Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Evaluating Student Evaluations

Right Wing Professor's got an interesting essay making the case for student evaluations of faculty in improving teacher performance, "Student Evaluations, Revisited."

It's a lengthy piece, but I like this passage:

The university differs in one crucial way from the elementary, middle, or high school: University students have the luxury of choice. The student can choose his major and degree program. The student can choose his courses based in part on which faculty members are teaching them. After all, if you have to take M125 and three faculty members are teaching it, why not take it with the best of the three, or at least not take it with the worst?

When I was an undergraduate, that choice was mitigated by a lack of technology, and we were limited to word of mouth. Now we have the web, and, and many universities have their own forums for rating faculty. Today’s university students is far more informed about faculty than we were, and can make better choices.

Of course, there is that silly objection to students as consumers, but face it, that’s exactly what they are. The course is for them, after all, not your ego. That alone makes them consumers, and you, the provider. If you’re a godawful teacher, but your colleague is a really good teacher, then students have every right to avoid you and take your colleague’s class instead, and you would do exactly the same.
I'm going to disagree a bit on the "students as consumers" line, although I think the market competition analogy is a good one.

One problem with
RateMyProfessors is that the system's easily abused. For example, I've had folks who've disagreed with my blogging (at my previous blog) go over to RateMyProfessors to say "he's fascist and doesn't care about anyone's opinion but his own" (this was a guy who previously blogged at The Blue Voice). Also, often in my experience, students who have done poorly in class - usually for lack of basic skills or the maturity for college-level work - would use RateMyProfessors to retaliate for receiving a low grade.

Interestingly, my school's administration has been well-aware of the online evalution websites, so there's certainly an incentive for faculty to take these ratings into consideration for reputation purposes, if not retention decisions.

Actually, my evaluations have improved over the years, largely because I've become more comfortable in my teaching, more confident in my authority to manage the classroom, and more flexible in understanding students' life circumstances that hinder their successes.

I'm still tough, of course, but I've become friendlier as an instructor and more forgiving in my grading.

Here's a sample evaluation for me currently at

...he's not an easy teacher, but he's still very helpful. he provides online practice tests, and office hours for all his students. he's a pretty cool guy, he can be funny at times...
This one's pretty much in line with a thesis of Right Wing Professor: Demanding teachers who excel at their craft will generate favorable yet critical assesments, and these are valuable for the improvement of instruction.

Indeed, although
one of my student evaluators misunderstood my policy on absences and tardies, the basic criticism she offered is valid, and I'll be making some changes to my course syllabus for the fall semester. This student also was not out to "punish me" for a low grade:

To be fair, he is helpful, smart, and nice. Most of the exam questions are from the book and NOT from the powerpoint slides so read the book...
Having said that, as I've noted before, I'm generally skeptical of student evalutions of teachers, particularly as a deciding factor in promotion and tenure.

For my argument on this, see "
Blaming Teachers? Educational Accountability and Student Performance."

Recall, though, as cited above, Right Wing Professor makes a distinction between college teaching and public education in weighing the usefulness of student evalutions.

See also, Paul Trout, "
Flunking the Test: The Dismal Record of Student Evaluations."

A useful resource page is available from the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, "
Student Evaluations."

Hat Tip: Maggie's Farm