Nature of Academia · Teaching Political Science

On Student Evaluations

When you see an ad for a position that requires any kind of teaching, you’ll see a request for “evidence of teaching effectiveness. ” When you go up for tenure or promotion, a key part of your portfolio is demonstrating your abilities in the classroom.

How do we do this? One key way is student evaluations.*

However, student evaluations are far from uncontroversial. For a few reasons:
1. They’re biased.
2. Only certain students fill them out, which creates an inaccurate sample. The two groups that tend to fill out evaluations are the professor’s biggest fans, who want to gush about how they learned everything there is to know about government in this one semester, and the failures, who want to rant about how the professor turned them in to the Office of Student Conduct for copying and pasting an essay from online. This leads to wildly awesome (Professor X is basically Aristotle) or horrifically awful (Miss Y is a goddamn c*nt) reviews, neither of which are very truthful. Sometimes dedicated brown nosers fill them out, because they do everything the university tells them to do whether it makes sense or not, but this population is vanishingly small.
3. What do students know about good teaching? They aren’t educated on pedagogy, psychology, or much of anything (hence the reason they’re in college). They care about one thing and one thing only- their grade. Yeah, students can decide whether they liked a particular activity or teaching style, but 99 times out of 100 that “like” is entirely dependent on the grade the student got in that activity/teaching style. So why should these people be the ones deciding what counts as good teaching?
4. They’re increasingly written online- and we all know how online commenters are. This facet alone has many sub-issues:
-We don’t know when they actually write the evaluation in the week or so the online portal is available (after getting back a bad paper grade, perhaps? )
-Students can write them together, which might lead to one student commanding others what to say or a formation of group think
-The students feel more anonymous, which could be good (they are more honest) but is probably bad (they are much meaner)
5. Students don’t understand the purpose of evaluations. They see the evaluations as another thing to do at the end of the semester. They don’t know/don’t care that evaluations are an important measure for professors who need them for tenure and promotion, and surprisingly, a lot don’t know that evaluations are anonymous and professors don’t get to read them until after the semester is done (so their grade is completely unaffected). If they don’t know why they’re doing this, how much do you think they care about being accurate or thoughtful?

So, to sum up: student evaluations are terrible (and the use of them for hiring or promotion purposes maybe illegal). But what do we do to measure teaching effectiveness instead? It’s hard to be evaluated consistently by your boss (who has his own stuff to do) and self evaluations only cover so much (and are just as subject to bias as student evaluations). If you have enough students, the idea might be that the reviews will normalize as more observations occur, but what about professors at small institutions? These are the places that use student evaluations the most!

But even if we don’t know what else to do, until some of the issues with them are fixed, it’s inappropriate to rely on them so heavily. To say it in a way school officials will appreciate: you’re opening yourself up for a lawsuit.


-Margarita Thatcher


*There are others, like peer assessment or participating in pedagogical conferences, but neither of these are nearly as prevalent/respected as using student evaluations.




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