Are Grades in College Stifling Students’ Growth?
Free Speech versus Diversity on College Campuses

The "Teaching Effectiveness Gap"

Are Student Evaluations a Useful Tool?

Last week I read an article about why student evaluations of college instructors are not reliable and should no longer be used in performance evaluation decisions. The author claims, based on research, that student evaluations may be associated with the gender of the instructor. That they are riddled with biases. This got me thinking of my own situation during the 30+ years I have been a college professor: Are student evaluations a useful tool? Student evaluations can be a valuable tool but they need to be re-thought. Just what is it they are trying to accomplish?

Today’s Millennial generation reacts more positively to instructors who are sociable and use social media to correspond with their students. Yes. You heard me right. I know of many instructors who are LinkedIn to their students, on their Facebook page, and engage on Twitter. Should the evaluations include a question about such interactions? I worry about student evaluations that are driven by social media considerations. They may introduce biases into the process. 

Here's the real problem and it is an ethical one: Instructors have to grade students objectively, if grades are to mean anything. Even the appearance of a bias because of a relationship between instructor and student is bad news. I don’t mean helping students outside class or being responsive to their emails. That is a part of every instructor’s responsibilities. But, befriending a student casts a pall over the whole process. Does the instructor give better grades to students who they get to know personally on social media? Do students evaluate instructors more highly when they engage on social media?

During my years of teaching I’ve noticed a dramatic change in what students expect from instructors. I call it the "Teaching Effectiveness Gap." It used to be that a solid professor was one who could explain technical subject matter clearly. This helped to get you good evaluations. Today it seems students (at least where I have taught) want instructors to go beyond what’s in the book. That’s a good thing and it opens the door to a higher level of learning and classroom interaction. However, the danger is not all students read the book. But, this should be their problem not the instructors. Adding required course material beyond the book can enhance the learning experience. It opens the door to outside readings, class projects, social entrepreneurship, and so on.

My view is students want to be involved in the learning process. Students may tune out an instructor who is aloof more quickly than one who is engaging. Taken to an extreme, it’s possible some students just want to be entertained. I’ve often wondered whether my evaluations would increase if I did a song and dance or opening monologue. But, alas, I have no talent for this kind of thing and know very well that it would find its way on You Tube. Then, it becomes an embarrassment – or maybe not.

The real reason student evaluations are administered in virtually all colleges is administrators need to have a [relatively] objective way to make tenure and promotion decisions using teaching effectiveness as one of three categories of performance, the others being research and service. How else can it be done without student evaluations, warts and all?

The answer is not enough credit is given to instructors who spend significant time developing engaging course materials that challenge students’ intellectual capacities, analytical reasoning abilities, and communication skills. In fact, most course evaluations barely touch on these issues. Questions such as: Is the instructor prepared for class just doesn’t cut it.

Evaluation forms need to be redrawn to reflect the fact that interpersonal and communication skills (and I'll add ethical reasoning abilities) are lacking in many students and instructors need to address it in the classroom -- not give a 100-question multiple choice test.  Just ask prospective employers if you doubt what I say. A question whether the instructor spends time on these matters is not useful. A better one is: Does the instructor incorporate assignments that challenge your ability to think analytically and act creatively. After all, isn’t this what we want from our students? Isn’t this what future employers expect of graduates?

Finally, a lot of colleges tell instructors to hand out forms for objective and subjective comments around the last two or three days of the course. Then students have maybe 5-10 minutes to fill them out. This isn’t a useful process. Some just want to get out of the room and do whatever it is they do between classes. Others are absent that day so they never provide feedback. Still others may react positively or negatively to an instructor based on how that day’s class went.

Lots of colleges are now using an online evaluation process. This sounds good and is very appropriate for today’s technologically-driven students. But, it also opens the door for trolling activities since evaluations are anonymous.

So, what’s the answer to the dilemma of developing a useful, reliable student evaluation tool? I don’t think there’s one good answer to this question. Each college has a unique environment and needs to tailor its evaluations to that environment. What I do know is it’s time to scrap the old way of doing things and experiment with new ways. What’s the best way to get this done? It’s through research and publication to share ideas with colleagues, so academic organizations need to champion the cause if it is to go anywhere. The motivation of a publishable paper goes far in many colleges and universities today.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, on February 20, 2018. Visit Dr. Mintz's website and sign up for his newsletter.