Answers for Those Afraid to Take a Hit on College Student Ratings

At a workshop on learner-centered teaching, a participant told us that philosophically she couldn’t agree more with the need to make students more responsible for their own learning, but she couldn’t go there because her ratings would take a hit.

I assumed this meant she was a new faculty member and under scrutiny for tenure. I was amazed to learn that she was a full professor with years of tenure. Yet with all that security, the chance of bad student ratings was still preventing her from doing what she thought was right. At the time, I didn’t know how to answer. Now I’ve thought of several responses.

A policy answer—Most institutions overuse summative evaluation. Research on student ratings has shown that for midcareer faculty, ratings vary little from semester to semester and across a number of courses. Obviously, instructors need formative feedback, but couldn’t institutions let a faculty member in good standing not evaluate a particular course for a semester or two?

An answer that suggests an alternative—There’s a good deal of research documenting the fact that if you have students do midcourse faculty evaluations and then discuss the results with them, the end-of-course ratings increase. So, if you anticipate ratings might decline because of new approaches, test that assumption midcourse. Find out what’s going well and not so well for students. Ask them to suggest ways the new approaches might be refined. That doesn’t mean you do everything students suggest, however if you opt not to do what they suggest, explain the rationale behind your approach.

A straightforward answer—The ratings research gives students more credit than most faculty do when it comes to students understanding what is really going on in a course. Explain up front that you’ve planned some changes for this course and why you need to change—you think they might grasp the material better this new way; you’re tired of the old way; your instructional objectives have changed; whatever.

An answer that suggests another alternative—Stop thinking of global, end-of-course assessments as the only possible feedback mechanism. Feedback can be collected on a various aspects of instruction and in a variety of ways beyond the machine-scorable short form. Send out an e-mail with a couple of carefully worded queries. Have students meet in groups to briefly discuss an activity and as a group generate feedback. Speak privately to students whose opinions you value.

An answer that protects you—For tenured faculty members with lots of security, what’s the problem with a set of low student ratings? A smaller merit raise? Would you even notice the difference? I think the problem is more about the personal anguish that results when students negatively respond to a well-intentioned, carefully prepared, thoughtfully designed, and generally well-executed innovation.

The answer I’d like to give but probably shouldn’t—Grow up! If the chance of a dip in ratings prevents you from doing what you think will positively impact student learning, you are ascribing far more importance to ratings than they deserve.

Excerpted from “What Will Happen to My Ratings?” Maryellen Weimer, The Teaching Professor, May 2006.