Flawed, but still important.
I wade tentatively into this controversial subject. But perhaps I can add something constructive, after reading 25 years of my own student evals, and those of my colleagues (when they ask).
As a start, it has to be acknowledged that student evaluations are flawed. Most particularly, they often disadvantage teachers of color and women. There are those who feel that given this fact, they are useless and untrustworthy, and can (and have been) misused to the detriment of many of our colleagues. These are all good arguments, and I do not discount them. An administrator or review committee should be well versed on these limitations and trained to recognize where they appear and make proper and generous adjustments for them in their reviews. Yes, that is extra work, but it is not a good faith review without doing it.
It also has to be said that student evaluations can have a pernicious effect on learning. That is, some teachers adjust what they are doing in the classroom because they are afraid of bad student evaluations. Put another way, they do not push students into that uncomfortable place where deep learning often happens, and they avoid doing this because they perceive that students will rebel by hitting hard in the student evaluation at the end of the semester. Of course, good and dedicated teachers do not do this. But it takes some confidence and assurance that what you are doing (syllabus, learning outcomes, assignments, grading) are the right things to do.
A related concern is that if students scare the teacher into lightening up their workload, over time it dumbs down the entire enterprise and becomes a “customer focused” process that many teachers decry.
These flaws in student evaluations argue pretty strongly in favor of their abolishment.
But my own feeling is this would be an error.
There are several reasons why I think this.
First, students have a right to have some anonymous avenue for raising legitimate concerns about what is happening in the classroom. Second, not all student evaluations are tainted by poor motives, or merely offered out of vengeance for being challenged in the course. Third, if we do not allow student evaluations, some teachers could run amok with no accountability for what is happening in the classroom.
I had a colleague some years ago who mentioned that she never read her own student evaluations. As painful as they can sometimes be to read, I think that is a mistake.
When a colleague or mentee asks me to read their student evaluations and provide feedback, I gladly do so. It is very common to focus on the negative comments and at least be upset, and at worst lose motivation for the work. But inevitably there are good ideas and generous comments in amongst the negative ones, so it is important to take the time to separate the wheat from the chaff.
When I am asked to review a colleague’s evaluations, I use a system I devised to review my own years ago, when I too was bummed out by – and over focused on – the negative. It is simple, really: I use three color highlighters to classify the student comments into these three categories: Green is for positive comments, Yellow is for comments that might have a grain of truth and constructive suggestion for improvement, and Orange is for un-constructive, mean, or vindictive comments.
Once that highlighting is done, it becomes immediately apparent that there were many nice and supportive comments (the green ones). And it makes it easier to focus less – or even ignore – the un-constructive comments.
Perhaps the most useful thing about this process is to spend time considering the constructive suggestions for improvement, which can lead to a healthy consideration focused on improvement. If in this sort of review of a set of evaluations a teacher can find one thing to fix or adjust in the coming semester to what they are doing, that’s probably enough. Over a decade of doing this, improvements add up, and in nearly all cases, evaluations will improve.
After going through this review, it is good to put them aside, and rededicate oneself to doing what you believe is best for your students. Work on the one take-away and keep moving. If you really feel awful, remember to do two things. Read the green comments in your evals and read your thank you note file. You keep those too, right?
Let us know what you do with your student evaluations!
Letters of Recommendation
On the subject of student evaluations and how to use them constructively is a book by Professor Ronald A. Berk, formerly Associate Dean for Teaching at Johns Hopkins University: Top 10 Flashpoints in Student Ratings and the Evaluation of Teaching: What Faculty and Administrators Must Know to Protect Themselves in Employment Decisions.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote about the current situation at Twitter from user XanIndego on Mastodon:
I do not like that site of birds
I do not like its awful words
I do not like what it became
I do not like its cult of shame
I do not like intrusive ads
I do not like the vapid fads
I do not like the clout it’s given
I do not like its algorithm
But I shall miss that weird bird town
I do not like it burning down