It’s the end of the semester (or a week or two after the end of the semester for many of us), so it’s the time of year when people talk about student course evaluations, whether that’s colleagues or The Chronicle (see this article, for example, and see the comments to see just how energized this discussion gets people). Almost all of that discussion is about how awful student evaluations are, how they are not useful at all, and what is wrong with the entire process (I would like to note that almost none of the conversation is about our personal evaluations, as we almost never share those with our peers).
I’d like to take a different tack on the issue. I actually think student course evaluations are a great way to evaluate our teaching, and they have much to say to help us become better teachers, provided they’re designed reasonably well (if I only expect reasonably well from professors’ assignments, I won’t expect more here) and delivered properly. Also, I’d like to point out problems with the main solution people tend to offer as a replacement for student evaluations: peer evaluations.
First, one thing that bothers me in the discussion on student evaluations is that we tend to blame the students. We become angry and defensive when we see their comments and begin insisting that they should not be allowed to make personal comments, and they definitely should not be anonymous. After all, we do evaluate them, but we do so openly (though we’re clearly ignoring the real power differential there, and please don’t even try to tell me that students have the real power; also, think about how often we make comments about students to our colleagues that we would be horrified for them to hear). Of course, such an approach ignores the fact that students might actually be right about our teaching (or our personalities) and might have something useful to say. Looking at evaluations from seven and eight years ago still stings, but students were right when they said that my assignments weren’t as clear as they could be or that I could use class time more effectively (they didn’t say it quite that nicely, of course). I don’t get low scores or negative comments on those areas now because I worked on organization and clarity, and I needed to.
There are definitely problems with student course evaluations that are poorly designed or administered. Thus, when I say that they work well, I should say that they only do so when they ask good questions and have a high rate of response. They need to be done in class and not online (unless they are then somehow required). If there aren’t enough responses to make them valid, then they’re worthless (my advising evaluations, which are online, had two responses this time around, for example; though those two people really like me, there might be 10 that don’t). As for the design of the questions, I’ve seen a range of quality. There was the one when I was a graduate student that was something like, “Some days I’m not very interested in this class.” That’s an awful question (some days none of us are very interested in the class), and it’s going to lead to professors getting bad evaluations without telling them anything helpful. There are useful statistical questions, such as the effective use of class time, returning materials in a timely fashion, the instructor encouraging critical thinking and the like, which can be helpful. Of course, I find the comments much more constructive. There, students respond to a question about what the instructor did to encourage critical thinking and what he/she could improve in the future. I’ve gotten some good ideas there.
I also do a few questions of my own that are much more focused. I might ask about the writing process or about the exams or even whether I should keep certain readings or not. Those are questions that only students can answer, and they can help me design a better class the next time around. I’ve made significant changes to classes based on these comments. In fact, just this past semester, a student commented that he/she didn’t understand the purpose of the annotated bibliography. I’m teaching a couple of summer classes now, and I framed that assignment much more clearly this time, which I’m hoping will help students understand it better.
Some people argue that peer evaluation is better, but there are several problems with that approach. First, some professors game the system, which makes us no better than students who try to do the least amount of work possible. They select the best day for someone to come see them, then teach a class that is nothing like what they would do any other day. That doesn’t present an honest view of the class. When drop-in chair evaluations were suggested about a decade ago here, the faculty were outraged, and the idea got dropped. We all know that would present a more accurate view of our teaching, but people aren’t concerned about accurate views of their teaching.
Also, from what I’ve seen, peers are not willing to actually be harsh to professors who need to hear unpleasant truths about their teaching. There are professors I know don’t do a very good job teaching. I can’t imagine having to evaluate their classes and meet with them about it, especially if there are personality conflicts involved, as well. And I don’t believe most of us would be willing to give a low evaluation to a peer knowing that his or her job is on the line. Even chairs have to work with people, possibly for years, which gives them less incentive to be fair. Unless there’s a way to get someone completely unrelated to the professor (which would raise the question of disciplinary understanding), it doesn’t seem any fairer than student course evaluations.
Last, I don’t buy the argument that challenging professors get worse course evaluations. I’ve steadily raised the level of my classes over the years, and my evaluations have gotten better, not worse. That’s largely because I’ve become a better professor. What I’ve found in my reading on pedagogy is that students want to be challenged, but they want to know that they have support to meet those challenges. That’s definitely been my experience from teaching and seeing other professors teach well.
Rather than complaining about student course evaluations, we should try to make the process the best it can be by focusing on response rates and the quality of the evaluations. Then, we should listen to the students who sit in our classes every day (or almost every day). They might just know something about our teaching that we need to hear.