data against other institutions. Remember, however, that student response rates vary widely so interpretation can be problematic. Nonetheless, generalised understanding of students’ expectations can be derived and used to inform teaching approaches.

Data collected by departments/faculties and colleges tend to be predominantly quantitative. Here are examples of different approaches taken by a department and two colleges. You will see that qualitative feedback is available in some cases, whilst the Wadham questionnaire asks for very little feedback on teaching but invites students to assess their own progress.

The feedback collected and used by your department or college can inform you, for example, of the general level of satisfaction with your tutorials or your lectures. However, teachers usually find that they need more focused investigation to determine how best to improve their teaching. Collecting your own information from students enables you to ensure that you gain meaningful information that leads to appropriate action.

Self-evaluation is a mark of professionalism in teaching. Hounsell (2010) calls it “an integral part of good professional practice” (p198). At Oxford you will achieve the fullest picture if you combine information from all available sources, i.e.:

  • NSS and ISB
  • College feedback (e.g. tutorial feedback forms)
  • Faculty or Department feedback (e.g. lecture questionnaires)
  • Your own students (personal collection of information/feedback)
  • Your colleagues and critical friends
  • Yourself

Novice teachers often have intrinsic motives for evaluation. They want to know “Am I doing OK?” They wish to discover their own strengths and weaknesses and compare their performance with that of experienced colleagues whom they respect (Hounsell, 2010, p199). However, once the novice has achieved a desired comfort level with the teaching role, continued self evaluation guards against complacency and enables ongoing improvement and freshness, helping to maintain job satisfaction. Data you collect for yourself can be formative and forward looking, whereas other available feedback data tends to be more summative and backward looking.

Extrinsic motivations for evaluation cannot be ignored. There may be requirements connected with your formal status as to probation and ‘tenure’, monitoring by external bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency, and you may wish to seek personal recognition of your teaching expertise through schemes such as the UK Professional Standards Framework. The Oxford Learning Institute offers a range of accredited Teaching development programmes which lead to different levels of professional recognition by the Staff and Educational Development Association. SEDA recognition is a badge of achievement which is based on an assessment of a common framework of knowledge and values in relation to a variety of teaching activities. Gaining recognition shows you have explored your own teaching philosophy and motivation, your approach to students’ needs and attention to their responses, as well as willingness to continually review, refine and improve your practice. 

Ideas and tools

Good teachers are often those who experiment. They try out different teaching methodologies and evaluate them carefully. This sort of activity is a form of ‘classroom research’. You are researching the pedagogy of your own discipline, just as you might use experimental techniques in your disciplinary research work. In this section, we explore three main sources of information – students, peers and self - to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your teaching.

A. Collecting feedback from students

For example, you might want to know about:

  • clarity of the stated educational aims and learning outcomes
  • realism of stated pre-requisites/prior knowledge
  • curriculum and content - perceptions of relevance/usefulness
  • way in which the curriculum was presented or delivered
  • development of subject-specific skills
  • development of non-subject specific (personal and/or transferable) skills
  • appropriateness of the methods of assessment
  • appropriateness of the style of teaching, and the performance of teacher
  • quality of feedback to the student on the performance of the student
  • motivation/attitudes of the student
  • educational challenge presented to the students
  • workload, how reasonable, how realistic
  • support available to students/coursebooks/resources for independent learning
  • effort made by the student, and the take-up of support/guidance
  • overall experience of the student of the teaching and support for learning
    (Source: University of Exeter TQA Manual)

When designing a tool for gathering feedback, be clear about what you want to know and the purpose of your evaluation. You should be able to act on your findings. It is good practice to make the evaluation focus very clear by not targeting too many issues at a time for appraisal and action (see examples in box).

Remember that if you are more interested in overall views concerning a degree course, the answers to your questions may be available elsewhere, e.g. the annual NSS data collected from finalists.

It is advantageous to collect feedback from students part-way through the term because it allows immediate adjustments in response to students’ difficulties or suggestions and it allows the students who made the suggestions to benefit from the adjustments.

