An end to course evaluations

Having been on the Promotion and Tenure Committee now for two years, and having the job of reading reams of course evaluations for not only myself but many of my colleagues to determine how good a job (or not) they are doing at teaching, I have a new appreciation for just how bad of an evaluative instrument the typical student course evaluation really is. I say let’s ditch the whole system and start over.

shannon.gifI suppose I should elaborate. The whole point of any kind of evaluation on anybody is to gather information. And I think of information the way Claude Shannon did, i.e. information is that which reduces uncertainty. Alice does an evaluation of Bob for some official purpose because the people in charge do not themselves have a clear idea of what Bob is doing, and it would be a little biased to have Bob evaluate himself, so Alice goes in to provide some kind of substantive information that clears up the picture and reduces the uncertainty of the people in charge. Maybe it’s not a single Alice but a whole roomful of Alices, all of whom have been taking a course from Bob for the last 9-10 weeks. With all that information, you might have some outliers in the positive end (“He’s great!”) or the negative end (“He’s awful!”) but on the average you should get a pattern of information that provides a little more certainty as to the kind of teacher Bob really is.

Except most of the time, you don’t get the kind of information you want, or for that matter any kind of information at all. There are all kinds of problems with the evaluation form itself most of the time. The questions that ask students to give a numerical response are often ill-posed, inappropriate for students to be answering, or simply absurd. Examples:

  • Ill-posed: “The professor handed out a syllabus on the first day of class.” This (or pretty close to it) is a question on our evaluation forms, and students are asked to give an answer on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). But this is obviously a binary question — either I gave the syllabus out on the first day of class or I didn’t. You don’t “strongly agree”. Or what if I don’t hand out a paper copy but rather post it to our course web site and show students where it is? This question is kind of innocuous, so the fact that it yields no useful information due to its ill-posed nature is OK in some ways because you can just ignore it if you’re the prof or the P&T committee. But if we’re ignoring it, why is it on there in the first place?
  • Inappropriate: “The professor’s teaching methods are appropriate for this class.” Another item off our evaluation form, and I have a hard time believing most students have any idea what’s an “appropriate” teaching method or not, unless they are junior or senior education majors who have done some crossover thinking about what high school teaching techniques work for the college classroom (and what teaching techniques are ineffective in K-12 but still effective in college). If I were a student, I’d interpret “appropriate” to mean “amenable to my lifestyle”, which is not what the question has in mind at all. So again, you might get a strong pattern of data from a question like this, but it actually increases uncertainty rather than decreases it. If a prof gets evaluated really badly on an item like that, does it mean that his teaching methods are really inappropriate, or that they are but students don’t care for it? We don’t know. More uncertainty.
  • Absurd: I could go on and on. I’ll mention my favorite, which was mercifully removed from our course evaluations some years ago: “My instructor senses when some students are not understanding.” Pardon me? Sensing? I’m not a frickin’ Betazoid, folks.

Written comments are a little better but not by much. You get some very useful written comments sometimes, but you also get very many comments that are way out of context or simply unintelligible. A student may have gotten a test back with a bad grade the day of the evaluation — possibly even in another person’s class — and walk in with a chip on his shoulder and selectively ignore a semester’s worth of hard, quality work on the professor’s part just to make a point on the evaluation. The professor gets this and wonders who this person is and what class they thought they were evaluating. The P&T committee reads this and wonders what the deal was, and there are lots of questions about what really happened and what was really going on — again, the uncertainty level is raised, not lowered.

In the worst cases, students will create a meme that continues throughout all the comments on the evaluations for a single class. It’s easy to spot because it’s as if the students were copying down the same slogan onto different evaluation forms. “The professor thinks this is the only class we are taking” is one you see, verbatim, multiple times on the same evaluation — a sure sign that students have decided to group-think rather than honestly give their reasoned assessment of the course in light of everything that has taken place. This is just as bad when the meme is positive as it is when the meme is negative. When students, many of whom have been studiously avoiding being honest with the professor about their difficulties with the course or coming to office hours to talk about things, get together and adopt a slogan rather than give their own honest opinions, it raises rather than reduces uncertainty for the professor and the P&T people.

So like I said, I advocate a wholesale, unilateral rejection of the student evaluation system as we know it. There’s no point in holding fast to an information-gathering system that actually requires more information to interpret the results of the system than the system itself generates.

