Skip to main content

Accessibility menu

Skip to main content Skip to footer


A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide


For more information about UWL’s SEI process, go here:

The research literature on student course evaluations identifies several factors that affect students’ perceptions of an instructor’s teaching.  Based on that literature, here are five characteristics students tend to value and therefore to flag as a concern in evaluating a course.  We suggest some ways to respond (and things to avoid), also based in the literature.  Prioritize as you see fit, based on what you’re seeing in your own SEIs.


Students expect instructors to care about their topic.  Where does your passion for your subject show?  Can students see it in your syllabus?  On the first day, and every day, of classes?  In the texts you selected for your course?  In the goals you set for learning?  In the assignments you design?

What does instructor enthusiasm look like?  You needn’t alter your personality to teach with enthusiasm, but the value you place on your field should be obvious in multiple locations.

What to Try:

  • Demonstrate the relevance of your field, e.g. by designing “authentic assignments" that center around current issues or problems
  • Tell your own story.  What drew you to your field?
  • Change your classroom demeanor.  One small change sometimes goes a long way
  • Take care of yourself, e.g. by getting enough sleep every night

What to Avoid:

  • Denigrating other fields of study
  • Dumbing down your course (studies indicate that easy grading does not improve course evaluations)



Students value instructors who care about their learning.  They rate instructors lower when they encounter attitudes or behaviors that signal disrespect for them, either as members of a group (including “students” as a whole) or as an individual.  

What to try:

  • Learn your students’ names, or at least some names
  • Respond to students’ needs and questions
  • Get to know your students as individuals as well as in terms of the cultures or groups with which they identify
  • Interact with students from underrepresented groups as individuals, rather than as members of a group
  • Define appropriate and inappropriate classroom behaviors. Intercede when necessary, and teach students to intercede.
  • Review your syllabus and your first day of classes.  What in your course materials or actions could be revised to sound more positive rather than punitive?

What to Avoid:

  • Name-calling
  • Targeting individuals to speak for their entire group
  • Disrespectful interactions, including blanket assumptions about the behaviors of “college students” or your entire class as college students
  • Thinking of your students as “kids”
  • Stereotyping, either in terms of attitudes or abilities, a student who identifies membership in a group


Students tend to rate instructors higher when they perceive them as invested in student success rather than aiming to weed them out.  Providing adequate supports becomes particularly critical in required courses or courses that the instructor intends to be very challenging.  Studies of student evaluations indicate that students tend to prefer challenging courses that provide adequate supports over courses that may be an easy "A" but in which they learn little.  Be aware that substantive changes to the level of challenge in a course might initially be met with resistance from students, and that is likely to be reflected in your SEIs for a semester or two.  Contextualize such scores in your portfolio materials.

What to Try:

  • Identify learning essential to later course concepts, and monitor student at critical junctures in the learning process 
  • Identify and communicate what successful students do
  • Address your expert blind spots
  • Scaffold learning 
  • Help students understand the process demanded by a particular assignment
  • Instructor-guided collaborative learning; e.g., assigned problem sets for study groups, collaborative testing, interteaching strategies

What to Avoid:

  • Grading everything
  • Refining lectures to the point of wordsmithing
  • Making students guess what you want
  • Grading on a curve/norm-referenced grading that pits students against each other
  • Vague grading criteria (instructors often define “class participation” unclearly)
  • Using your power in ways that seem arbitrary to students (e.g., adding an assignment not already included in the course)


Students know they are not likely to perform to the best of their abilities on tests or papers if they are confused; yet they may never indicate in class anything other than comprehension – until the end of the semester.  The disconnect is likely to come from two major sources:  students’ fear of looking “stupid” and the expert’s blind spot.  Most of us don’t want to look foolish, ever, much less in front of an authority figure (in this case, you) or classmates.  For some students, this barrier to learning even includes the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about their group, which has been shown to contribute to underperformance.  Expert blind spot is a function of very thing for which you were hired, your expertise in your field. Yet we know our field so well that we can take understanding for granted.  We might assume that advanced undergraduates have a deeper understanding of concepts than they actually possess, assuming that they know the full range of situations to which a concept introduced in an earlier class apply.  Or students may have convinced themselves that they understood simply because they were overconfident.  Perhaps they reread the textbook and everything sounded familiar, or they don’t know that memorizing information isn’t the deepest form of learning.  The possibilities are numerous.  Here are some starting points.

What to Try:

  • Make your expectations clear;  make clear what your criteria for success are (e.g., examples of A work)
  • Monitor your expert blind spots.  Reviewing class statistics on right/wrong responses to test questions works well for some instructors, especially in large courses.  Discussing various responses with students can help you understand both their misconceptions or misreading and your expert blind spots.
  • Quick in-class, private assessments like anonymous polling, one-minute papers can reduce the fear of looking confused in front of everyone. Even checking notes with one other person can provide safety for expressing confusion
  • Low-stakes practice:  class activities and assignments that demand using information and concepts rather than just memorizing information

What to Avoid:

  • Underestimating students' fears of "looking dumb"
  • Dumbing down your course. 
  • High standards without adequate support.





This is another very common complaint from students and, like “clarity,” it can be hard to interpret.  Usually what students mean is that they don’t know what to expect.  Sometimes it means they are so overwhelmed with information that they can’t distinguish between what’s vital to their understanding and what isn’t;  sometimes that is because we have overpacked the course either through our own enthusiasm for the subject or by underestimating how much time students need to read and absorb new material.  Clarity in your syllabus schedule (what to do before class and what will happen in class) and sticking to your schedule are the most obvious fixes. Here are some other ideas that are likely to help.

What to Try:

  • Align content and assignments to each learning goal for your course. Make learning plan comprehensible.
  • In class, briefly review prior session, orient students to new material, integrate new material into prior learning, use transitions to help students navigate
  • Omit content and assignments that do not fit that alignment.  Don’t invent new outcomes just to retain material you think will be “good for students to know.”  Less really is more here.
  • Plan each class session using this same alignment thinking.

What to Avoid:

  • Assigning tasks unrelated to a learning outcome
  • Lecturing the assigned reading
  • Assigning unrealistic workloads (check with your departmental colleagues – some departments regularly poll instructors for average weekly reading/writing loads by course level)
  • Assuming all students can meet at the same time together face-to-face outside of class




Ambrose, S. A., et al.  How Learning Works:  7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010),

Nielson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best:  A research-based resource for college professors (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Richmond, A.S., Boysen, G.A., and Gurung, R.A.R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching:  Developing the model teacher.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Wilson, J.H., and Ryan, R.G. (2013). Professor-Student Rapport Scale:  Six Items Predict Student Outcomes. Teaching of Psychology 40(2), 130-133.

Hoskins, D. (2016). How can I improve . . .My SEIs. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from