December 17th, 2008

Student Evaluations of Instructors: A Good Thing?

By:

My students have always given me positive evaluations of my undergraduate and graduate courses. I still teach four courses a year because I love the classroom and believe academic administrators are well served by ongoing connections with students in instructional settings. As a department chair, dean, provost, and vice president, I have found these student evaluations informative as I considered questions about tenure, promotion, and yearly raises for faculty.

These student evaluations are so much a part of our system and have become so routine for our students and faculty that I have seldom questioned their value or necessity. Indeed, one study of 600 liberal arts colleges found that the number of schools asking students to evaluate their instructors had escalated from 29 percent to 86 percent over the course of a decade. But are they really (as Martha Stewart might say) “a good thing?”

I am not as sure as I once was. In recent years, academics and researchers have identified a host of concerns, objections, and questions about student evaluations of faculty, including these:

1. Are students qualified to judge the quality of a professor’s pedagogy and academic expertise? And it is not just a matter of competence. There is a kind of consumer mentality at work when we ask students to provide their anonymous “customer satisfaction” ratings for courses. It may not be in the best interest of faculty or students to assume this right and such a level of competence. These evaluations may have an effect on the faulty-student relationship that is disturbingly negative.

2. Are students evaluating teaching effectiveness—or something else? That might depend on the evaluation instrument, the insight of the student, the personality of the faculty member, the motivation and fairness of the young evaluator, and myriad other variables that make the fundamental validity of the process doubtful.

3. Are faculty rights to academic freedom compromised by the pressures to secure favorable student evaluations? Some faculty critics point out that the power students exercise through the evaluation of courses tends to make teaching a popularity contest resulting in easier assignments, grade inflation, and entertainment values that supersede rigorous academic standards and inhibit faculty freedom to advance controversial or unpopular ideas.

4. Are administrators using student evaluations to intrude on the privacy of the classroom and to manipulate faculty behavior? Heaven forbid! (I say); but the director of the office of educational assessment at one large state university reviewed the research and opined that “if student ratings are to qualify as evidence in support of faculty employment decisions, questions concerning their reliability and validity must be addressed.”

So you see, administrator colleagues, why I have new-found reservations about student evaluations of faculty. Are these a “good thing”? Maybe not. That’s my view—what’s yours? Please share your comments below.

Thomas R. McDaniel, professor of education, is a senior vice president at Converse College.

Excerpted from August 2006, Academic Leader.