The Good and the Bad
I recently read a study by the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching that provides a useful perspective on the usefulness of teacher evaluations. Students have been evaluating teaching performance for many years so the time is right to reflect on the findings. As a professor emeritus from the California State University in San Luis Obispo, I’ve witnessed the good and the bad for over thirty years so I believe my perspective is valuable for readers of this blog and other educators and academics.
First of all, let me say that teaching evaluations have to be taken with a grain of salt. The watch words are be skeptical of their value and trust but verify. By being skeptical I mean don’t simply accept the teaching evaluations at face value. Evaluations should scrutinized for insight into following issues.
How were the evaluations administered?
Generally, teachers are told to do the evaluations at the end of the academic period (i.e., quarter or semester). I know of many teachers who chose, instead, a class that they know will be more highly rated than others, perhaps because of the nature of course coverage that day. This taints the results of the evaluations and makes comparisons with peers more difficult.
Teachers must leave the room while the evaluations are completed.
Some teachers remain in the room while the evaluations are being administered. This can be intimidating for students. Even though students know the evaluations are done anonymously, they still may believe that the teacher may make a note or mark an evaluation that is dropped off by certain students. A simple check mark after it is handed in can mark an evaluation as one to review because the teacher knows that student has a beef with the teacher.
Teachers make comments before leaving the room. I know of one case where a teacher told students they need good evaluations to be able to continue to teach at the college implying that bad evaluations may lead to their dismissal. The obvious bias that then enters the process is unmistakable.
Teachers add their own evaluations to those handed in. A teacher might fill out a small number of blank evaluations with high marks for teaching performance and then add it to those collected to artificially inflate the results. The easiest way to do that is put those evaluations in the envelope before student evaluations are handed in. It’s more difficult to do this if the teacher leaves the room.
Teachers give out good grades to students with the hope they will evaluate performance more highly. The reason seems obvious here but most studies have shown that teachers do not get higher evaluations when students are graded more highly.
Students do not take the process seriously. I have met many students who tell me they don’t think the evaluations are ever looked at; they are simply an exercise the department must do to comply with university or accrediting associations’ requirements.
One internal control that can help to keep these problems at bay is for someone from the administration handing out the evaluations and explaining to students why it is important for them to take the evaluation process seriously. Another is to compare to the ranking of students with ranking of grades to see if there is a correlation between high grades and high evaluations. Even though past studies cast doubt on the relationship between the two, over time a bias may be built into the system.
Student evaluations can have good value if the results are compared over time to see if any trends develop. A teacher who gets poor evaluations in one period should not be treated the same as one who gets poor evaluations over many periods. In the latter case, the sample is larger making the results more valid.
Over the years, I have found the evaluations are to helpful, not only for trend analysis and comparison with my peers but, more important, the subjective comments students make. In my experience, students have made good suggestions about how to introduce a stronger element of class participation. They have made suggestions to get students to speak up and show what they learned. There have also been good comments about the value of working in groups to share thoughts and get to know fellow classmates.
The Vanderbilt Center suggests that for instructors to motivate students to complete end-of-course evaluations and to provide useful feedback, instructors should talk with their students about the importance of course evaluations and how those evaluations are used. While I agree with some of their recommendations, I disagree that the instructor should be the one to do this. As previously mentioned, a neutral third party should do it to remove any biased comments by the instructor and implications about why students should rate the instructor more highly. Here are recommendations from the Vanderbilt Center that, I believe, are most valuable.
- Designate ample time in class for students to complete evaluations.
- Tell the students (i.e., an administrator) that they value their honest and constructive feedback.
- Describe the kind of feedback the administration believes is most useful. In most cases, specific feedback with examples is more useful than general statements. This handout from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan contains examples of specific, constructive feedback in their document, "Providing Helpful Feedback to Your Instructions."
- Remind students that evaluations are designed to be completely anonymous and that the instructor will not be able to see any of their evaluations until after final grades have been submitted. Many students don’t realize this fact. Reminding them may ameliorate some of the concerns about evaluations influencing grades.
- Consider including language in the instructors’ syllabus that addresses student evaluations. This alerts the students to the fact that they should also pay attention to their learning experiences throughout the semester and makes them more mindful of their responses in the course evaluations. This should be done college-wide so all instructors have the same language in their syllabus for the sake of comparability.
Another thought is that along with the fresh start each academic period, many instructors will receive an opportunity to assess their teaching skills when they receive student evaluations of their fall courses and make needed changes in the spring. Then, comparisons with the results of the fall with student comments in the spring will shed light on whether any changes made had a positive effect on student learning experiences.
Instructors should look for patterns in students’ comments—identify trends, note what they have done well and what needs improvement, and assess whether students believe the grading process is fair.
Finally, student evaluations have to be used with the context and characteristics of a course into taken into account. Research shows that student evaluations often are more positive in courses that are smaller rather than larger, and elective rather than required. This is because students may want to make critical comments when they believe they may get the instructor again (i.e., required course in the major) so that the level of instruction may be improved and students learn more down the road.
There are, of course, many other reasons the results of teacher evaluations are questionable and when they are useful. I welcome input from teachers and students to share their experiences and observations.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 25, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.