New course surveys seek to mitigate bias, improve teaching

Samantha Ye

Finals week marks evaluation time for students — but also students’ chance to evaluate professors. And with the new course surveys, faculty are hoping for more effective feedback than in the past.  

Colorado State University’s new course surveys are designed to mitigate biased responses and more effectively gauge students’ classroom experience. This winter will be the first time college departments will use the new survey responses to evaluate teaching faculty.


Learn more about course surveys here.

Unlike surveys from a year ago, the new course surveys steer away from the Rate My Professors model of numeric rating questions, instead trying to solicit more qualitative feedback. Instead of asking students questions such as “How do you rate the instructor’s knowledge of the subject?” the new survey asks students to rate and describe the workload of the course with specific examples. 

The new course survey results for a course are displayed on under “Search all survey results.”

“We’ve worked hard with colleagues from all over campus in developing new … questions about what it’s like to be a student in a learning environment on the CSU campus in ways that are helpful for faculty members who are interested in improving their teaching,” said Matt Hickey, chair for the Committee on Teaching and Learning, which led the survey revamp.

Student course surveys provide critical information for students, who are able to see the aggregated course results of most survey questions online; for instructors who are looking to improve their course; and for departments who will use the surveys as one factor in evaluating the faculty member’s performance. 

Those who worked on the new survey say they indicate a larger cultural shift on campus to enable effective teaching, and they encourage students to fill them out. 

Surveys on the regular schedule are now open on Canvas until Dec. 20.

No longer “crude and inappropriate”

Numerous studies over the last decade have shown how student evaluations are plagued with sexist and racist biases. Students tend to rate female faculty, faculty of color and older faculty with lower scores unrelated to their teaching, Hickey said. 

These patterns were no different at CSU, and the old surveys were particularly susceptible to these biases because the evaluations created numerical averages. 

Of the 29 old questions, 27 were scales from one to five. All the responses would then be averaged out to give a number like 4.56 out of five on the question, even though the questions weren’t designed for averages, Hickey said. 

Then, the tendency was for departments to take one average from one question and use that as the only indicator of how well the professor did, even though the questions weren’t designed to evaluate teaching.

Women and faculty of color faced significantly lower scores due to bias, and this would inappropriately harm their evaluations, Hickey said.


I try not to take it personally, but as untenured faculty, it’s always a little nerve-wracking when students say they’re going to report you to the dean because they’re mad that they had to learn about white privilege.” – Lindsey Schneider, assistant professor of ethnic studies

Assistant professor of ethnic studies Lindsey Schneider wrote in an email to The Collegian that basically “every woman professor I know has gotten comments on how she dresses or how her voice sounds, and I don’t know of any men faculty who get that.”

“I feel like because students perceive me as feminine, there is this expectation that I’ll be nice and likable,” Schneider wrote. “So even though I know I’m doing the same things that men faculty do, when I do it, students will say that I’m ‘harsh’ or ‘too demanding.’”

Additionally, studies have found students will rate easier courses better even if the challenging ones prepared them better for future courses. 

Schneider wrote that the few times she has received harsh negative feedback, it has always been from students with personal issues with the material.

“I try not to take it personally, but as untenured faculty, it’s always a little nerve-wracking when students say they’re going to report you to the dean because they’re mad that they had to learn about white privilege,” Schneider wrote.

There’s no crude and inappropriate way to compare faculty based on those mean-type of responses.” -Matt Hickey, chair for the Committee on Teaching and Learning

During the spring 2019 semester, Faculty Council passed an amendment that disallowed departments from using student surveys “as a direct or comparative measure of teaching effectiveness.” The Council also approved adopting the new survey, which is designed to gather better quality student feedback with less bias. 

Tim Gallagher, chair of Faculty Council, wrote in an email to The Collegian that there has been no attempt this academic year to eliminate student course surveys, and no such attempt is planned.

“The majority of Faculty Council members who defeated the proposed amendment were also convinced that student feedback was an important part of the process for evaluating faculty teaching effectiveness,” Gallagher wrote.

The University is using the new survey platform SmartEvals to deliver student course surveys. Students can stop and save their survey progress at any time.

In the redesign process, every single old question was discarded, Hickey said. Now, when the survey involves numbered ratings, they display as distributions instead of averages. Instead of one giant text box at the end for student comments, the survey asks multiple times for written explanations of what students experienced.

“There’s no crude and inappropriate way to compare faculty based on those mean-type of responses,” Hickey said about the use of surveys in departmental evaluations. “That is a formal step away from the temptation to abuse student feedback.”

