Thursday, December 9, 2010

The "Meaning" of Teacher Evals

There are a lot of things going on at this time of the year. Students are freaking out about their grades entirely too late for it to make any difference. Professors and Instructors are inundated with essays and final exams to correct. But, it is also time for students in colleges and universities to evaluate their teachers; our final exam on a semester's worth of work.

Of course, teaching evaluations aren't the only way we are evaluated as teachers: class average, the ease at which your courses "make," and peer observations are often also used to gage a professor's effectiveness in the classroom. I remember when I was just starting off as a PhD student, I was given a stern talking-to by my department chair for having too-high a class average. My husband, on the other hand, has been taken to task for not being able to attract a higher number of students to register for his classes. In both cases, one wonders if it is the teaching or other factors that influence the criteria being used.

Which brings us back to the teaching evaluations we give to our students, asking them to judge how well we've performed over the semester. In a way, it's fair, especially at the university level. One hopes that students in universities have a more active interest in their learning and thus will accurately and fairly judge their professors on whether or not they have learned anything. But unfortunately, much of the time, the teaching evaluations come down to a) how high the class average is and thus, b) how much they student "liked" the professor.

I also wonder how accurately students can answer some of the questions asked on the evaluations form. Was the instructor readily available outside of class? Considering I can count on one hand how many students actually came to see my during my office hours, how will the majority of my students answer? How can they answer, seeing as how they never sought my help outside of the classroom? Did they find what I taught in the class valuable? Seeing as how I teach a course whose curriculum is, in part, imposed on me, how is that a fair evaluation of my teaching? And do students even have the perspective to know if what I am teaching is valuable? It might seem irrelevant today, but what about in the "real world?"

But I keep coming back to the likability factor. I have never once had all positive teaching evaluations. There are always one or two students who seem to intensely dislike me, how I teach, and what I teach. I'll often come across their comments immediately after reading a very positive comment about the exact same aspect of my class. The instructor was very clear and took her time to make sure we understood all of the materials; followed by, the instructor was overly repetitive and went over the same thing over and over like we were stupid. I'm clear and I'm too loud. I'm friendly and open and I reveal too much about myself. I am at once too tough and too easy on my students. I am both fair and unfair in my grading practices. How am I all of these contradictory things at once?

When I posted on the teachers who have influenced me, someone I went to elementary school with raked me over the coals for my description of my beloved 3rd and 5th grade teacher; for him, the same teacher and class was an absolute nightmare. And when I recounted my (negative) experience in 10th grade English, a fellow classmate and friend had the exact opposite reaction to the same treatment (and let me know about it). My students, when asked to reflect on their best teachers in high school, chose those teachers who pushed them and had high expectations of them. While in high school, they admitted that they hated those teachers and much preferred those teachers who didn't demand so much. So I am all too aware of the variances in personal experience with the exact same teacher. And if that is true, can we rely on student evaluations to give us an accurate picture of how "good" a teacher is?

Putting aside the idea as well that student evaluations have turned into a costumer satisfaction survey, and if the customer (student) wasn't right, they let the professor have it, the evaluations don't really help the professor become a better teacher. When faced with conflicting comments, what is a professor supposed to do to increase "customer satisfaction"? Major corporations have the size and resources to at least appear to be all things to all people, but I am alone in front of 30+ students for a limited amount of time, and all of the students have a different idea of how and what I should be teaching. 

Which brings up the uncomfortable notion that universities are just going through the motions of evaluating teaching. We pass out forms, they get fed into the computer, the scores come back, high and low scores are duly noted, but at the end of the day, it won't be teaching that denies or gains a faculty member tenure. In the same way, stellar teaching evaluations in no way protect contingent faculty members from being summarily dismissed for budgetary, personal, or political reasons. There is little incentive for faculty members both on and off the tenure-track to innovate, experiment, and re-imagine their courses and teaching methods. It is seen as either taking too much time away from research and service (tenure-track) or over-stepping the accepted boundaries (contingent). 

I know that there are lots of universities that truly value teaching, and thus also value meaningfully evaluating the teacher. But for so many of us, those schools exist as some sort of academic legend, existing on the fringes of reality. We hear about them, and we know someone who knows someone who works there, but it remains unknowable, a place that only exists in our fantasies. The reality is that I have to try to get my students to like me (so maybe I'll just give them all A's) to do well on my evaluations.

And then, it won't matter anyway.


  1. I have served on the tenure and promotion committee at my institution (Hamline University in St. Paul MN - 2000 undergrads) and I've been the chair of my department (physics) for five years. I have read course evals for hundreds of courses. I thought I'd give my two cents about some of the issues brought up in this thoughtful post.
    The likability issue is a big one. It does seem that there is some evidence for easier classes getting higher evals. On the tenure and promotion committee, however, our highest praise was usually given to those teachers who get comments like "this was one of the hardest classes I've even taken, and one of the best". We take seriously the idea that we're rewarding "effective" teaching, not just high scores and we try to get as much data as we can, including asking chairs to visit classes on a yearly basis and also visiting every class taught by candidates in their 3rd and 6th year.
    Our school, in recent years, has also gone about articulating our tenure and promotion standards. It's been interesting, at both the tenure and promotion level, to see how the various departments are grappling with rewarding good teaching. Evals have come up with phrases like "class-averaged scores on any single question less than X need to be commented upon by the candidate". In addition we are beginning to follow the Carleton College model of getting feedback from alumni specifically about the teaching of particular candidates over the years. We also have specific "check boxes" for innovation, including developing new classes and revising older classes.

  2. Good points. I think there is something important in your first paragraph, too. We ask students to evaluate us at the moment when they are most anxious about the course.

    I once had students come to me after the exam to ask if they could change their evaluations. When they did the form (before the exam) they felt really unprepared for the exam. But when they saw the exam they realized that it WAS fair and that I had prepared them really well, and that they felt confident that they could answer more questions than they were required to.

    I like that the first commentor mentions the idea of getting feedback from alumni. But even asking students about classes they took the previous year might give different results.

  3. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who wonders about how accurate these evals are. The NY Times article published earlier this week (and that made the rounds on Twitter) really didn't convince me about their accuracy. Deep down, I've always felt that they are questionable. I appreciate (and want) students' feedback, but you have a good point: consider the moment in the semester we hand these out. Also, I've always had students do them at the end of class; some of them finish their evals super early just so they can rush out of the room. Are they really taking the time to answer the evals truthfully? Plus, what about the negative evals? Are they negative because they didn't like the amount of work you assigned or are they negative because they felt you were ineffective?

    As for me, I usually read my evals after a semester has gone by. It gives me enough distance from the course to not let the handful of negative evals (and self-doubt!) get to me.

  4. I came across an interesting post about how to "improve" your student evaluations:

    But again, the problem is about "gaming" the system and how accurate a student's opinion of your class is. If you have to explain to them right before they fill it out that a) I have office hours even though you never bother coming, b) I am organized even though you aren't, and c) here are some helpful tips on what to write if you're stuck, then are we getting our students' opinion of the course or your own manipulation of it?

    I think it just points out the fatal flaw in the system. It's teaching to the test, eval style. And, don't forget to give them all an "A" on an assignment just before they write the eval!



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