February 16, 2005

Thoughts on student evaluations ....

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.


AiE said...

Everything you say makes complete sense. Yet, as a professor in my first few years of teaching, it was almost impossible for me to really maintain this perspective. In addition, administrators where I worked valued students' evaluations a lot and used them to question my (and others') teaching.

My evals were never "bad," but they weren't as good as the reviews I get on my writing, for example. A lot of this is because I'm better at thinking and writing than teaching. But at that time I did feel indignant that students, who had no idea the kind of time and effort that teaching even marginally well takes, were able to pass judgments on my skills so blithely.

Blechhhh. Your post reminds me how glad I am that I've found a new line of work.

Dr. Crazy said...

Like you, jo(e), I entirely agree that evaluations often are sort of pointless. One reason why i think this is true is that I remember when I was an undergraduate I often didn't realize how much I'd learned in a class until a semester or two after I'd completed it, and I think that's a really common experience for a lot of students - whether they're good, bad or indifferent as students. And I'm sure now that my evaluations reflected that lack of awareness that some courses were actually valuable. (Speaking of students, I was just interrupted by one and so this might not make much sense - if so, my apologies :) )

Moebius Stripper said...

Good post, and if the test grading gods are merciful to me today, I might add my thoughts on my own blog.

Here's the closest I've come to proof, in a controlled experiment, that student evals are unreliable: last term, I taught two precalc classes - the "good" class, and the "bad" class. (The difference was mostly in their attitudes, not in their innate abilities.) In both classes, I marked their quizzes and tests promptly, handing them back - with one exception - the class after they took them.

In the "good" class, my average score on "Hands back assignments and tests promptly" was 4.8/5, which is what it should have been - I couldn't have possibly been more prompt! In the "bad" class - 3.5/5. My actual promptness in handing back tests, unlike my clarity and helpfulness in teaching, could be measured objectively, and yet there was that huge difference between sections.

Most surprising evals: last semester, I had one class whose members just sat quietly as I taught. I sometimes wondered if they were even conscious. But I got my best evals ever from that group, so I guess I did something right.


dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Dr. Crazy isn't so crazy after all. The only kinds of things that a student evaluation can probably detect are things like this: is the professor nice? mean? difficult? easy? entertaining? funny? a timely grader?

I get very strong evaluations, but I suspect it's because I'm somewhat entertaining and "cool" looking (i.e., jeans, t-shirts, long hair, earrings--not the typical professor look). My worry, of course, is that high evals means that I'm too easy, and that makes me feel like I'm not serious enough or challenging enough.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Oh, I was just reminded in an email from one of our deans that there is web access at my school where you can see the student evals (just the stats) of every single instructor on campus. Zoinks!

matt said...

A friend of mine at a big west coast university gets consistently amazing evaluations. Her students adore her, long queues waiting in the hallway during her office hours, etc. After 6+ years of 'best of Big U' evaluations, she had one semester that, for any number of reasons, didn't go particularly well, and her students' evaluations were mixed. Lo and behold, at her tenure review the following year, the person in charge of evaluating her teaching managed to quote, out of context, any number of the middling to poor evaluations, and set them, as if in balance, against some more cautiously positive comments. And the 6 years of 'Best of Big U' comments in so many of her evaluations were entirely absent from the 'summary'. Crazy.

Moebius Stripper said...

Further to dr m's post - looking "nontraditional" can backfire. Being young and female makes me quite nontraditional-looking (and, for that matter - non-Asian ethnic) in the math department, and I think that a lot of students thought that that would make me a kinder, gentler math teacher. (I am infinitely patient with students who are struggling with the work, but my patience for run-of-the-mill BS is nil.) I think that the incongruity between my students' expectations and the reality harmed me last term.

Also, jo(e), I like your idea of non-anonymous, written evals. I think I might do that this term. I expect some students will hold back on their harsher (and possibly justifiable) criticism, but it seems that these sorts of evals would result in some really thoughtful constructive criticism.

What Now? said...

Our evaluation forms have a question about "how well did your professor show concern for student progress?" Everyone's scores always drop dramatically on this one question, mostly because I think that students rarely have any idea what it means for a professor to be concerned about their students' progress. The faculty all think that we, e.g., carefully create assignments that build on previous assignments or provide feedback on rough drafts, etc., but the students don't seem to see that as "concern for progress." So in my department we started experimenting last year with saying to classes, "I'm giving you this assignment because I'm concerned with your progress," and lo and behold, our scores went up! It's all made me quite skeptical about the value of student evaluations.