Let’s discuss student opinion forms, course evaluations, student evaluation of teaching forms, whatever term you use. Article after article year after year highlight how toxic they are. More recently the emphasis has been on how they differ according to instructor gender and race—though it’s really the STUDENTS, not the forms, that are biased. See
- Inside Higher Ed in 2020;
- Inside Higher Ed again in 2019;
- The Chronicle in 2018;
- The Journal of Public Economics in 2017;
- Inside Higher Ed (AGAIN) in 2016;
- Couldn’t find anything from 2015, but frankly I didn’t try that hard. So here’s a Slate article from 2014;
- And my favorite based on years: a paper from The Journal of Educational Psychology in 1974!!!!
Moreover, these issues are mass-publicized—this isn’t exclusive to Inside Higher Ed. This topic has been covered by the Washington Post, Forbes, and NPR.
What isn’t covered as much (though it makes a brief appearance in the NPR article) are the other negative realities of student course evals beyond the race/gender bias. How they discourage faculty from trying new things in the classroom at the risk of having lower evaluations. How they encourage faculty to be lenient to the point of not actually teaching the students anything and becoming an “easy A.” How evals pressure faculty to teach to the forms because they are used so heavily as a measure of teaching quality and effectiveness when one goes up for tenure or a contract renewal.
It’s past the point of being sad and is now just downright ridiculous. Check out this article from chroniclevitae that discusses baking brownies or cookies for students before evals. And here’s a lovely blogpost (note the sarcasm) that suggests—and I quote: “Lie and tell [students] you know they’re working hard.” It also echoes chroniclevitae in recommending chocolate.
I’m frankly tired of seeing these articles about how terrible evaluations are. It’s not news. We know. We’re just choosing not to do anything about it.
And that’s really what this post is about. I’m starting with the assumption that we accept student course evaluations are beyond problematic and that using them as a major to primary part of any sort of contract renewal process probably isn’t great. So here’s what I think we as a community should start unpacking: IF they are so bad, so biased, if they lead to pandering and flat-out bribery, and if this is NOT a news flash, then WHY ARE WE STILL USING THEM? In particular, why do they still hold SO MUCH importance every time a faculty member goes up for tenure, or a grad student is up for a teaching award, or an instructor is up for contract renewal?
I have thought about this a lot, and have an answer that seems to explain things.
We’re still using them and we’re still putting such an emphasis on them because we are scared, and don’t want to put in the time.
Changing any system takes a lot of time. Our time. Think about all the steps a department or college would need to take to change the current system—even in the most minor of ways like altering some of the questions on the existing student evaluation forms. First, there would have to be a task force or subcommittee that spends time polling faculty and maybe conducting research on phrasing and “leading the witnesses” or methods of measuring teaching effectiveness. Peer institutions may be consulted. Before narrowing down their list of alternatives, faculty members–often tenured—will be asked to participate as “guinea pigs” under the new systems, and then the results will be analyzed. This sub-force/task-committee then would have to bring more than one top choice of alternative (because we need options) to the chair, or the greater committee, or to the faculty as a whole. There would be a giant discussion where the more people involved the more chaotic and less on point it is. There would NEVER be 100% approval, but some level of agreement would be needed in order to proceed.
This entire process easily could take YEARS.
Asking one committee to spend years on one item is not like asking one grad student to spend years on one problem (#thesis). And God help us if during this time committee members leave or new people are brought on-board. Depending upon where we are in the process, it may have to start all over again.
So the first reason why we still have the same course evaluations as always is because we’re not willing to put in the time to change them, and changing them will take time. Based upon the literature, upwards of 46 years.
We also are lazy in developing alternatives because they would be OURS to complete. Right now it’s on the students to evaluate, a computer to make a chart or table, and the half a dozen people involved (the instructor, the chair, the promotion and tenure committee, and MAYBE a dean) to skim. Let’s suppose for argument’s sake we decide that colleagues observing classes is also key and that becomes a regularly expected part of the evaluation process; it already is in the year or two before going up for tenure, but I’m talking about adding something that will occur absolutely every semester just like these apparently important though horribly flawed student evaluations.
First, who wants to read and write these narratives over a pile of riveting research papers? And if there’s to be any method to this madness, there should be a rubric or list of guidelines for the writeups—which could require a similar grueling, years-long approval process. There’s the fact that while students in theory have the entire semester as the basis for their evaluation, an observation highlights one day. One day that the instructor usually knows is coming and for which the instructor could prepare the most gorgeous lecture or class activity ever, thereby rigging the results. So if we REALLY wanted to do observations well, we would make them random and/or we would observe the same person multiple times in a term [perhaps giving the instructor feedback in-between so that one could measure if they change their actions as a result of feedback]. And then of course the more the merrier; why only have one colleague evaluate a single other colleague? Why not rotate who observes whom? Why not have multiple people view the same person in a term?
