Tis’ the season for course evaluations: Paper versus Online

Recently I received an email from my home university department asking if I would like to use paper course evaluations or online evaluations.  Each time this inquiry comes, I find myself reflecting on the particular cohort of students in my class(es), and whether “paper or online” will produce the highest response rate.  I feel torn making the decision because in my perfect world of course evaluations it would not be limited to one or the other; rather I would love to have both options and even an end-of-course teaching feedback interview with some students!

I have colleagues on both sides of the online vs. paper debate who interestingly seem to argue the same points.  Apparently both sides believe that their preferred mode of evaluations will 1) garner more accurate ratings of an instructors teaching, 2) lead to better response rates, and 3) contain more helpful comments and feedback.  Burton et. al. (2012) set out to study the effects of various evaluation modalities. They reviewed 18 studies that measured differences between online and paper feedback. Fourteen of those studies reported no difference in outcomes between these two evaluation delivery methods.

Interestingly, researchers have identified that students’ perceptions of how the instructor values evaluations, , can have a positive effect on the quality of evaluations and response rates more so than the method of collection (Gaillard. et. al., 2006).

So what can we do as Instructors to help our students take the time to engage fully in the evaluation process? The following list has been generated from two online sources. For more information please click: (http://registrar.uoregon.edu/course_evaluations/accuracy_and_validity & http://teachingblog.mcgill.ca/2014/11/18/10-ways-to-encourage-course-evaluation-participation)

  1. Early reminder – 2 to 3 weeks prior: While we already automatically send reminder messages to students during the evaluation period, one study (Norris & Conn, 2005) noted a great increase in student response rates when students were given an early notification that evaluations were approaching. A reminder at around 2 to 3 weeks before the term ended was found to be ideal, raising response rates an average of 17 %.
  1. Add a slide to your presentation slideshows during the evaluation period to remind students about course evaluations being open online or when they will be offered in class.
  1. Ask students to bring their laptops, smartphones, or tablets to class and allow time to complete the evaluations during class if offered online. Students should not feel that the instructor is ‘looking over their shoulder’ when completing course evaluations. Step outside the door.
  1. Send out reminders and announcements in Blackboard or if you use social media in your class, consider posting a tweet or Facebook message to encourage students to complete their course evaluations online.
  1. Detail how the University uses evaluation feedback: Many students don’t realize that their evaluations are looked at by all department chairs, and by promotion and tenure committees campus-wide. Let them know that this data is valued, and used, by University administrators.
  1. And most importantly – Detail how YOU use evaluation feedback: One of the best ways to let students know that their opinion matters, and that you use the feedback to improve your teaching, is to give them an example of how you’ve done so in the past. Share with the students some feedback that you’ve received in the past, and let them know the changes you made as a result. While it is likely valuable to let students know how the University uses their feedback, that’s not what their biggest concern is. Chen and Hoshower (2003) found that students consider an improvement in teaching to be the most important outcome of an evaluation system, followed closely by an improvement in course content and format. What students really want, is to know that you listen and value their feedback.


Burton, W., A. Civitano, and P. Steiner-Grossman. 2012. Online versus paper evaluations: differences in both quantitative and qualitative data. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 24(1): 58-69.

Chen, Y. & Hoshower, L.B. 2003. Student evaluation of teaching effectiveness: an assessment of student perception and motivation. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(1): 71-88.

Gaillard, F., Mitchell, S, & Kavota, V. (2006). Students, Faculty, and Administrators’ Perception Of Students’ Evaluations Of Faculty In Higher Education Business Schools. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, 3(8): 77-90.

Norris, J., & Conn, C. (2005). Investigating Strategies for Increasing Student Response Rates to Online-Delivered Course Evaluations. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6: 13-29.

University of Oregon: http://registrar.uoregon.edu/course_evaluations/accuracy_and_validity

McGill Learning Centre: http://teachingblog.mcgill.ca/2014/11/18/10-ways-to-encourage-course-evaluation-participation

Robyne L. Hanley-Dafoe
Educational Developer
Centre for Teaching and Learning, Trent University

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