In February, Alan Kalish (Director) and I presented a webinar series on an exciting and, arguably, the most debated topic in higher education: The Student Evaluation of Instruction (SEI).

At Ohio State, we value and consider students’ feedback in all our improvement efforts, especially related to making our classroom environments more conducive to their learning, engagement, and success. Therefore, the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (UCAT) places great emphasis on supporting instructors to better understand the student feedback they receive via the SEI and how to use such feedback to guide instructional practices to enhance student learning.

During this well-attended, four-part webinar series, participants learned about:

  • The genesis and intention of Student Evaluation of Instruction (SEI)
  • The elements of teaching that SEI is actually asking about
  • How SEI questions align with scholarship on how teaching can promote learning
  • Several specific strategies to adapt their teaching to enhance student learning and perception of learning

History and Structure of the SEI at Ohio State

In order to set the context for our discussion on the SEI, we found it helpful to share some information about the historical development of the questionnaire. The SEI was created locally at Ohio State, in the late 1980s and since then has been modified and validated in several large-scale studies (e.g., 1988, 1996, and 1998). In fact, the 1996 study, which was based on data collected from over 310,000 completed SEI forms, found that class size and students’ reasons for taking a course significantly influenced student evaluations. Therefore, the reporting comparison group data for each course, specifically based on class size and reasons for course enrollment, is a standard feature of the SEI questionnaire since 1997/98. Consequently, Promotion and Tenure committees are strongly recommended to consider the situational context (e.g., unit and class size) and student motivation when assessing an instructor’s teaching effectiveness.

The first nine items were chosen to be included in the SEI because there is substantial evidence indicating that they measure key dimensions of instruction which significantly impact student learning and achievement. See the graphic for specific data on correlations between the items and student learning. At Ohio State, these nine items are categorized into three main categories: 1. Organization and Clarity of Content Presentation (Items 1, 5, and 9); 2. Instructor Rapport and Commitment (Items 6, 3, and 8); and 3. Students’ Sense of Their Own Learning (Items 2, 4, and 7). It is interesting to note that local SEI-related studies have shown that students responses to the 9 items predict 80.1% of variance rating on the overall rating item 10, which is why the overall question is placed last, to allow other items to imply criteria.

In addition to the 10 Likert-scale type items, instructors or departments may choose to invite students to provide open-ended comments through the SEI system. While the open-ended comments can provide descriptive explanations to help interpret the numerical responses, we encourage faculty to not let the opinions of one very verbal student overwhelm the others. Some comments from students may not be productive and relevant to use to inform teaching practices. We suggest instructors conduct a frequency analysis to show the breadth of an issue. UCAT can help instructors with this process!

Strategies To Improve Learning and SEI Responses

If you are interested in improving your teaching and enhancing student learning and their perceptions of learning in your course, we hope you will find the following evidenced-based strategies useful:

  1. Organization and Clarity of Content Presentation
    • Prepare for DAY ONE. Don’t just talk through the syllabus – make it a preview of everything that you will do that term. Let students see that full range of your expectations
    • Design your class around goals and explicit learning outcomes – not what you will “cover” but what students will know and be able to do
    • Explicitly communicate the organizational structure of the course and each class session with an outline, agenda, or visual representation
    • Consider who your students are. Assess prior preparation up front and adapt. Set high expectations and provide the support needed to achieve them
    • Find an appropriate density of information; give students enough to connect to without creating cognitive overload
  1. Instructor Rapport and Commitment
    • Reduce Anonymity: Learn students’ names and encourage them to learn their classmates’ names
    • Invite students to office hours–reduce barriers created by large classes
    • Involve students in the process of establishing the rules for class interaction-model and expect inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes
    • Show you care that they succeed and that you believe that they can
    • Explain your instructional choices – help them learn how to learn and to see the value of effort in their success
  1. Students’ Sense of Their Own Learning
    • Show your passion and enthusiasm for the discipline
    • Present yourself as a learner too who acknowledges students’ expertise in their learning
    • Communicate your belief that students belong and are capable of successfully completing assignments and other tasks
    • Gives students opportunities to verbally communicate their thinking about the subject matter and their learning
    • Explicitly communicate connections between out-of-class and in-class activities

Strategies to Interpret and Report on SEI Responses and Teaching Growth

We recommend the following strategies to help instructors prepare to share feedback and responses to it in their Core Dossier and VITA narratives:

  • Focus on what you believe students meant and what you intend to do to follow up
  • Help those evaluating you by triangulating feedback, both over time and from various sources
  • Document contextual factors that may have had an impact on student responses
  • Look for alignment between the 3 main factors and Item 10. Work on one aspect of teaching at a time to improve
  • Look at Standard Deviation and distribution to see what is a broadly held consensus and when students hold divergent opinions
  • Use open response comments to clarify numbers. Get a colleague or consultant to help you analyze comments. Don’t let one strong comment overwhelm many others
  • Use your narrative to share context and especially your plans for using feedback to improve your teaching practices

We encourage instructors to be aware of the comparison group data; however, comparing results to yourself over time is more important and helpful to inform your improvement efforts related to teaching.

If you or your department is interested in learning more about how to decode the SEI and use student feedback to shape improvement efforts related to teaching and learning, please contact UCAT (ucat@osu.edu).

The recordings and slides from the webinar series are hosted here for the Ohio State community.


Jennifer Collins is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. She earned her PhD in Science Education from Oregon State University.