Quick Links

Student Guidelines on Course Evaluations

Course evaluations at McGill

As students, you have both the right and the responsibility to provide feedback to instructors and administrators. McGill students have completed course evaluations for all courses regularly since 1992.  Mercury, the online course evaluation system was implemented University-wide in 2008. Mercury is used to collect McGill’s course evaluations data from students for all courses with five (5) or more registered students.  A minimum of five students is required to protect anonymity.  Please contact the Mercury Liaison in your unit for additional information.

Why complete evaluations?

End-of-course evaluations are an important mode of communication about the quality of courses and teaching that you experience.  Course evaluations have the potential to improve courses and teaching, benefitting future students who will take those courses. Course evaluations help in four main ways:   

  1. They provide information to future students about courses and instructors.
  2. They help instructors improve their teaching through constructive criticism and feedback.
  3. They provide important feedback to Teaching Assistants, which is indispensible in helping them improve their teaching effectiveness as they begin their teaching careers;
  4. They support an ongoing dialogue about teaching between instructors and administrators, including positive reinforcement and identification of areas in need of improvement.

Who reads them?

Students often express skepticism about the benefits of completing course evaluations. Does anyone read them?  Do they actually make a difference?

The results are reviewed by instructors and administrators each term.  As well, information from end-of-course evaluations is considered when evaluating professors’ teaching for purposes of merit, reappointment, tenure and promotion. The more students who fill out course evaluations, the more seriously the feedback is taken by both instructors and administrators.

Numerical results are also made available to students where possible, provided two conditions are met: an instructor has not objected to access, and an adequate response rate has been received. See http://www.mcgill.ca/tls/teaching/course-evaluations/ for the complete policy.

Effective feedback

Feedback is a vital part of any learning process, as much for instructors as it is for students.   Thus, your feedback is a necessary part of the process for teachers to improve their teaching. However, for teachers to take feedback seriously and work on improving their teaching, the criticisms must be constructive. Constructive feedback from students is a valuable resource for improving teaching.[1] The feedback should be specific, focused and respectful and address aspects of the course and teaching that are positive as well as those which need improvement.

[1] Ory, J. & Braskamp, L. (1981). Faculty perceptions of the quality of three types of evaluative information. Research in Higher Education, 15(3), p. 271-282.

Before beginning course evaluations: Considerations

Anonymity and confidentiality

  1. All student responses are anonymous; this includes the numerical results and the written comments. Your responses are not linked to your ID number. Note that this is why each evaluation must be completed in one sitting.
  2. The results are confidential to the instructor and the department chair; they are the only ones who can access the results unless the instructor does not object to access and an adequate response rate is received.
  3. The instructor cannot see the results until the final grades for the course have been submitted and approved.


  1. Completing the course evaluations will take approximately 5-10 minutes per course.
  2. Secure online access to complete course evaluations is available 24/7 during the evaluation period. The default evaluation period is approximately the last six weeks of term, ending the day before the start of the final examination period. Some units choose to condense the evaluation period to end the day before final examination period begins.  Courses on intensive, block, or summer schedules have customized evaluation period dates. In all cases, you will receive email reminders about your course evaluations.
  3. Each course evaluation questionnaire contains a maximum of 25 questions. There is a combination of numerical and open-ended questions. You can choose which questions to answer; comments are welcomed and encouraged.
  4. Questions about the course are only answered once when there are multiple instructors.
  5. For multiple instructors and TAs, you can choose to whom you provide feedback.

Completing course evaluations: Considerations

For many of you, this may be the first time that you are completing course evaluations. When you are providing feedback, you will be comparing the instructor to other instructors, either consciously or unconsciously. When you are comparing, remember that the comparison group should be other professors and courses at the University, not teachers and courses at high school or CEGEP.

Questions are asked on a 5 point scale with 1 indicating “Strongly Disagree” and 5 indicating “Strongly Agree”. You should choose “Neutral” (3) only when you feel that your response is between the two endpoints.

Choose “Not applicable” when the question is not relevant to your course or instructor.

While course and teaching quality are highly interdependent, the questions have been designed to explicitly address the course or the instructor. Please direct your feedback appropriately.

Adding comments to the course evaluation: Considerations

Guidelines for providing constructive feedback[2]

