“Slithy Tove” has a reply to my brief comment on “Rate Your Students.” I’ve talked a bit about evaluations before, but I thought I’d address some of his comments. In particular, he is frustrated by the lack of quality in some of his teachers. It does seem that, especially among tenured professors, there are bad teachers at every school. It’s very difficult to get rid of faculty, even those without tenure, so it takes extreme incompetence before anyone has to leave. Even then, the Byzantine bureaucracy of the university means that the process of getting rid of and replacing them takes years.
It is important to choose a school that has a reputation for actually caring what their professors do in the classroom. Law school is a bit different, since even at the research universities, they tend to stress teaching over research. That said, many clearly are more interested in bringing in folks who can add weight through their reputation than can do so through good teaching. So, it’s not always the case that the best ranked schools also have the best teachers.
In some places, and I’m sad to say my current institution is one of them, teaching doesn’t matter that much to tenure or promotion. There are some really excellent teachers, but they are excellent teachers in many ways in spite of the university. I’ve been told that the only way to have your teaching impact a tenure decision is if you bite the students. Another tenured faculty member said that students would have to picket the tenure proceedings in order for bad teaching to stop someone from getting tenure. In other words, excellent student evaluations don’t matter in my school. There is a move afoot to make evaluation reports more easily accessible to students, which I think will help them to choose classes more effectively. But if you are no good at teaching, you don’t mind if people decide not to take your classes.
I have mixed feelings about student evals. I think they do roughly approximate the ability of the teacher. Unfortunately, I know exactly how to improve my evals. First, I raise the average grade in the class: there is a strong correlation between mean grade in a class and teacher evaluation. In fact, some schools (not UB) are now weighting these ratings by the average grade. That again raises problems, because in a small senior seminar or optional graduate class, I may have a dozen students, many of whom deserve the A. The efficacy of the class leads its evaluations to be discounted.
The other way I can improve ratings is to do something a faculty member at my graduate institution did, and build the evaluations into the syllabus, reminding students along the way the ways he was “effectively using information technology,” or “providing timely feedback.” Certainly, this “teaching to the test” in reverse probably led the course to do better in those categories, but he was also aiming (successfully) to manipulate his evaluations.
The best suggestion I’ve heard–this from Tom Feeley, who has studied student evaluations, as well as from others–is that you give the student evaluations five years after the course is over. Yes, we tend to forget traumatic events as time passes ;), but we also find that some of the teaching that we like at the time may not be the work that was really relevant to our lives and careers down the road. Deciding the worth of a class just before a looming final exam may not be the best timing.