Evaluation of your teaching can be thought of as a two-way process. By asking questions about your students’ learning, you will gain valuable information about how students are understanding what you are teaching. Such information can help you adjust your teaching to ensure students learn what you want them to. Questioning students about their learning also helps students to evaluate their own learning. Such student self-evaluation is an important part of the learning process – we want students to “self-regulate” their learning. When you ask for feedback on your teaching or on what students have learned, be sure you respond with overt explanation of what you are doing differently in response to their feedback.

Short or long questionnaires are the most commonly used student evaluation methodologies, but it is worth considering alternatives such as interviews or focus groups. The methodology should fit appropriately with your decided purpose and the context.

Issues to bear in mind

  • In questionnaires, ensure that you use a vocabulary you share with your students.
  • Ask students about items that mean something to them, otherwise they may be unable to answer. Thinking in terms of their concerns rather than your own you will lead to more useful insights.
  • Consider whether detailed feedback is required or whether a simple rating will suffice.
  • If using rating scales, give clear instructions about what scores mean. It is often preferable to ask respondents how much they agree with a statement.
  • Offer a ‘not applicable’ option.
  • Questions elicit more information if they cannot be answered with yes or no but require students to write a response (e.g. What did the tutor do to help you learn better?).
  • The format of a questionnaire is important, particularly if the possibility of ‘questionnaire fatigue’ exists.

 See also:

You may already have selected a rationale for the choice of questions and range of themes you want to address. However, you might consider basing your short answer questions and statements for rating on the key principles of good teaching (143kb) .

Being aware of what your students already know and understand is a fundamental prerequisite for teaching effectively. “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner knows already. Ascertain this and teach... accordingly” (Ausubel et al, 1978). In Ten Easy Pieces, Angelo (1991) offers ten examples of methods for assessing different aspects of student learning. E.g.

  • Background Knowledge Probe;
  • Misconception/ Preconception Test;
  • Documented Problem-Set Solution;
  • Informal Attitude Survey; etc.

Angelo’s vivid subject-specific examples may prompt you to realise something you ought to know about your students’ understanding, that one of these tools might easily help you to discover.

The one-minute paper is a simple exercise, not incompatible with formal departmental lecture questionnaires. It can be used in lectures or classes and students should readily understand that different concerns are addressed by the different feedback methods. For example, you could use the one-minute paper or other similar techniques (see Angelo, 1991, or Angelo & Cross, 1993) weekly in the first half of term to check on students’ learning and understanding, then encourage them to complete the departmental/ faculty lecture questionnaire towards the end of term, with their general comments on how they found the lecturing techniques, supporting notes, visual aids, acoustics, pace, etc.

One-minute paper

One of the more useful devices for finding out what students have learned at any point during the course is known as the ‘one-minute’ paper; so called since it is quickly implemented. The ‘one-minute’ paper seeks one-line answers to two questions (often responses are handwritten on an A5 page, administered at the end of a teaching session):

Q1. What was the most important thing you learned in class today?

Q2. What was the point you found most difficult to understand in today’s class?

Notice that the one-minute paper focuses directly on what students are understanding about the course content, rather than their perceptions of the teaching processes or course design. While interactions in tutorials and small classes enable you to see how students are processing the content, in larger classes it can be more difficult to know what students understand and where they are confused. Administering a “one-minute” paper at the end of a teaching session is a potent antidote. It can just as easily be administered online in the WebLearn environment, allowing easy tabulation of the results before your next class, when you can report on the results and teach to the areas of difficulty identified. (Angelo & Cross, 1993, pp148-153)

B. Peer evaluation

Peer evaluation often means teaching observation, either mutual or one-way. Peer evaluation is sometimes dismissed because observation might be very obtrusive; in the case of the Oxford form of tutorials this may well be so. Teaching observation should not be rejected completely, however. Many teaching settings do lend themselves to its use for gaining peer feedback. Another peer technique, termed previewing and retracing (Day et al, 1998, pp8-9, quoted in Hounsell), also allows you to benefit from the input of a ‘critical friend’ without the need for them to be present during the teaching.