The amount of OUR time this would take would grow rather quickly—whether we’re the one observing, the one being observed, or the one analyzing all the information. So it’s one thing for us to really concentrate on viewing pre-tenure faculty in the year or two before the “big ask.” But having this occur to everyone every single semester would probably not go over well.
This idea of observation by colleagues actually segues nicely into my second conclusion that we are scared. Even in a large lecture hall, an instructor could pick their colleague out of the audience. And so their assessments are NOT anonymous in the same way the students’ are. Even if multiple colleagues view the same person in the same semester, the instructor can probably guess who wrote what. And if it’s anything less than flattering, and if there are any types of pay raise or tenure or similar consequences to these comments, there is an increased likelihood that grudges will be held and payback will be sought. We all know plenty of academics who have had longer battles with each other over more trivial matters; I’ve even worked in departments where colleagues were suing each other for libel [ironically, allegedly regarding comments stemming from an observation of teaching that came up in a P&T meeting.].
Fear of personal retribution is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Suppose instead of viewing and writing up observations, we added the tracking of students to an instructor’s teaching portfolio. See if their “A” students predominantly succeed in the follow-up course, or if their “A” students more often than not earn “C”s in future courses. Use that data collectively as another measure of the efficacy of the instructor. This too would probably never go into effect. Why? Because it would make people feel attacked. They would argue any grade drops [the only situations that would be discussed] come more from changing classroom styles like IBL vs. lecture; people would argue the sample size is too small, or it’s the students’ problem in retaining material they really did “know” in the moment, or mysterious other factors might be occurring in students’ lives impacting their grades. The students’ lack of preparation and next-course shortcomings are NEVER a reflection on the previous professor and what (little) they taught. We’re too scared and proud to admit we may even be partially to blame.
We probably will never even get to the stage of asking students a semester later, as opposed to in the midst and during final exams week, about how the course prepared them and has helped them. But, looking at the common questions from the five places I’ve received course evaluations, we do feel comfortable asking students something along the lines of “Does the instructor show knowledge/expertise/command of the material?” Let’s ponder that question. We are asking an 18-22 year old who is taking a class in part specifically because they do NOT have knowledge/expertise/command of the material to gauge whether or not the person with the Ph.D. in the room has knowledge/expertise/command of the material. The person teaching the course was assigned that task by an (associate) chair, after having beaten out hundreds to thousands of other Ph.D-holding applicants for the position. But suddenly we’re concerned the faculty may be faulty, and so we decide to ask a college student who maybe has only spent 14 weeks in academia–assuming they have perfect attendance–to make that judgement for us.
Of course, that’s probably not why we ask that particular question. It’s also probably not why we ask students possibly upset about their current grade and nervous about a final if assignments were “fair.” We ask these questions out of fear. Like it or not, we’ve come to the stage where colleges are businesses, many of which are on the brink of financial collapse. The students emotionally (though often it’s the parents financially) are the clients. And rule #1 is to keep the client happy. Most students spend 4-5 years in college to get a frankly overpriced piece of paper to secure a semi-decent-paying day job outside academia. Since most college students are not going to live in the Ivory Tower, colleges have to spend their money on student services, new dorms and rec centers, athletics. These are the things students will look back on fondly (note that word: fondly) in their later years when they have money to donate. They’ll remember those late nights hanging out in the lounge smoking pot and playing pool; they’ll reminisce about tailgate parties before a big football game where the student section was on the 20-yard line. They won’t be looking over their sequences and series notes from Calc II like it’s a mathematical year book; they will not have kept the novels they wrote a B-level paper on and never actually read.
So we ask these questions to make students feel as if their opinion truly matters. It’s literally soliciting customer feedback. It’s also allowing them to vent without bothering a chair or dean. Compare this to a restaurant with a comment box. Even if the restaurant doesn’t read the comment box for decades, it makes the diner feel like they’ve spoken their truth and have had some impact on changing things for the(ir) better. It’s also kept them from asking to speak to the manager. Everybody wins. The problem with doing this with course evaluations is, because we refuse to come up with anything additional or better, we as academics actually do make these comments in the box by the door really important when it comes to keeping servers employed. The students know it too–I’ve had students ballsy enough to mention out loud to me that I “have evaluations coming up.” We’re letting the inmates run the asylum. Which at some point should make you wonder who the crazy people actually are.