Rather, departments will have to use the more qualitative student feedback solicited by the new survey, along with other evidence like peer evaluations, a portfolio of syllabi and evidence of teaching practices to determine competence. The survey itself is not a student evaluation of teaching, and this more holistic view will help address the impacts of biases, Hickey said.

“We think the redesign is an improvement, but the reality is we don’t want to rest on our laurels and assume we have a fix, so we’re going to have to do continuous improvements,” Hickey said. 

“More valuable” for students and professors

The survey changes have made them a better tool for students and instructors alike, according to those who were involved in the redesign.

Last year, the Associated Students of CSU contributed greatly to the development of the new survey. 

The Syron-Sullivan administration ran on making course surveys available online to save paperwork and to establish a database for students to access the survey results, like an internal Rate My Professors platform. Former ASCSU Chief of Staff Zach Vaishampayan helped make these items a reality

Last year’s ASCSU even co-wrote the first question of the new survey, Hickey said. 

The question asks how students perceived the format of the class, such as whether it was more discussion-based or lecture-heavy. Students registering for courses can see if the class suits their learning style or matches the course description.

The Associated Students of CSU wrote one of the questions on the new course survey, which reads: “Recognizing there may be some overlap, what percentage of time in your course do you feel has been allocated to these formats (some can be 0, but total must =100%)?” and divides it between Lecture, Discussion, Online, Project based (not in lab), Homework based, and Activity (lab). The fall 2019 survey poses the questions a bit differently, so students choose from a set of percentage options instead of entering the percentages themselves like in spring 2019.

Very few students actually access the database, however, and average survey response rates have not been stellar. 

The old paper survey averaged response rates in the high 30% area. Once they moved online, the response rate fell below 20%, which was expected but hopefully temporary, Hickey said. CSU moved to a new survey platform over the summer, and pilot tests showed response rates of around 55%, according to Hickey. 

Ideally, the response rate would be 100%, Hickey said. But getting there will require professors to build a classroom culture that values student feedback throughout the year.

The positive feedback to SmartEvals, the new platform, might also help. 

SmartEvals shows instructors how many students have responded and sends out automatic email reminders, Director of the University Testing Center Paula Rodriguez wrote in an email to The Collegian. Additionally, instructors receive emailed survey reports 48 hours after the survey closes, can drill down on information in the report for further analysis and have more clearly defined sections for course-specific questions and primary/co-instructor questions.

Many faculty already review their surveys extensively to improve their teaching, Hickey said.

Through the instructor dashboard, professors are able to see the response rate to their course surveys before the survey period ends. This allows them to remind students to take the survey. (Image courtesy of Paula Rodriguez)

Schneider wrote that she uses them to gather student input about her teaching and the class content and structure. Whether positive or negative, she can figure out how to address it in the future. The more specific the feedback, the more useful it is, Schneider wrote.

“By and large, I think faculty want to do a good job; we want students to feel invested in their education, and even if the feedback is critical, we want to know how we can do better,” Schneider wrote. 

While Schneider hasn’t received feedback from the new surveys yet, she does look forward to seeing if there’s an improvement this semester.

Course surveys are not students’ only feedback option, and Schneider encourages students to go to office hours, write emails and talk to them after class; “whatever (they) need to do” to share their feelings with a professor. 

These are valuable to you as students to choose your courses in an informed way, and you are helping your peers in the future (by filling out the reviews) because you are helping faculty to teach better.” -Gwen Gorzelsky, executive director of The Institute for Learning and Teaching.

While students may look to sites like Rate My Professors to judge their prospective teachers, it’s not a platform many professors are looking at

If students want faculty to pay attention to their input, course surveys are the place to do it, said Gwen Gorzelsky, executive director of The Institute for Learning and Teaching.

“These are valuable to you as students to choose your courses in an informed way, and you are helping your peers in the future (by filling out the reviews) because you are helping faculty to teach better,” Gorzelsky said.

In conjunction with the survey redesign, TILT has launched a new set of tools to help professors become better teachers. 

As University culture has evolved, higher education instructors didn’t really receive any training in teaching, Gorzelsky said. This is changing now, and from TILT’s perspective, the course redesign is another way to facilitate better professor teaching. 

TILT’s Teaching Tools

Students play a critical role by sharing the feedback only they can provide as learners in the classroom. 

Reviewing how an instructor runs a classroom, how much feedback they give and the classroom climate are all elements students are qualified to talk about, and they are critical to an instructor’s development, Gorzelsky said. That’s why these are all questions on the new survey.

“We’re at a very important moment in CSU’s history because we have a new emphasis on how important it is for instructors to take this reflective approach to teaching,” Gorzelsky said. “And I think students may not be aware of how important (their) voices are in that process.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at or on Twitter @samxye4.