Buffet Evals

Leon Rothberg, Ph.D., a 58-year-old professor of English Literature at Ohio State University, was shocked and saddened Monday after receiving a sub-par mid-semester evaluation from freshman student Chad Berner. The circles labeled 4 and 5 on the Scan-Tron form were predominantly filled in, placing Rothberg’s teaching skill in the ‘below average’ to ‘poor’ range.”

So begins an article in what has become one of the truthiest sources of news on the web. But it is no longer time for mid-semester evals. In most of the US classes are wrapping up, and professors are chest-deep in grading. And the students–the students are also grading.

Few faculty are great fans of student evaluations, and I think with good reason. Even the best designed instruments–and few are well designed–treat the course like a marketing survey. How did you feel about the textbook that was chosen? Were the tests too hard? And tell us, were you entertained?

Were the student evals used for marketing, that would probably be OK. At a couple of the universities where I taught, evals were made publicly available, allowing students a glimpse of what to expect from a course or a professor. While that has its own problems, it’s not a bad use of the practice. It can also be helpful for a professor who is student-centered (and that should be all of us) and wants to consider this response when redesigning the course. I certainly have benefited from evaluations in that way.

Their primary importance on the university campus, however, is as a measure of teaching effectiveness. Often, they are used as the main measure of such effectiveness. Especially for tenure, and now as many universities incorporate more rigorous post-tenure evaluation, there as well.

Teaching to the Test

A former colleague, who shall remain nameless, noted that priming the student evals was actually pretty easily done, and started with the syllabus. You note why your text choice is appropriate, how you are making sure grading is fair, indicate the methods you use to be well organized and speak clearly, etc. Throughout the semester, you keep using the terms used on the evals to make clear how outstanding a professor you really are. While not all the students may fall for this, a good proportion would, he surmised.

(Yes, this faculty member had ridiculously good teaching evaluations. But from what I knew, he was also an outstanding teacher.)

Or you could just change your wardrobe. Or do one of a dozen other things the literature suggests improves student evaluations.

Or you could do what my car dealership does and prominently note that you are going to be surveyed and if you can’t answer “Excellent” to any item, to please bring it to their attention so they can get to excellent. This verges on slimy, and I can imagine, in the final third of the semester, that if I said this it might even cross over into unethical. Of course, if I do the same for students–give them an opportunity to get to the A–it is called mastery learning, and can actually be a pretty effective use of formative assessment.

Or you could do what an Amazon seller has recently done for me, and offer students $10 to remove any negative evaluations. But I think the clearly crosses the line both in Amazon’s case and in the classroom. (That said, I have on one occasion had students fill out evals in a bar after buying them a pitcher of beer.)

It is perhaps a testament to the general character of the professoriate that in an environment where student evaluations have come to be disproportionately influential on our careers, such manipulation–if it occurs at all–is extremely rare.

It’s the nature of the beast, though: we focus on what is measured. If what is being measured is student attitudes toward the course and the professor, we will naturally focus on those attitudes. While such attitudes are related to the ability to learn new material, they are not equivalent.

Doctor Feelgood

Imagine a hospital that promoted doctors (or dismissed them) based largely on patient reviews. Some of you may be saying “that would be awesome.” Given the way many doctors relate to patients, I am right there with you. My current doctor, Ernest Young, actually takes time to talk to me, listens to me, and seems to care about my health, which makes me want to care about my health too. So, good. And frankly, I do think that student (and patient) evaluation serves an important role.

But–and mind you I really have no idea how hospitals evaluate their staff–I suspect there are other metrics involved. Probably some metrics we would prefer were not (how many patients the doctor sees in an hour) and some that we are happy about (how many patients manage to stay alive). As I type this, I strongly suspect that hospitals are not making use of these outcome measures, but I would be pleased to hear otherwise.

A hospital that promoted only doctors who made patients think they were doing better, and who made important medical decisions for them, and who fed them drugs on demand would be a not-so-great place to go to get well. Likewise, a university that promotes faculty who inflate grades, reduce workload to nill, and focus on entertainment to the exclusion of learning would also be a pretty bad place to spend four years.

If we are talking about teaching effectiveness, we should measure outcomes: do students walk out of the classroom knowing much more than they did when they walked in? And we may also want to measure performance: are professors following practices that we know promote learning? The worst people to determine these things: the legislature. The second worst: the students. The third worst: fellow faculty.

Faculty should have their students evaluated by someone else. They should have their teaching performance peer reviewed–and not just by their departmental colleagues. And yes, well designed student evaluations could remain a part of this picture, but they shouldn’t be the whole things.

Buffet Evals

I would guess that 95% of my courses are in the top half on average evals, and that a slightly smaller percentage are in the top quarter. (At SUNY Buffalo, our means were reported against department, school, and university means, as well as weighted against our average grade in the course. Not the case at Quinnipiac.) So, my student evals tend not to suck, but there are also faculty who much more consistently get top marks. In some cases, this is because they are young, charming, and cool–three things I emphatically am not. But in many cases it is because they really care about teaching.

These are the people who need to lead reform of the use of teaching evaluation use in tenure and promotion. It’s true, a lot of them probably like reading their own reviews, and probably agree with their students that they do, indeed, rock. But a fair number I’ve talked to recognize that these evals are given far more weight than they deserve. Right now, the most vocal opponents to student evaluations are those who are–both fairly and unfairly–consistently savaged by their students at the end of the semester.

We need those who have heart-stoppingly perfect evaluations to stand up and say that we need to not pay so much attention to evaluations. I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.

Short of this, we need to create systems of evaluating teaching that are at least reasonably easy and can begin to crowd out the student eval as the sole quantitative measure of teaching effectiveness.

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