I was asked to think about what I believe should change in higher education. While I don’t have a complete vision of what it should be, I was thinking about one aspect of university life that is a tricky subject: student assessments of professors. I have filled out MANY surveys at the end of each semester basically rating how well my professors taught the material, made themselves available for questions, graded the assignments, and created a classroom environment that supported learning. I have also been the one who was rated in some of these surveys when I was a TA. Though I generally received good ratings, I couldn’t help but wonder if the ratings were truly a reflection of how well I taught that course. I also wondered in what specific ways I could improve. I knew that I could do better, but these surveys were not necessarily helpful to me in figuring out what I needed to do.
Miller in 1988 said that student evaluations can be reliable indications of teaching effectiveness, but can be affected by “class size, course level and whether the course is compulsory or optional.” A more recent study says that studies using larger sample sizes show “no or only minimal correlation between [student evaluations of teaching, or SET] ratings and learning.”
Personal conversations with professors across a handful of universities have shown me a different perspective. In some cases, professors have “taught to the student evaluations” so that they would get good reviews, but then they ended up sacrificing quality in their classrooms so that the students thought they had learned a great deal, when in reality they were not at all prepared for the next-level classes. Some universities take student evaluations very seriously, so if you happen to have a class full of people who hate the class material (just had to take it to graduate) and were not pleased by your attempts to be enthusiastic about the material, you could have your tenure on the line. Which sounds really fair, right?
I don’t know the solution to the evaluation dilemma, but I would hope that over time we can find better ways to get feedback from students than just a 0-5 scale or a box for “Comments”. This would lead to better teaching, better assessments for faculty promotion and tenure, and a better relationship between faculty and students.
For further reading, an interesting (and comical) piece on student evaluations: read this.