How to Make Sense of Student Comments

One key to making use of feedback from students is to be prepared to receive that feedback. If you have helped your students understand the purpose of feedback and how to give it, you’ve decreased the likelihood of receiving useless, nonsensical or offensive comments (Svinicki, 2001). 

Even so, reading student comments can elicit emotional responses such as confusion, anger or defensiveness. It helps to be prepared for an initial emotional reaction, accept that reaction, and then be ready to move on with making some meaning and use of the responses.

Processing the results of your IDEA surveys in a structured and intentional way is one way to mitigate the emotional response. Being able to identify (and ignore) irrelevant comments and synthesize productive ones will help you focus on using good feedback rather than becoming stressed.

Read on for some strategies for sorting feedback, ignoring irrelevant or simply obnoxious comments, recognizing trends in your data, and identifying ways you can grow as a teacher.

At the outset we should distinguish between two kinds of feedback — (a) determining that a problem exists, and (b) diagnosing just what the problem might be. Like medical patients, students are better at identifying (a) than (b).

– Wilkinson

Simple Sorting

In their 2010 paper, Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan (Buskist and Hogan, 2010) recommend the following approach to responding to student written feedback:

  • Ignore “off-the-wall comments” that don’t provide actionable information (as exemplified in the article’s title, “She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes”). 
  • Set aside comments that don’t provide useful information, as in “Best teacher ever!”
  • Divide the comments that are negative and/or suggest action into two groups: things you can change and things you cannot change.
  • “Savor the comments that are meant to be negative, but let you know you are doing your job,” such as “she made us think!”

Mixed Methods Analysis

While reading and reflecting on your qualitative data you might yourself these questions (Berkowitz, 1997):

  • What patterns/common themes emerge around specific items in the data?
  • How do these patterns (or lack thereof) help to shed light on the course experience?
  • Are there any deviations from these patterns? If yes, what might explain these atypical responses (outliers)?
  • What interesting stories emerge from the data?
  • How can these stories help to shed light on my teaching and course design?
  • Do any of the patterns/emergent themes suggest that I might need to explore further?
  • Do the patterns that emerge correlate with other courses that I have taught? If not, what is different about this course?

Other considerations include these points from the Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning (Stanford, 1997):

Pay attention to any criticism that appears more than once, even if the majority of comments are at odds with the criticism. There may be a subpopulation of students who could benefit from course modifications or alternative approaches.

Try to keep your perspective when reading negative comments. Under the protection of anonymity, students may write harshly negative comments that range from sarcastic to vicious. These comments may be motivated by pressures and concerns unrelated to your course. If you receive a number of negative comments among your evaluations, you may want to discuss them with a trusted colleague [or a CLT team member]. Talking with someone can help you keep perspective and restore your teaching confidence, while helping you explore ways to address any possible problems in future courses.

You will get the most out of your evaluations if you can relate the written comments to your evaluation scores. After reviewing trends in your quantitative data, look to the written comments for elaboration and specific suggestions. 

Pulling It Together

Putting student comments into context — the context of the classroom environment, your teaching experience, the course purpose and design, student motivation, and so on — is vital to making meaning from student feedback and putting that meaning to good use in developing your teaching practice.

Receiving opposing observations from students within the same course section (“I loved the group project.” versus “I hated the group project.”) may seem irrational, but it’s not surprising that students with different personalities, abilities, maturity levels or learning styles might have differing opinions about how well they were able to learn in your classroom. This contradictory feedback may point to a need to examine how you can adjust your teaching to accommodate different learning styles, background knowledge or developmental stages.

While it is true that we can almost always find something worth learning in students’ written comments, it is important to avoid over-interpreting them, or focusing on negative comments at the expense of the positive (and vice versa). The key is to look for (and ask for) comments that are specific and descriptive enough to be actionable.


Susan Berkowitz, Analyzing Quantitative Data, Chapter 4, in User-Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluations (Links to an external site), Edited by Joy Frechtling, Laure Sharp Westat, National Science Foundation, August 1997.

Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan, (2010). She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes: Handling Those Pesky Course Evaluations (Links to an external site). Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (1), 51-56.

Karron G. Lewis, Making Sense (and Use) of Written Student Comments (Links to an external site), Teaching Excellence, Vol. 3, No. 8, 1991.

Karron G. Lewis, Making Sense of Student Written Comments, in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 87, pp. 25-32, Fall 2001, Wiley.

Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning, Using Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching (Links to an external site), Speaking of Teaching: Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, Fall 1997 Vol.9, No. 1

Marilla D. Svinicki, Encouraging Your Students to Give Feedback (Links to an external site), in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 87, pp. 17-24, Fall 2001, Wiley.

Stanford University, Center for Teaching and Learning, Interpreting and Working with Your Course Evaluations (Links to an external site).

Washington State University, Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning, Making Sense of Course Evaluations and Midterm Feedback from Students:A Quick Guide for Instructors (Links to an external site).

Jim Wilkinson, Interpreting Feedback and Evaluations (Links to an external site), Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.

More Student Feedback
The Value of Student Feedback