Field of Science

Course evaluations

Well its that time of year again. My course wrapped up early last month and during the last "lecture" the students filled out anonymous course evaluations which are then sent to some central office for analysis. I just received the summations, so I wanted to share a few thoughts. Before I do (in a later post) I want to spend a minute to touch on student evaluations.

What is the purpose of student evaluations, because in general I regard student evaluations as a necessary evil?

Several potential uses come to mind:
1. provide feedback to the instructors on the course and student's perspectives,
2. provide a "quantitative" rubric to administrators to grade instructors,
3. to allow students an opportunity to vent with no repercussions

1. provide feedback to the instructors on the course and student's perspectives. This seems to be the greatest potential benefit. This could give the instructor an opportunity to determine what aspects of their course worked or didn't work, give some feedback on what teaching approaches should be emphasized and those that should be de-emphasized. This requires, of course, that the instructor actually cares to modify/change the course. I can easily envision a course where change is not necessarily a benefit. So, this is a good use of student evaluations. However, in practice these evaluations tend to fail. Much of this has to do with the USA Today approach to evaluations. The same evaluation is used in a 200+ student freshman English class as a 12 student senior level biological laboratory class. The questions are watered down to the point of homeopathic irrelevancy. However, at least one study has found that this is best approach to get valid student participation in the evaluation process

2. provide a "quantitative" rubric to administrators to grade instructors. This seems to be where evaluations are generally used the most. Administrators love these things, because they simply quantify the not easily quantifiable such as teaching ability. You could argue that the evaluations are allowing you to determine teaching effectiveness, but you would be wrong. Several studies have demonstrated that course evaluations are related to student satisfaction. Small classes are evaluated more favorably than large classes. Upper level classes are evaluated more favorably than lower level classes. Evaluations also correlate strongly with student grades! In other words, good teachers get bad evaluations from academically weak students and bad teachers get good evaluations from academically strong students. Based on this, it's good to know as a college instructor your tenure, contract renewal, promotion, etc. is based in no small part on these evaluations. Doesn't this imply there is a strong institutional push to give out good grades in order to maximize your evaluations?

3. to allow students an opportunity to vent with no repercussions While tongue-in-cheek overall, in my experience this does appear to be true. There are some students that need to express their loathing of the instructor in no uncertain terms. Well, no uncertain as long as it remains anonymous. Thus, when evaluations come in you should probably be in your happy place (local pub) before reading them. Clearly, student's do not need evaluations for this, there is always ratemyprofessors where you can rail against the machine. However, there is a good chance the instructor may never see it, thus bring in the evaluation form. I do check my ratemyprofessors rating but mostly just to ensure that I am still considered evil.

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