As this term draws to an end, some of us adjuncts may be quaking in our shoes at the prospect of being evaluated by our students. Our program directors have probably told us that our chances for getting rehired for more courses depend, at least in part, on evaluation results.
So it’s a good time to ask: Are student evaluations useful?
It depends on whom you ask.
Research is mixed. Philip Stark, a statistician at UC Berkeley, points out in a recent article An Evaluation of Course Evaluations that low response rates skew results to the extremes. Students with the most negative (or positive) views might be the most likely to respond. Also, factors extraneous to teaching effectiveness are likely to affect scores; the student’s intrinsic interest in a subject, his/her level of experience with college classes, and so on. Stark concludes that most student evaluations have nothing meaningful to say about the quality of teaching.
From scholars at Italy’s Bocconi University in Milan in Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors comes the counter intuitive finding that student evaluations actually go up as teaching effectiveness goes down, at least if we measure effectiveness by the students’ success in subsequent, more advanced courses; it seems that the more professors demand of their students, the less students will like them.
Stephanie Jones of Texas Tech writes specifically about student evaluators in online classes, Reading Between the Lines of Online Course Evaluations: Identifiable Actions that Improve Student Perceptions of Teaching Effectiveness and Course Value and she is more optimistic. Her results suggest that students respond well to online faculty who help stimulate their learning; a more engaged, approachable instructor will generally receive higher scores from students than an instructor who communicates less or offers less praise. This doesn’t necessarily mean the students are learning more from a friendly, approachable instructor – they just feel as if they are.
As I said – mixed reviews from experts. As for me, let me be frank: I hate student evaluations. A few quotes, taken from the evaluations I got from my students in a social and political theory class, will show why:
- This instructor laid clear instructions (in rubrics, syllabus, etc), yet seemed to not want the student to follow the instructions and instead do things (write a paper, respond to peers, etc) completely differently than what was expected.
- Professor knew his stuff however for a required class I found everything irrelevant. He took everything to seriously and expected more out of the students whether they understood theories or not. Tough grader and too one sided.
- Professor Davidson demonstrated passion about the subject matter. He was interested and often commented on discussion board posts. Not all professors do that. His comments were clear and helpful.
- This teacher was rude, harsh, and very strict in the course. The course is difficult in itself, and its hard for people who don’t completely understand politics to begin with.
- This instructor was very thorough with class assignments. He did a very good job as an online instructor.
Am I rude, harsh and strict? Do I “take everything too seriously?” Or Am I a passionate instructor who gives clear and helpful comments?
- Week 7 and week 8 essays were poorly planned out. There is too much work required in this short of time. Ive had other classes where instuctors understand the heavy work load and help the student out. This professor did not. He knew his stuff which was helpful but the course was not.
- This course was a refreshing class to be a part of. The materials were awesome, the discussions were deep and well thought out and you had to be “present” if you wanted to pass (which is nice to see).
Am I supposed to “help a student out” by assigning less heavy work, or should I lead deep and well-thought out discussions? I honestly don’t believe it is possible to do both, because in order to have thoughtful discussions, it is important to prepare by reading the text!
Theory is an abstract subject, hard for some students. Maybe that explains the bipolar responses? Well, no, it doesn’t. Here’s what I got for a straight shot, run-of-the-mill course on crime and delinquency:
- I didn’t care for him as an instructor, harsh grader on some assignments and somewhat a rude person
- This instructor is amazing! He is not like some of the instructors I’ve encountered that just log in to give you a grade. He is involved, you can tell he is passionate about the topic by the way he shares the information and makes you think and explore the topic. By far, the best professor I have encountered at (this college). Also a very timely grader, did not keep us waiting until the following week for our grades, very soon after the assignment was turned in, he had given you a grade as well as constructive feedback.
- The professor was helpful yet came off condescending. I think a better approach to responding to student’s questions and submissions is needed.
- I felt that sometimes he would just grade the material and not really explain why he graded it that way or what he really expected.
- The instructor was great. Explained anything that was confusing and gave many resources for support.
What on Earth am I supposed to make of these love him-hate him comments? Here are the thoughts that go through my head after reading:
- Ignorant Ungrateful wretches!
- I treat all my students the same. Honest, I do!
- Tell me your name, and I will personally track you down and throttle you!
- I wish I had gone into investment banking!
And eventually, after I have (1) checked my roster (in vain) to identify possible culprits, (2) calmed down a bit, and (3) realized that it makes not a whit of difference who the commentators were, then I finally get around to asking;
How can I improve my teaching so that every student in every class will always think “the instructor is amazing” and “he explains anything that was confusing….?”
It takes me a good 45 minutes after that to realize that it is impossible to please 100% of the people, 100% of the time, no matter how I change my teaching, and maybe it’s OK to get 80%- 90% of students to trust me and my style.
Oh yes, I hate student evaluations. And yet, university administrators seem to believe in them, or they wouldn’t be asking MY students for feedback after EVERY SINGLE COURSE I TEACH! That’s right — I get evaluated every two months, for 2,3 or 4 separate courses, and I am often asked to comment or respond.
This has been my response. Now take that, all you haters, you!
Photo credit: John Birdsall MR / John Birdsall Social Issues Photo Library / Press Association Images / Universal Images Group
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