Wednesday, February 4, 2015

9 Years Ago. "What's All the Fuss About Evaluations?"

Saturday, February 4, 2006

A professor from Florida sends this along today:

So, you got a bad rating, or two, or twenty. Why the hell do you care? Well, you care because you’re human, and the social evaluations people make about you impact your self image. Another reason you care is that Universities and colleges use student ratings to determine your fitness for tenure, promoting, teaching award, and annual evaluations that earn or deny you merit raises. There are a lot of reasons to care. As a professor, what you need isn’t a reason to care – you need some perspective on student ratings, and a lesson in learning to ignore them, even if they impact you, the course of your career and your family.

Last year, after 16 years of teaching, I took my first sabbatical. For the first time, I had research responsibilities, but theoretically nothing else. At the end of my sabbatical year when my department circulates the annual student comments written on the back of the teaching evaluation forms, and even though I hadn’t taught a class during the past year, I got a negative teaching evaluation. It seems that some student took a class during the spring semester and thought I was the professor. On the back of the evaluation, written very boldly, it said “Professor [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!” You can insert anyone’s name here. In this case, it was my name. I didn’t teach the course. I was excused from teaching for the year. Nevertheless, official records indicate that I have a negative teaching evaluation. Will wonders never cease.

I refer to this example because it illustrates one of the reasons we shouldn’t rely on student evaluations of professors. It seems that a number of them don’t even know who is teaching the course. For example, when I get to the end of the year, and the students are handed a teaching evaluation, one of them inevitably says “Excuse me. Do we have to fill out all this information on the top, like the course title and number, and the professor’s name? If we do, could you please write those on the board?” How useful are evaluations from students when some of them, perhaps the ones who provide the worst reviews, don’t even know who is teaching the class?

And, in what world would you let an apprentice evaluate the skill of his/her master? You might ask the apprentice if they liked working for the master craftsperson, what aspects of the training they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, but you would hardly ask them if the master craftsperson was a “master” of their skills. No, to make that determination, you would ask other craftspersons. But, here I am, a college professor with 22 years of teaching experience, a BS, 2 MAs, and a Ph.D., and more than 110 publications, and my skill at teaching and my knowledge of my field is judged by someone who has no credentials or expertise.

Furthermore, these evaluations may have been provided by people who not only don’t do well in an educational setting; they may be provided by people I have, for example, caught cheating in my course. Why should someone who has failed my course for cheating be allowed to evaluate me? That’s almost like letting the President of a country who has a questionable moral background determine….Oh wait, that’s bad example. But, that’s kind of the point.


  1. YES! The analogy of the apprentice is apt here! Ideally, we would also be judged by the market (i.e. those who hire our graduates).

  2. I'd settle for being evaluated by my students 5-10 years after they leave my classroom. I strongly suspect most would either have forgotten the class entirely (but perhaps be using some of the skills nonetheless), or would be willing to say it was useful (or would have been if they'd worked harder).

  3. The fuss about evaluations is that I've had at least two department chairs who would yell at me if some student had pulled the “Professor [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] SUCKS!!!!!!!!!" trick. Since for both I was still untenured, this needed to be taken seriously: I could have been fired for that, no matter that it would have been unfairly. Yes, OF COURSE it's insane to allow the lunatics to run the asylum: that's the whole point.

  4. My problem with student evaluations is that I often get "needs improvement" ratings for teaching from my dept head based entirely on them. By that I mean, my pass rates are average, my tests are no harder than anyone else's, class visits by peers have detected no issues with lecturing or interaction with students. Yet my ratings in the single "overall impression" question are often low, and that's enough. (Strangely, the numbers for most of the other questions are average--students know what they're doing.)

    We moved to all-online evals a few years ago, and campus-wide response rates are around 30%, my own between 25 and 35%. Students who stop attending but don't formally drop (which is common) are free to fill them out. I suspect most of the good students don't care enough to do them, maybe even some feel the "customer service mentality" is out of place. No matter: my dept head has made it an explicitly stated goal on his report that I'm to get my response rate up to 60%, or else. Somehow that's now supposed to be my responsibility. What does he want, pleading? Bringing cookies?

    I don't know if students realize it, but the only role of evaluations is to give admins a weapon they can use against (tenured) faculty who don't "get with the program". The "program" is customer service and graduation rates, goals that unite students and admins. (As opposed to "learning" and "doing the work", the quaint priorities of professors.) That's more of an issue in the US, where going to college costs real money. In places where higher education is a (taxpayer-funded) function of the State, evals play a much smaller role, and the onus is on students to prove they're worth investing public resources on.

    I often wonder if my department heads are uniquely abusive in how they use evaluations, or typical.