The Power of Teaching Evaluations

Teaching evaluations. Yes, we’re back on this topic again. This time because of an article posted in the Chronicle on a lawsuit a faculty member brought against the University of Kansas who was denied tenure. The tenure denial, as I understand it, was based on teaching evaluations which the faculty member argues were discriminatory in nature. I’ll link to the article though it’s currently flagged as being premium content so you might not be able to access it. You can read more about it here.

I’ve discussed my thoughts and experiences on teaching evaluations before. My ideas about what to do about evaluations and how to use them has not changed. I think we should still distribute them, but I think they should be used for personal feedback only. As the instructor, you get to review them (if you want, or don’t; it’s up to you) and then decide what, if anything, you find useful in them. Do with that information what you wish.

evaluationsWe have got to stop using written evaluations and scores from individuals who are not professionals in our field to judge our teaching. Students can tell us about their experiences in our courses, but they will never be able to understand the bigger picture they are situated within. They will not be able to understand how their instructors conceive of and implement the course or be able to seriously comment on the pedagogical techniques. And that’s fine. We shouldn’t expect them to do that. It’s not what they are there for.

An Example

Consider for a moment that you are a new assistant professor, and you want to work on improving how you facilitate discussions in your classroom. You read up on discussions. You learn some adult learning theory. You learn about different discussion techniques. You learn about how to have critical discussions about sensitive topics. Then, you lay out a play of action for how you will implement your ideas.

When students comment on your class, they might choose to comment on the discussion aspect of it. You might find some of these comments to be useful as they provide insight into how students perceived the experience. But students will not be able to give you substantive feedback or tell you where things broke apart for them. They can’t. They didn’t spend a serious chunk of time studying how to foster discussions. So you can’t expect that. No one can.

If students say they liked the discussions and learned from them that is sort of helpful. However, it does not mean that you are an expert on discussions. I know I can evaluate my teaching – and you can too – in ways that students cannot. I can see areas for improvement – even if they all rave about my course – that will not stick out to them.

On the flip side, if people said your discussions were terrible that does not mean they were. It discussioncould mean that, and of course you should consider that. However, I suspect that if students are telling you that the discussions were terrible you already knew that. But it could also mean a host of other things including that students don’t like having to participate in discussions. It might have something to do with your teaching, and it might not. It does not mean that you are a terrible teacher. If you just spent a chunk of time researching discussion techniques, only to have some struggles implementing them, then you should be applauded for that. I’m guessing you have already evaluated what did/did not work and have ideas about improvement that no course evaluation is going to provide you with.

But What If a Professor Really Is Bad?

Ok…let’s entertain this for a moment. Let’s say someone is just a horrible teacher. They don’t care about learning or they are sexist, racist, etc… This is not an issue to be taken up by course evaluations. These allegations require proper documentation and additional observations. If a student has a serious concern about an instructor, then they need to bring that concern to the attention of a department chair or program coordinator – whoever the appropriate person is. This is a conversation that needs to happen in person. Students need to stand behind what they say. Writing nasty things or making such allegations in an anonymous manner after nothing can be done about it (i.e. no one can come to the class and observe) simply cannot be given much weight.

The Chronicle piece by Schmidt that I cited at the start notes:

The practice of using students’ anonymous course evaluations to judge faculty performance has long been controversial, with a growing body of research finding that students’ assessments are biased by race, gender, age, and factors such as personal attractiveness.

I don’t want to be dismissive of any real concerns and experiences students might have with instructors. What I want to stress is that we need a better way to understand and respond to these concerns during the moment when they are happening and not months after the fact. That is fair to the students and the instructor.

So In The End…

In the end we need to move towards a policy that allows for student evaluations to be used for instructor use only. If we are serious about evaluating teaching, then we need to find better ways to do it, and it needs to be done by people who are professionals in higher education. Any serious issues/allegations students have need to be addressed in person with the appropriate administrator and handled – or at least looked at – during the semester in which it is happening.

One Year Ago

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