Previewing involves looking ahead to a forthcoming class and trying to anticipate potential problem areas and explore how they might best be tackled. Retracing, on the other hand, is retrospective and is intended to review a specific teaching session, while it is still fresh in the mind, in order to pinpoint successes and areas of difficulty (Hounsell, 2010, p205).

At Oxford, peer discussions, both combined with actual observation and in the form of previewing and retracing, can provide useful information for self-evaluation, and lead to teaching improvement. The Learning Institute’s Enhancing Teaching Programme uses peer observation exercises to promote reflection on one’s own teaching and that of colleagues in small groups of 3 or 4.

In addition, peers can be a very useful source of input on course design matters such as reading lists, course handbooks and practices related to assessing and giving feedback to students. Simply giving a colleague a copy of one of these course materials and getting their feedback can be very useful. 

C. Self-evaluation

Traditionally academics learn to teach in universities through practical experience rather than from being formally taught how to teach. To avoid this being a 'sink or swim' experience, with either outcome being equally likely, the use of reflective practice to make sense of what happens can be vital. Most people reflect instinctively to a certain extent on what happens to them; however, by doing so more actively and systematically the trajectory of your development as a teacher can become more considered and strategic.

A critically reflective approach to teaching is one where you use all the resources at your disposal to inform strategies for achieving the student learning and understanding which is your ultimate goal. See What is critically reflective teaching? (127kb) for a review of possible ‘lenses’ through which your teaching may be viewed. Reflection (a term open to misuse) about teaching should include a process of thought which brings together for comparison many sources of insight (see box).

You cannot evaluate everything and you will not always use all the lenses – but re-examining selected aspects from time to time, and engaging with the different sources of feedback is healthy and stimulating and leads to innovative teaching practice.

Sources of insight teachers can use:
  • your feelings about how the teaching session went
  • feedback from students on how they received the teaching (and what they have learnt)
  • insights of a critical friend who may have observed or discussed with you shortly afterwards the teaching event in question
  • data from the most recent departmental lecture questionnaires or college tutorial surveys
  • your own previous experiences – of being taught, of observing colleagues’ teaching, etc
  • research literature on student learning, teaching, pedagogy in your discipline or more generally

Another idea is to keep a teaching journal and regularly record information about teaching experiences; even as little as a few lines on what you felt about each lecture in a term’s series might be enough. Reviewing recorded personal impressions after the passage of time can enable you to recognise developments or patterns which were not apparent at the time. Having responses from students and colleagues available in addition to personal insights, provides a strong basis for reflection, analysis and planning future action. Sometimes, particularly for formal reports on your teaching, you may wish to write a structured reflection on a teaching episode. Gibbs’ Structured teaching reflection tool (237kb) offers a useful framework for such a piece of writing.

A further source of stimulus is available from the published research and literature on learning and teaching in general, and that focused specifically on the pedagogy of our own disciplines (see Insights from research and literature below).

Having collected your evaluation data, its interpretation may be straightforward, allowing you to decide easily how to act on what you have learned. Sometimes, though, this interpretation and designing an action plan proves difficult. A discussion with a supportive colleague may help clarify matters and enable you to identify your priority for change or development.

Insights from research and literature

Schön (1987) defined reflective practice as “a dialogue of thinking and doing through which I become more skilled” and Schratz (1993) stated that it had been found “university staff were generally motivated to improve their teaching competencies even though their main interest lay in their disciplinary fields of scientific research”. We can conclude that reflective practice is appropriate as a means of enabling university teachers to become more skilled at teaching, even when they do not see teaching as their primary field of activity.

When professionals (teachers, lawyers, researchers, engineers, etc) act, their professional training and professional experience (in particular) enable them to analyse the outcome and discover how they should amend their action to achieve better results next time. Sometimes a concerted effort of ‘thinking about it’ is required but often the response is almost instinctive. An espousal of reflective practice as a way of improving your practice means, first, recognising where such instinctive skill exists and striving to become more actively aware of it such that you can ensure the instinctive response kicks in whenever rapid adjustment is needed (e.g. for teachers it might be the recognition that the class doesn’t understand the concept you are trying to teach and devising a new argument ‘off the cuff’).

