March 7th, 2008

The Sad Story of Those End-of-Course Ratings


As usual, I’m working on a book. At the present moment I’m trying to write a positive and constructive chapter on those institutionally mandated student ratings. Believe me, it’s a struggle. Ratings are so misused and so misunderstood. Institutions use instruments created by political processes. Frequently they contain items unrelated to the research identified components of instruction that can be linked to learning outcomes. Administrators rank faculty and imagine that a teacher with a 6.12 overall score deserves a higher raise than someone with a 6.00 score. And faculty believe all manner of myths: that ratings measure popularity and that the easy course wins high scores, for starters.

All this misuse and misinformation stands despite a mountain of empirical work on ratings. If all that research existed only in dense, difficult–to-decipher journal articles, maybe we could be excused for being so poorly informed, but unlike all sorts of other relevant research, the work on ratings has been distilled, organized, integrated, and written about in easy-to-understand prose. Excellent books as well as succinct articles say what has been learned and what policies and practices should be used to reflect what is known.

It is such a sad story—unfortunate because bad experiences with end-of-course ratings have soured many faculty on the whole process of soliciting feedback from students and tragic because faculty can learn so much from students about the course and their learning experiences in it.

As I write the chapter, I find myself wishing we all just go back to square one and rewrite the ratings story. It could be a tale of gothic proportions—how ratings enabled faculty to understand those aspects of teaching that facilitate learning, how students learned to provide feedback destined to make faculty grow and develop as teachers, how students stopped blaming teachers and came to recognize what they contribute to their own education, how the policies and practices surrounding the process came to confirm the value of teaching, and how the results made teachers stronger and better. I know, given current realities it does sound like a fairy tale.