It’s that time of year when student course evaluations come out, now that we’ve turned in grades. A few weeks ago, during the couple of weeks when our university administers ours, several colleagues and I were talking about evaluations. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned a bit cynical, given that many professors don’t think much of those evaluations. The critique is usually that students have no training in pedagogy, so they are not equipped to truly evaluate our teaching. While I understand that thinking, I’m going to disagree.
That said, let me acknowledge the cynical viewpoint for a few minutes. During our conversation, one colleague mentioned an article he had heard about and which he later forwarded along to us. Paul Trout’s “How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluation Scores Without Improving Your Teaching!” (note the exclamation point) sums up what many professors think about the superficiality of the process. He gives advice, such as “Be Personable and Charismatic!” and “Give Lots of High Grades!” The most humorous part is when he talks about a couple of proven methods to raise scores. There’s the Oprah approach, which is where the professor shows him or herself to be a victim, earning sympathy from the students, or the Rosie O’Donnell tack, where the professor shows the students with praise (it’s easy to see that this essay was written in the 1990s).
I have to admit that I have seen the latter approach work quite well. I have worked with a colleague who took that approach to the limit, and they (note gender non-specific pronoun) were one of the most revered professors in the college. They received accolades from majors and non-majors and earned awards for their teaching. I saw them teach a few times, and the class was fine, but certainly nothing special. When I asked some people who knew them, they talked about the interactions with students outside of class, how this professor would praise students who were good, but certainly not great, and make them believe they were the center of the universe.
One approach Trout doesn’t mention that I’ve also seen work quite well is what I’ll call (in keeping with the 1990s theme) the Andrew Dice Clay approach. This professor shocks students, saying outrageous things in class and doing things that are forbidden, but certainly not illegal. For example, I attended a faith-based college when I was an undergraduate. We walked into a humanities lecture once, and the art professor began his lecture on Da Vinci by playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” On most campuses, that would go unnoticed, but at a school where many students only listened to Christian music or bland, top 40 pop, people talked about it for days. Professors who curse in their classrooms fall into this category, convincing students they don’t care about the rules; they just want to be real with their students.
I have to admit that I have been good-naturedly accused of manipulating evaluations myself. When I was early in my career, students would never really criticize anything about my classes. When they came to the question about how I could improve, they would comment on two things: my jokes and my wardrobe (which is, let’s just say, rather consistent). My mentor referred to this as my straw man approach. Since the students focused on these superficial aspects of my teaching, it appeared that I had no real pedagogical flaws. If I would have done that on purpose, it would have been brilliant.
Honestly, though, I’ve found course evaluations rather helpful in my career, though it does depend on what kinds of questions are asked. When I was a graduate assistant, one statement that students were supposed to agree/disagree (on the typical five-point scale) with was “Some days I was not very interested in this class.” Most professors could say that there are some days they’re not very interested in class. It’s an awful question, and it doesn’t get to anything of importance.
In that same semester, though, I gave my own evaluations and asked students how I could improve the class. One of the students suggested that I start giving reading quizzes. Since I was brand new to the profession, I believed students were like me, that they would read whatever was assigned just because they wanted to. Needless to say, class discussion was lacking. I started giving quizzes, and discussion picked up.
I have had students suggest that I have an attendance policy for a lower-level writing course where students were placed, partly due to struggles in writing, but also due to problems adapting to college. A few years ago, students in an upper-level literature class suggested I give more time to work on their final draft and less on their rough draft, as that’s when the time was most needed. This semester, a student in that same class suggested adjusting that time frame closer back to where I had it. I’ll take a look at it and see if a bit of adjustment might help them.
In that same class last year, a student pointed out that I had the student do online posts before the class met. However, I assigned them two stories, but I only required them to post on one. The student admitted that he or she only read one of the stories. The requirements for those posts changed this year when I taught the class again. This year, students commented on how well the posting worked, especially as I worked harder at integrating it into the class.
These students don’t have any pedagogical training (or not much, at least, as some of them are education majors), but they’ve given me comments that help me make my classes better. Students know their side of the podium much better than we do, so, if we can ask questions that get them to talk about their experiences with the class as students, they can provide us with improvements to our pedagogy. There are always ways to manipulate systems, and evaluations will never be perfect, but there are ways to make them better. We should focus on those ways.