Thoughts on student evaluations, a tangent spinning off the discussion going on over at Dr. Crazy's:
My student evaluations tend to be very positive. I will sometimes get 100 percent of the students strongly agreeing that I "am enthusiastic about teaching" or that I display "a positive attitude towards students." What does this say about my teaching?
Well, not much, actually.
I think I am a terrific teacher but I don't think the student evaluations reflect what I do, or whether or not they've learned anything. I happen to have an extroverted personality. Students see me as a warm, friendly, talkative person who will stop to chat with them on the quad. Students like me, and so when they fill out the stupid bubble forms we are required to use, they just automatically fill out the "strongly agree" bubbles.
Five years ago, I had the semester from hell. I was on crutches from a leg broken in two places -- and in pain most of the semester. I had recurring trouble with migraines. I had four small children. Spouse was working a job with long hours (a job he later quit) so most of the responsibility of the children and the household fell to me. My aunt was dying, which meant endless meetings with doctors and of course daily visits to her. I was not a particularly good teacher that semester. I went through the motions but my mind was elsewhere. I was often not prepared for class. I even had to cancel several classes so that I could be with my aunt during the last 72 hours of her life, and then again to make funeral arrangements. Here's the part that surprised me: my student evaluations remained the same. The same glowing positive comments I had always gotten, even though my teaching had fallen far below my own standards.
On the other hand, I have a friend who is a brilliant teacher. Her lectures are effective and thought-provoking. She designs assignments that challenge her students. She has what some might call a cold, no-nonsense approach. Sometimes students will say to me, "I don't like BrilliantProfessor." I'll ask: "Do you feel like you are learning in her course?" And the student will say, "Oh, yes, I'm learning tons. I have to stay on top of the reading because she moves so fast." But when BrilliantProfessor gets her evaluations back, the response from students is lukewarm.
I think when we discuss student evaluations, we have to acknowledge that their value is limited. Is it fair to expect a 19-year-old to evaluate a college level course? Many students will react to their vague, gut feelings. No one has explained to these students the different expectations placed on high school teachers and college professors. The students expect the college professor to act like the nurturing supportive high school teacher who will check to see if their homework is done and who has study sessions in her room during the lunch hour. No one explains to college students that college professors are not simply hired to teach, that these professors have great pressure to do research and publish.
Many students will respond simply to their sense of liking or disliking a teacher's personality. Many of these students have an internalized gender bias that they are unaware of. Female teachers are expected to be warm and supportive. Male teachers should speak with authority. Looking back at my own college years, I don't think I did a very good job filling out evaluation forms.
What surprises me is that P&T committees in many places seem to put a high value on student evaluations. I understand the desire to reward good teaching and to have student input, but I don't see how collecting a bunch of poorly designed fill-in-the-bubble forms is going to accomplish that.
I am not saying that I don't find student feedback helpful. I often ask students to write a separate evaluation of the course, one that only I see, and I ask them to sign their names. If the smart, motivated student says, "I think the reading load was too heavy," I am likely to really consider her comment. On the other hand, I read the comments of the student who is failing the course who says, "Drop the essay by Ward Churchill" or "Why do you make us read all this feminist stuff?" Well, then, I shrug. I understand what he is saying, I know he doesn't like the fact that I made him think, I think it's important feedback because I know I pushed him out of his comfort zone, and no, I'm not planning to change that part of the course.