Student evaluations and their role in higher education

This past week, students in my COMM 2004- Public Speaking course completed a midterm evaluation of the course. Although they were first wary of the phrase “midterm,” they soon discovered that this assignment was similar to the SPOT evaluations they are asked to complete when the course has nearly concluded.

I told the students, in the spirit of J. Mayer, to say what they need to say but also understand that the Scholar “test” would allow me to see who makes what comments. Unlike the anonymous final evaluations, these are often not rude or blunt (like one comment I received last summer that simply stated: “this class sucks”), but contain alot of praise for my teaching and helpful suggestions for the course design. While these provide an ego boost and some info that helps when tweaking the course layout, the idea of course evaluations gives students some power over faculty members, instructors, and graduate teaching assistants like me.

The almighty tenure process among other evaluations of teaching effectiveness make use of these student evaluations I understand. In this way, consistent negative student evaluations may harm the future of teachers and professors. While this may at first appear a good check to make sure that students are satisfied with the instruction that they pay high tuition rates for, this business metaphor will eventually harm universities. For example, I have experienced two types of negative comments: those that criticize an instructor’s effectiveness and those that criticize the difficulty and standards of the course. If we are to think of an institution as selling degrees to these customers, the importance of this second type will be magnified. Why would students attend Virginia Tech for an engineering degree when they could receive one from another accredited school for less money?

The thesis of this blog is this- student evaluations should always be taken with a grain of salt. There will always be students who like the course and those who don’t like the course. For some I would even imagine they are responding with a similar negative attitude to many of their courses, especially those required by their degree like public speaking.


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