Interpreting course evaluation results: insights from thinkaloud interviews with medical students

UMMS Affiliation

Meyers Primary Care Institute; Department of Cell Biology

Publication Date


Document Type



Adult; Attitude of Health Personnel; Curriculum; Data Collection; Education, Medical, Undergraduate; Evaluation Studies as Topic; Faculty, Medical; Female; Humans; Interviews as Topic; Male; Professional Competence; Science; Students, Medical


Health Services Research | Medical Education | Primary Care


PURPOSE: To determine whether some of the fundamental assumptions that frequently underlie interpretation of course evaluation results are justified by investigating what medical students are thinking as they complete a typical basic science course evaluation.

METHODS: A total of 24 students participated in thinkaloud cognitive interviews, voicing their thoughts while completing a typical evaluation instrument that included items on overall course design, educational materials and methods, and faculty teaching. Students' responses were organised to consider how they interpreted questions, formed judgements and selected response options. Major themes relevant to the meaningful interpretation of course evaluation data were identified.

RESULTS: Medical students understood educational terms such as 'independent learning' in different ways from both one another and common usage. When formulating responses, students' judgements were sometimes based on unique or unexpected criteria, and they described editing their judgements by considering factors such as effort or caring on the part of teaching faculty. Students tended to avoid using the lower end of the rating scale, used the highest rating option selectively, but chose the second highest category indiscriminately.

CONCLUSIONS: These results call into question fundamental assumptions that frequently underlie interpretation of course evaluation results, such as whether students understand the intended meanings of terms used in items; whether faculty members who receive the same rating are perceived similarly; whether ratings actually reflect teaching effectiveness, and whether 'positive' ratings reflect positive opinions. This study also demonstrates how thinkaloud interviews can be used in validity studies, providing information to supplement statistical and psychometric analyses.

DOI of Published Version



Med Educ. 2004 Oct;38(10):1061-70. Link to article on publisher's site

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Medical education

Related Resources

Link to Article in PubMed

PubMed ID