I do think students need to have a voice in evaluating their professors, so I wouldn’t recommend simply not having student evaluations in any form. But my ideal form sounds a little like what I used to do when I worked for the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. My job was to go do a “small group analysis” (SGA) for TA’s in different departments. We’d have the TA end class 20 minutes early, and then I would go in and lead a discussion among the students where they had to voice, in person and out loud, their thoughts on a series of well-designed questions about the TA’s teaching. (I’ll try to go find a copy of the questions I used.) I took notes and directed traffic. The SGA’s were great because the students who had issues which were merely personal issues disguised as real pedagogical problems were often shouted down by other students who felt those issues were as ridiculous as they sounded. For example, a student would complain that homework wasn’t returned fast enough. “What are you talking about? He hands them back within four days, and anyhow you don’t even come to class but once a week, so what do you know?” the others would say. I saw exchanges like this, usually less pejorative but always very revealing, almost every time I did an SGA.

That’s information — a comment arises from one student and is put into context by another, and it all appears on one set of notes that the TA gets. And it takes no more time from class than the usual evaluation session. (At Vandy, students did traditional course evaluations too.) You have to hire and pay for people to run the SGA’s, but personally, I’d do it for free at my current job if I knew that I’d be getting a more sane and informative evaluation process out of it.


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

7 responses to “An end to course evaluations

  1. Perhaps we ought to have all faculty fill out “admin evaluations” on our administrators, president, and board members and then let the results of those evaluations determine their future employment/appointments. Would that be as appropriate as student evaluations are for tenure decisions with faculty?

    Maybe, we ought to ask the students leaving the dean’s office to fill out evaluations too. That might be really fun – a good bipolar sampling of happy and angry students.

  2. We actually do administrative evaluations at our place, though I have no idea what happens to the data that are gathered from them.

  3. teachmiddleschool

    Though you would obviously disagree with the approach, I teach eighth graders and I have them evaluate me (no name necessary) twice a year. Yes I do get the jaded kid who just failed a test slamming my approach or choice of content, however I also get insights into their lives and how they learn and this makes me a better teacher. I know that I am there for the students, so getting a students perspective is helpful. Do the evaluations have anything to do with my employment? No, however the recent teacher evaluations at our school now include parent and student surveys. I know I’m not talking higher learning, but if education is your focus, if you are not reaching the people you are educating, it is at least partly the fault of the person at the front of the classroom. I remember terrible professors who did not show any care for us as students, they just were there for their own studies. Those professors, intellectually superior yes, good educators, no way.

  4. @teachmiddleschool: I actually think that having students do multiple evaluations throughout the semester using the same evaluation instrument is better than doing it once. At least that way you have the opportunity to see how student opinions and experiences are evolving over time, rather than getting an instataneous snapshot at one moment in time with a high probability of inaccuracy or irrelevance.

    Again, the issue here is the quality and quantity of information that student evaluations do or don’t produce that’s useful for the professor. If I’m doing a poor job of it, I would like to know it, and I would like to know precisely why. Likewise if I am doing a good job of it. If your evaluations allow you to get insight into your students’ lives, then I’d say you’re being well-served by them. But I don’t think this is the case for everybody (or even most).

  5. virusdoc

    Oddly enough, I like the one about “sensing” when students aren’t understanding. It needs to be rephrased, of course. Perhaps something like: “This professor asks frequent questions of the students during lecture, and when these questions indicate lack of comprehension of the subject material, the professor goes out of his/her way to clarify the material.”

    It’s really just asking whether the professor cares about the quality of their teaching, and by extension the quality of learning that is going on in the classroom. Too bad it sounds like it was written for a Barney episode.

  6. I have students do course evaluations (older high school students, elective courses).

    I ask them to disclose why they took the course, what prior knowledge they had. I ask them to compare (scale from 1 to 5) the course’s homework load and difficulty against other courses in the school, and I ask them to recommend aspects (topics or organization) to keep, and aspects to alter. Finally, I ask them which sorts of students they would recommend the course to, and who they would advise to avoid the course.

    The information is surprisingly useful.

    At the college where I adjunct, students fill our evaluations. There is room for comments, but the heart of the forms are 10 questions with choices A/B/C/D/F. “Answers thoughtfully” “Prepares lecture” etc. I think the only ones anyone pays attention to are “Shows thorough knowledge” and “My overall rating of this professor is…” The rest is, honestly, a waste of everybody’s time.


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