December 18th, 2008

Student Evaluations of Instructors: A Bad Thing?

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In yesterday’s post, it was argued that perhaps student evaluations were not, in Martha Stewart’s famous phrase, “a good thing,” given doubts about the qualifications of students to judge instructors, questionable validity of the evaluation instrument, threats to academic freedom, and misuse by administrators. Every college instructor subjected to student evaluation, myself included, has probably mused about these possibilities at one time or the other. But before we throw out the evaluation with the bathwater, let’s take a look at the other side of this double-edged question of the value of student evaluations.

While it is certainly true that faculty know much more than students about the subject matter taught in the classroom, academic leaders have a vital interest in learning how well that material is being communicated to students. Who better other than students to provide that perspective? Faculty peers or advisory committee members who advise the chair about the quality of instruction being offered can provide a helpful perspective, of course, but “spot” visits from outsiders are notoriously hit-or-miss and lack the longitudinal consistency of the student who is on the receiving end of instruction day in and out.

Student Evaluations Reveal Patterns
There is no perfect evaluation instrument to assess instruction, what we do have are evaluation instruments that provide potentially useful feedback. Chairs and deans who read student evaluations annually know that, in the distribution of scores on quantitative sections of evaluations, certain broad patterns often emerge. Accumulated over several semesters, the scores often confirm a pattern of either very good or very bad teaching while revealing improvement (or not) for the “mixed-bag” instructors comprising the majority of the data set. You may not want to go to court with such evidence, but at least you have something other than possibly self-serving faculty self-assessments.

And while it is certainly true that student evaluations could threaten academic freedom or be misused by administrators, my own experience as a chair and dean for 28 years suggests that this is an outside possibility at best. In arguments about evaluations, statistics tend to be used by instructors more than by administrators.

Instructors with low student ratings have been known to aver that the only explanation is something like “Of course I have low scores. Unlike my colleagues, I have high standards, am a tough grader, and refuse to engage in a popularity contest.” Yet narrative comments from students almost never complain about low grades or high standards; rather, the complaints are usually in the areas of unclear grading and classroom policies, inability to answer questions effectively, lateness in returning papers and exams, and uninspiring classroom presentations.

What Do You Think About Student Evaluations?
Are student evaluations a good thing? Reservations aside, maybe so. Perhaps this time Martha got it right. What do you think? Please enter your comments below.

Excerpted from September 2006, Academic Leader.