Don’t Rely Too Much on Student Evaluations

A satirical piece in The Onion, “Professor Deeply Hurt by Student’s Evaluation”, tells a humorous story about a student evaluation. The gist of the joke is that a distinguished, well-published, tenured professor of international renown and “knowledge of 21 modern and ancient languages” comes to rethink his whole life’s meaning because a pot-smoking freshman with a 2.3 GPA comments negatively about being bored by the professor’s lectures in a class of 342 students.

Course evaluations actually do play a large role in the careers of faculty, not because they’re feelings are hurt but because their livelihoods can be harmed. Kevin Gannon, a professor, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education about why the evaluations matter to faculty members.

“They matter to us because they matter to the people who make the decisions about our futures in academe. Department chairs, deans, promotion-and-tenure committees — all of them and more use student evaluations to determine whether or not we are “good teachers,” and, more consequentially, whether we should continue to teach on the campus. In some departments, student evaluations are one part of a larger set of evidence used to assess teaching performance. But elsewhere they make up the bulk — if not the totality — of that evidence.  We’ve all heard horror stories of instructors who had consistently good ratings, except for that one outlier comment seized on by the promotion committee and used against the instructor. Some of us have lived these horror stories ourselves. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow famously observed, if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. This is a particularly apt description of the problems that can inhere in the faculty-evaluation process.”

Colleges first implemented student evaluations in the 1960’s. Initially, they were intended solely as useful feedback for instructors to self-evaluate their effectiveness and consider ideas for improvement. Faculties advocated for the adoption of evaluations for these purposes. They didn’t foresee that they were giving their administrations a handy tool to use against them. Evaluations have evolved into a do-or-die measure of the worth of many faculty members. For many, this has made getting high ratings and positive comments the primary goal of teaching.

Since students tend to give better evaluations to instructors who grade them more generously, many instructors are inclined to give higher grades in order to secure tenure or a bigger raise. Grade inflation over recent decades offers persuasive evidence that a great many faculty members have succumbed to this temptation.

This trend has affected student behavior as well. Seeking the highest possible GPA, many undergraduates rely primarily on faculty evaluations to select those classes and instructors in which it seems they’re most likely to receive a high grade. This behavior doesn’t reflect subversive intent; it’s just self-interest.

From the perspective of students attending top-tier institutions, there are reasons not to rely on student evaluations too heavily in selecting classes and instructors. This caveat extends to incoming freshmen, who often use a current student’s access to online evaluation data to guide their initial course registration.

The reasons why both students and administrators should be wary of over-reliance on evaluation data are summarized below:

  • Student evaluation data isn’t statistically significant. The application of common statistical methods of the data doesn’t produce meaningful results because population sizes are too small. Subjects are self-selecting so random samples cannot be scientifically drawn. An example of the abuse of evaluation data occurred a few years ago, when two students at Yale developed an online tool to make it easy for other students to to compare the statistical results for each class and each professor. Yale administrators shut the site down. (But later re-opened it when it determined that it was an exercise of free speech).
  • In evaluation methodologies, there’s no allowance for one-time extenuating circumstances such as a subset of students hostile to the subject matter or the fact that the instructor was inserted late without time to prepare. There are many other factors that can help explain an instructor’s negative evaluation, but they aren’t accommodated in evaluation frameworks.
  • There is no ability to allow for structurally problematic characteristics of a class. A class may be required for a major but is traditionally disliked by students because of its difficulty. Perhaps students chafe at the type of work that must be assigned. There may be issues with the day or time of the class or physical problems with the classroom itself. These are only a few of the factors can affect student perceptions and unfairly influence their evaluation of the instructor.

So how are top-tier colleges and universities to assess faculty in a way that’s not subject to abuse by administrations and students? Some institutions have adopted a multifaceted approach to assess the quality of teaching. They believe that teaching, like research, should be evaluated by a professor’s peers through the use of peer-evaluation tools like classroom observation and review of syllabi and course design. Some institutions require that faculty members complete a reflection statement on their teaching each year. In these statements, instructors explain how they plan to improve their teaching.

There’s still a role for student evaluations, but they’re no longer the sole criterion for assessing an instructor’s efficacy. And if assessing faculty for administrative reasons is the real purpose of student evaluations, there’s no need for students to have access to the results.

IvySelect, as a college admissions consulting firm specializing in top-tier institutions, will guide you in the selection of the high school courses that best suit your educational goals, which will help maximize your competitive stature to the Ivy League and similarly elite schools that you aspire to attend. But you’ll be on your own when it comes to selecting your college courses, so we recommend that you use student course evaluation information sparingly as only one of several considerations.

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