  1. Be specific and provide examples when commenting on the course or the instructor.  
  2. Focus on observable behaviours of the instructor or on specific aspects of the course. Describe the situation you are commenting on. For example, “we were really able to listen in class” leaves the reader wondering what the instructor did to allow for this. A more helpful comment may be, “It was great that the PowerPoint presentations were put online, that way you can follow in class and not have to worry about frantically take down notes and worry about not getting everything”.
  3. Be respectful; derogatory comments or criticisms based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are not appropriate.
  4. Avoid personal or emotional comments instead, describe actual incidents.  For example, commenting that, “The professor is sarcastic at times during lectures, which makes learning difficult and confusing” is more helpful than commenting that the instructor is a “sarcastic loudmouth”.
  5. Describe how the instructor’s behaviour or elements of the course affect you.  Describing how a situation makes you feel offers the reader a different perspective. For example, “I found the final exam fair, but really long. I knew all the material but really struggled to finish the exam in time. I felt very stressed by the time pressure and may not have performed my best.”  This allows the instructor to gain a better understanding of the situation as opposed to “the exam was unfair”.
  6. Offer alternative solutions or suggestions to address your critiques of the instructor or the course. For example, “The course could be recorded which would help with studying, I could easily just go back and listen to that part of the class” is very helpful to the instructor when planning the course design for the following year.
  7. To help instructors improve the course and their teaching, please provide both positive and negative comments in a constructive manner. Formative comments offer specific reasons for judgment. These are very helpful as they inform the instructor of what you suggest be kept or changed.[3] While comments regarding what needs to change may come more readily, it is just as helpful to remind the instructor about what went well.
  8. If your course had Teaching Assistants, you will be given the opportunity to provide feedback to them. Please take the time to provide constructive comments about strengths and areas for improvement. Feedback early in their teaching careers will be instrumental in helping them become great teachers.

[2] Adapted from: Svinicki, M.D. (2001). Encouraging your students to give feedback. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 87, 17-24.

[3] Donovan, J., Mader, C., & Shinsky, J. (2010). Constructive student feedback: Online vs. traditional course evaluations. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 9(3), p. 283-296.

Categories of comments

There are comment boxes associated with many questions; in these cases please try to target your comments to the specific issue addressed in the question.  In other cases, there are comment boxes that are more general in scope.  Thinking of the following categories when completing the questionnaires may help you organize your thoughts:

  • Overall (Course or Instructor)
  • Clarity & Difficulty
  • Organization & Structure
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Assignments
  • Interest or Motivation
  • Outside of Classroom Communications
  • Personal Traits
  • Physical Environment

Area of responsibility

While the instructor clearly has influence and control over many of the factors that influence the quality of a course and the teaching, in many instances that influence is shared with the students and/or the administrators.  By thinking about who is in a position to change problem areas—or maintain successful practices—it can help you frame your comments usefully. When possible, make suggestions from the student perspective as to actions that the instructor or administrators could take to help improve the situation.

Personal traits of the instructor   

Comments about the personal traits (for example, accent or apparent unfriendliness) of the instructor often elicit strong emotions and should be made with sensitivity. Focus your comments on behaviours that can be improved. Also, describe the impact on your learning—this will help the instructor improve the learning experience. For example, the comment, “The professor was often sarcastic” on its own does not tell the instructor what the impact was. However, “The professor was often sarcastic which made me not want to ask questions or participate in discussions” makes it clear to the instructor that there is a real impact on the students’ learning experience.

Interpreting end-of-course evaluation results

If you review results from previous courses, it is important to interpret the numbers in a meaningful way.  Some points to remember are:

  1. The mean is not sufficient to provide a picture of the distribution of responses. When interpreting the numerical results, consider information such as the distribution of responses by item as well as the variation in responses. Generally, differences that are less than .5 above or below the mean should be regarded as functionally equivalent. 
  2. The standard deviation provides important additional information about the variability of student responses. A standard deviation for a question greater than 1 indicates relatively high differences of opinion.
  3. Ratings of global items are the most useful as indicators of overall instructional effectiveness (e.g., “Overall this instructor is an excellent teacher”; “I learned a great deal from this course”).  Responses to these questions are found to correlate most consistently with measures of actual student achievement. Generally, mean scores over 4 are considered strong and mean scores of 3.5 to 4 represent solid results.

Why aren’t all evaluation results available?

The McGill policy on end-of-course evaluations requires two conditions to be met for numerical course evaluation results to be made available: an instructor has not objected to access and an adequate response rate has been achieved. When these conditions are met, the numerical results[4] of course evaluations for the previous five academic years are made available to McGill students and academic staff. As of winter 2012, 1,639 instructors have given permission for their results to be available.

Class size 

Response rate (%)


min 5 responses


at least 40%


at least 35%


at least 30%

201 or more

at least 25%

As of winter 2012, 1,670 of the 2,596 (64%) of all courses evaluated met the response thresholds required for results to be available.  This means that 36% did not, a significant number.

[4] In all cases, written evaluations in the form of comments remain confidential to the Instructor and the Academic Unit Head or their delegates.

How to complete the course evaluations

You can access your course evaluations in Minerva under the Student Menu

Choose Mercury Online Course Evaluations/Submit your course evaluations.

Click here for direct access to Mercury (sign-in required).
Any questions regarding Mercury and course evaluations should be addressed to mercury [dot] info [at] mcgill [dot] ca

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License Please cite as follows: Winer, L., Di Genova, L., Vungoc, P.-A., & Talsma, S. (2012). Course evaluations: Information for students. Montreal: Teaching and Learning Services, McGill University.