Do student evaluations make it harder to teach?

Classroom with Three Figures by Lavern Kelley, painted white pine, plywood, brass, and plastic, 1979, 1984–87. Photo by Cliff,

Being back in the classroom – as the professor – has reminded me of one of the aspects of teaching I have always disliked, feared, worried over the most: “How will I score on my students’ course evaluations?!?” It is an unfortunate preoccupation to have when I am just trying to make sure that my class has the right balance of interesting content and challenging, educational assignments and expectations, but it comes back to haunt me from time to time. So when I came across this article by Anya Kamenetz on NPR Ed entitled “Student Evaluations Get an ‘F,’” I realized that I am not alone.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the article which I find quite fitting, for reasons I’ll explain below:

“At Denny’s, diners are asked to fill out comment cards. How was your meal? Were you satisfied with the quality of service? Were the restrooms clean?

In universities around the world, semesters end with students filling out similar surveys about their experience in the class and the quality of the teacher.

Student ratings are high-stakes. They come up when faculty are being considered for tenure or promotions. In fact, they’re often the only method a university uses to monitor the quality of teaching.

Recently, a number of faculty members have been publishing research showing that the comment-card approach may not be the best way to measure the central function of higher education.”

Yes, at least in my experience, student evaluations are more like a comment card at Denny’s than a true, constructive or informative evaluation of my effectiveness as a teacher. It often feels more like a referendum on me as a person than an accurate reflection of what I managed to teach my students in a given semester. Customers at Denny’s are more likely to comment if their server was amazing or if their server was terrible, leaving a lot of grey area in between. Student evaluations, if I dare say so, make me feel more like a server catering to picky customers than a teacher guiding and challenging my students, and holding them to certain standards, even if it causes them to grumble a little here and there. I find myself wondering if insisting on close reading and requiring re-writes will hurt my scores even if it benefits my students in the end.

While I am glad that this issue is being written about and researched, I am disappointed to see that evaluation practices are changing so slowly. Over ten years ago, when I took my first language acquisition pedagogy class, our professor talked about how inaccurately students evaluate their own learning. He knew then that student evaluations were very limited in their capacity to tell us how well we were doing at getting students to learn and engage with the course material. So why are we still using them? I get the most valuable information from anonymous surveys that I compose myself and ask students to complete. These surveys are adapted to my particular class and my specific questions about how this or that aspect of the class is going. In an ideal world, I would have more outside observation and feedback to help me in my teaching, but university faculty are often so overburdened, it can be difficult to schedule time for such things.

Course evaluations ask students questions like: “How clearly did the instructor communicate the objectives and requirements of the course?” This information is almost always laid out in crystal clear terms with maximum usage of italics, underlining, and bold type to draw attention to the important points so that students will feel secure in their understanding of what is expected of them. The syllabus is a veritable wellspring of interesting and useful information, but all too often, it is forgotten, neglected, ignored by those it is intended to help.Among my college professor friends on Facebook, (a highly scientific sample, I know,) there are frequent lamentation about students’ unwillingness to read the syllabus, which results in time wasting emails about class procedures and assignment due dates, and perhaps even students’ perception that course objectives were not clearly communicated. So, there is this constant tension between a.) being required to repeat yourself almost infinitely on a range of topics you painstakingly spelled out in that all important document, and b.) forcing yourself to find creative, non-threatening ways of reminding students to READ THE SYLLABUS!!! No matter the method you choose, you could still be penalized.

Another question, taken directly from a stack of evals I have kept over the years: “How clearly did the instructor explain specific concepts during class sessions?” This seems like a reasonable question. Clarity is important. In the land of language teaching, however, this question is problematic. Current language acquisition pedagogy encourages, and indeed the departments I have worked in have required, that French classes be taught entirely in French and from day one. This means that we don’t “explain” anything – at least not in English. Instead of explaining grammatical concepts, for example, we are meant to show them in action with multiple practical examples, increasing in complexity as we go along. At all levels, on the first day of class, we explain that this approach may cause some discomfort and disorientation at first, but that it is shown to be more effective in the long term and will benefit them in the end. The problem, once again, is that students don’t necessarily recognize the value of this deviation from the way they are accustomed to learning. In advanced classes, explanations are given in the target language when they cannot be avoided, but students may still feel that concepts are not being explained to them clearly. The survey does not ask how often the student went to office hours to resolve questions not answered in class or how much effort they put into the homework…

Now that I’ve pointed out a few of my gripes about evaluations, I will confess, there were times in grad school when I knew I was the captain of a sinking ship. The class I taught during my dissertation completion fellowship year was an experimental one and it didn’t go as well as I would have liked. It was a class that I designed and just didn’t have the time or resources to perfect on the fly. That would probably require multiple tries, but alas! effort, aspirations and promise for the future aren’t reflected in evaluations.

All that said, let’s end on a positive note! The class I am teaching this semester is going really well – as far as I can tell. I am less stressed, or at least differently stressed than I was as a student and I can really focus on my teaching. It is midterm time and I am planning a mid-semester survey to see if anything needs to be tweaked. I am hoping to have my director observe a class and give me some feedback. I also have more authority now that I’m Dr. Gallois instead of Gina or Madame Gallois. I feel like I am more relaxed and able to form a more personal relationship with my students rather than rigidly trying to maintain some kind of “I’m the professor” act that no one was buying. I’m enjoying my students a lot more as a prof than I did as a grad student.

What a difference three little letters can make! To be continued…

How do you feel about student course evaluations and does it negatively (or positively) affect the way you teach?



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