Second, becoming a reflective practitioner means mastering tools that can be used to give food for thought, e.g. administering carefully worded questionnaires to elicit student responses which can be used to facilitate a more overt understanding of student learning.

Schratz (1993) described an Innsbruck University programme which supported academics who wanted to develop their capacity to be more reflective. The programme encouraged teachers to use methods of collecting information from students that involved very little additional work, whilst giving immediate results [like the one-minute paper method described above]. Also, although all participants were working on their own projects, collaborating in groups gave them a forum for expressing the tentative conclusions they drew from student feedback. Their confidence in carrying out this analysis grew through helping and being helped by their peers. It was also noticed that the desire for feedback shifted from satisfaction with quantitative measures of teaching effectiveness to a specific feeling of need for qualitative feedback which would facilitate exploring “students’ and their own interpretations of what was happening and how” (p120). It was concluded that evaluation which is more concerned with process (e.g. teaching methods) than results (e.g. exam results) is most useful because it can inform changes which might lead to more effective teaching.

Peer observation is another technique which has been found beneficial to practising teachers. Although teachers are often reluctant to engage in this type of activity because of its use as a form of appraisal, Bell (2001) nonetheless reported that a high proportion of participants in a development programme based on peer observation found it to be an effective means of “implementing new ideas and developing teaching skills” (p32).

Working with mentors and/ or peers enables participants to support each other’s reflective practice through a process of questioning and discussion. Basing such discussion on a specific teaching observation occasion has proved valuable to many academics, when a novice is observed by a senior colleague and vice-versa, and when the participants are true peers. Handal (1999) argues for more professional critique of teaching, which he likens to the peer review that typifies the research component of academic work. Having experienced that the critic or observer gains as much as the person who is observed and critiqued, he proposes ‘mutual criticism among colleagues’ as a means of bringing about teaching improvement, with colleagues working in pairs or groups. Costa and Kallick (1993) emphasise that, in the relationship of critical friends, critique should not be equated with judgement but considered, rather, the highest order of thinking.

At Oxford, discussions about teaching experiences often take place in departments/ faculties with disciplinary colleagues and formally appointed mentors, and in colleges, where an increase in the likelihood of cross-disciplinary groupings might add further dimensions to the discussions. An alternative forum for such debate and collective reflection is available in Oxford Learning Institute seminars, where participants often inform us that group discussions with colleagues are some of the most valuable activities that take place. Participants find that they learn from those very experienced ‘experts’ who are always in attendance as well as from each other, including colleagues from the same discipline and others whose subject may be radically different from their own.

The above text was based on:

Angelo, T. A. (1991) Ten Easy Pieces: Assessing Higher Learning in Four Dimensions. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 46, 17-31.

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, P. K. (1993) Classroom Assessment Techniques (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D. and Hanesian, H. (1978) Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd Edition). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Bell, M. (2001) Supported reflective practice: a programme of peer observation and feedback for academic teaching development. International Journal for Academic Development, 6(1), 29-39.

Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Costa, A. And Kallick, B. (1993) Through the Lens of a Critical Friend. Educational Leadership, 51,2. 49-51.

Felder, R. M. (1993) What Do They Know Anyway? 2. Making Evaluations Effective. Chem. Engr. Education, 27:1, 28-29. [Link takes you to copy of the article on Professor Felder’s webpage at North Carolina State University.]

Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by doing: a guide to teaching and learning methods. London: Further Education Unit.

Handal, G. (1999) Consultation using Critical Friends. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 79, Fall 1999, 59-70.

Hounsell, D. (2010) “Evaluating courses and teaching” in Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. And Marshall, S. (2010) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice (3rd Edition). New York and London: Routledge, 198-211.

McKeachie, W. J., Svinicki, M. & Nicol, D. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Schön, Donald A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schratz, Michael. (1993) Researching While Teaching: promoting reflective professionality in higher education. Educational Action Research, 1(1), 111-133.