Not everything I read in the pedagogical literature is wonderful. A lot of it is just kind ho-hum; a bit really raises the hair on the back of my neck.
I have numerous of quarrels with a recently published piece that sets forth lots of problems and issues with student ratings, starting with the attitude displayed toward research on the topic as illustrated by comments indicating little familiarity and modest understanding of that research. I have no problem with people challenging evidence; but do so after you’ve examined it, please!
But what really unsettled me was the author’s experience observing how students fill out ratings. He administered ratings for colleagues (a policy at some institutions) and observed more than 800 students complete the form. Most of them did it in a big hurry, discussed ratings with each other and pressured those who were trying to complete the forms conscientiously. I don’t doubt that what he reported occurred. And I don’t doubt his conclusion. If students don’t care, that does compromise the quality of the feedback they provide. What bothered me was that he never asked why students don’t care, why they don’t take the evaluation process seriously.
I think there are three reasons why they don’t. First, it’s the end of semester. Any feedback they provide is not going to benefit them one bit. They must do this for the sake of other students. I’m motivated to help the next person but not nearly as motivated as when the benefits come my way. Second, they complete the same form in class after class, semester after semester. Third, they don’t see evidence that going through this process makes any difference. Typically they don’t hear from the teacher about changes that result from the feedback. They give low ratings to really poor teachers and see those teachers in the classroom next semester. They hear from fellow students that the course is still being taught in the same ineffective ways.
Students aren’t cavalier with the forms because they don’t care. They just don’t see any reason to take the process seriously. And this is something individual teachers can do something about. I’m not suggesting begging or pleading before the end-course-evaluations are administered. I am suggesting that students and teachers communicate about how the course is going throughout the course. It might be a quick reaction paper that responds to an assignment; it might be a mid-course assessment to which the teacher responds in class; it might be the invitation to send an email with some feedback. There are all sorts of options that not only provide excellent feedback, they also convey that what students experience in our class matters to us and that we are willing to work with them to make those experiences first rate.
Reference: Beyers, C., (2008). The hermeneutics of student evaluations. College Teaching, 56 (2), 102-106.