A Pivotal Pandemic: Opportunities to Optimize Student Evaluations

By: Michael Behal, PharmD

The Challenge at Hand

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic resolves, anecdotal reports from colleagues and published opinions point to continuation of virtual and blended learning. COVID-19 has imposed unprecedented challenges to learning for colleges and schools of pharmacy. Course directors and instructors were tasked with transforming learning experiences from physical to virtual. A process typically taking months of review and critique was completed within days or weeks to meet educational demands. In this pivotal moment of rapid educational and learning environment change, targeted evaluation and constructive feedback on virtual learning are critical. We must aim to quickly refine virtual teaching methods to ensure informed and successful curricular change.

Evaluating instruction is typically done through student ratings of teaching. Focus groups and other methods have been utilized, but student evaluations have the ability to reach large populations to obtain feedback. Anonymous or face-to-face, open response or Likert scale-driven, student evaluations of teaching all have the common goal of providing targeted comments and feedback to improve learning experiences. While the validity and value of student evaluations has been questioned in multiple learning environments, it seems, at this time in higher education, they are one of the more feasible evaluation tools available. A frequent discussion regarding student evaluations of teaching centers on obtaining specific and constructive feedback. 

Thinking back to my time as a student, on more than one occasion, I would rattle off the classic “They were a great instructor. I wish we had more like them!” or “I don’t think they taught clearly, and I didn’t get much from the course.” and leave it at that. That’s a perfectly fine start to an evaluation, but now I realize that no instructor can be expected to improve based on these comments. Those examples lack the “why” component, which is arguably the most important. 

Reinforcing the “Why” 

Throughout pharmacy school, students are taught to assess and discuss the “why” in literature evaluation or therapeutic drug management. This begs the question; should we make more concerted efforts to train student pharmacists to evaluate and provide the “why” in course evaluation? Lack of understanding regarding the utility and implications of evaluations or inadequate practice opportunities have been identified as barriers to high quality student feedback and evaluations (1). Implementation of early evaluation training in a large group of first-year medical students showed an increase in the number of corrective, specific comments provided to faculty and course instructors (2). One-hundred and forty-one students were oriented to the platform utilized for student evaluations of teaching, attended lectures on the importance of feedback and its use, and participated in role-playing activities reinforcing lecture concepts. Periodic self-assessment surveys allowed students to reflect on their personal feedback and evaluation process. In this study, provision of high quality corrective feedback  persisted long-term after training sessions were complete. A similar training model was implemented and studied at Manchester University College of Pharmacy (3). Sixty-minute sessions consisting of a discussion-based lecture, critiques of example evaluations, and practice evaluation scenarios were utilized to facilitate training, which  was provided to first, second, and third-year student pharmacists. Students who underwent enhanced training provided significantly more constructive feedback than students who did not receive training.

Moving Forward

To optimize new virtual learning experiences, instructors need quality feedback. Therefore, student pharmacists should be appropriately trained on providing specific and constructive comments on improving virtual learning experiences. The following may provide guidance and helpful advice for educators and administrators implementing evaluation training programs:

  • Utilize multiple teaching strategies (e.g. lectures, video presentations, practice evaluations, peer assessment of evaluations) to appeal to different learning styles when training students to evaluate and provide feedback.
  • Ask students to self-assess and reflect on feedback they have provided in the past to help identify gaps in understanding. 
  • Provide modeling and examples of appropriate and inappropriate evaluations of teaching to establish a foundational understanding (1).
  • Engage in discussions surrounding instructor utilization of evaluations and feedback, including examples of successful curricular changes, to help students understand the importance of their input (4).
  • Assess the need for alterations to the evaluation process (e.g. question content, focus areas, or delivery methods) to better tailor prompts to online learning, obtain desired information, and optimize student responses (5). 

It is imperative that high quality constructive feedback is obtained from student pharmacists to prepare for future demands of virtual learning. The sooner new teaching and learning methods are refined through constructive evaluations, the sooner student pharmacists can feel more comfortable and confident in their education during these unprecedented times. As training programs are developed and implemented in pharmacy curricula, they should be shared through writing and publication. For those reading, what methods have you found successful in training students to provide quality feedback?


  1. Svinicki MD. Encouraging your students to give feedback. New Dir Teach Learn. 2001;87:17-24.
  2. Kruidering-Hall M, O’Sullivan PS, Chou CL. Teaching feedback to first-year medical students: long-term skill retention and accuracy of student self-assessment. J Gen Intern Med. 2009;24(6):721-6.
  3. North CL, Henriksen B, Beckett RD, et al. Impact of training and student self-identification on frequency, constructiveness, and professionalism of pharmacy student evaluations of teaching. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2018;10:1175-83.
  4. Johnson JT, Stowe CD, Savidge MA, at al. Enhancing the quantity and quality of Student comments on teaching assessment tools. J Pharm Teach. 2003;11(1):41-56.
  5. Tunks KW, Hibberts MF. A comparison of instructor evaluations for online courses. Online J Dist Learn  Admin. 2013;16:1-6.

Michael Behal is a PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center in Lexington, KY. Educational scholarship interests include student perceptions of scholarship and research and the impact and optimization of student evaluations of teaching. In his free time, Michael enjoys trying new restaurants, hiking, and spending time with his friends and family. 

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning.

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