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Student Evaluation of Teachers

My former Troy colleague Steven Taylor notes that it’s end-of-semester student evaluation time, where amateurs give their opinions on how well professionals are doing their job and impact the latter’s prospects for promotion.

Citing several recent stories confirming, once again, that how students evaluate their professors correlates very highly with the grades students are receiving in said courses, Steven muses that this is likely to be especially true in required core curriculum courses:

Really, one has to wonder about what is really being measured in those courses: are you capturing the discontent of students who are angry that they had to take American Government because it was a requirement? Are you capturing the disgust that the student has for the subject itself? Are you capturing the fact that the student was often absent, and when he was in class he was hung-over?

All of the above, to some degree. In my evaluations in those courses, I would get contradictory comments on a routine basis. I simultaneously adhered too closely to the course text and largely ignored it, demanded too much student participation and wouldn’t allow students to interact, and so forth. The process was worse than useless in figuring out how to improve the course.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Wouldn’t the ideal be for teachers to evaluate other teachers, based on the ability of their students?

    For example, an English 201 teacher would evaluate her student’s abilities, which would reflect back on how well their English 101 teacher taught them.

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  2. I don’t think there is an ideal, because any way you can think of to evaluate would have some flaw to it. For teachers, it would be pretty easy for them to collude with each other: “I’ll score you high if you score me high.”

    For all its problems, James, I think the student evaluations are important. I’ve never taught at the university level, but I’ve taken a bunch of classes there. And for all their absenteeism and hung-overness, the students in a class tend to generally have a pretty decent idea of whether the teacher is any good or not.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    the students in a class tend to generally have a pretty decent idea of whether the teacher is any good or not.

    That’s probably so in upper level courses aimed at majors. Doubtful in lower level courses, especially when marginal students unlikely to ever graduate are included in the mix.

    What evaluations tend to measure is how entertaining teachers are rather than how effective. Giving good grades helps, to be sure, but providing an enjoyable classroom experience is more important. The latter can correlate with effective teaching or not.

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  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    Any evaluation system is going to have flaws. If you get 10 comments about to rigidly following the book and one that you hardly touched on the book, you can throw up your hands that they are contradictory or you can consider the idea that you are to rigid.

    That said, I think that some simple cross referencing would help. Have the students evaluate the teacher on a scale of 1 to 10, then compare the evaluations for other teachers. If a student’s average evaluation is a 3 and you get a 6, that is more meaningful than a student who averages a 9 giving you a 10. Also reference in grades to see how the evaluations match to grades. Students should also be able to compare a student ranking for other classes that they both had. If a student says professor A is bad and likewise professor B, then if I had A and thought they were OK I can take the professor B ranking with a grain of salt. Finally, allow for anonymous dialog to be held after the evaluations as follow up. This would let the teacher better understand the comments, especially from those who seem to be on to something, but don’t leave enough detail.

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  5. Michael says:

    Have the students evaluate the teacher on a scale of 1 to 10, then compare the evaluations for other teachers. If a student’s average evaluation is a 3 and you get a 6, that is more meaningful than a student who averages a 9 giving you a 10. Also reference in grades to see how the evaluations match to grades. Students should also be able to compare a student ranking for other classes that they both had. If a student says professor A is bad and likewise professor B, then if I had A and thought they were OK I can take the professor B ranking with a grain of salt. Finally, allow for anonymous dialog to be held after the evaluations as follow up. This would let the teacher better understand the comments, especially from those who seem to be on to something, but don’t leave enough detail.

    And sometime in the middle of all this, you can teach your class too.

    I do like the idea of considering a student’s grades though, you can just multiply the rank each student gives their teacher by their GPA, thus the students who do better count for more.

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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    This wasn’t the practice when I was in school. I’m not sure it serves any useful function, particularly in a time of social networking sites. Sounds like a refugee from the 60’s (actually the 70’s) to me.

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  7. yetanotherjohn says:

    Michael,

    Outside of the teacher sending follow up questions, the rest is a simple database correlation. The issue isn’t how hard it would be to do it, but if the university wanted the information to get out.

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  8. Of course, student evaluations have to be taken with a few grains of salt, but it is still the best source of information available regarding how effectively the students believe they were taught. Without direct feedback and criticism how does anyone expect to get better?

    It is difficult not to hear this as a guild complaint about its customers.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    It is difficult not to hear this as a guild complaint about its customers.

    The idea that students are “customers” is about 95 percent of the problem, really. They’re customers of the bookstore and even, to an extent, the university as a whole. They’re not, however, customers of their professors.

    Indeed, to the extent that professors make up a guild, the students are their apprentices. The customer is society.

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  10. Hmm…, I have to think about that. As a parent about to put up $100K+ for my oldest daughter’s education, I certainly think of it as something more than an apprenticeship.

    While I am sensitive to the relationship of the student to the institution rather than the individual instructors, both my daughter, my wife and I all seem to have been marketed the last 18 months as though we were potential customers. Certainly, the invoices wil be showing up the next four years as though we are all customers.

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  11. Michael says:

    While I am sensitive to the relationship of the student to the institution rather than the individual instructors, both my daughter, my wife and I all seem to have been marketed the last 18 months as though we were potential customers. Certainly, the invoices wil be showing up the next four years as though we are all customers.

    But what are you consuming? Certainly you’re not paying $100k for 4 years in front of a teacher, after getting 12 years of that for free from public primary education.

    If the experience is more important than the result, than your education is a fashion statement, not an asset. Walmart shoes (despite Edward’s disapproval) provide the same benefit as Prada shoes. Nobody buys Prada because they value shoes, or because they want a good shoe, they buy Prada because they want a shoe made by Prada, the shoe itself is irrelevant.

    When students evaluate a teacher, they are evaluating based on experience, not based on how much useful knowledge was gained, because by and large students are not capable of measuring that until much later. That is why I suggested teachers evaluate the past teachers of their current students, based on the useful knowledge those students can express, which they should have gained from the previous teacher.

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  12. yetanotherjohn says:

    I don’t think I can buy your “customer is the society”. While some state colleges are certainly subsidized by the state, even there the students are paying tuition. Bottom line is if you are paying to receive something you are the customer. Now there can certainly be more than one interested party as the customer (e.g. state taxpayers, student and parents). And the students are paying the professor directly, but that would be like saying shoddy work by the bookstore clerk could be excused because the customer pays the bookstore and not the clerk.

    And a professor claiming several hundred students in a large lecture setting are apprentices is ridiculous.

    There are plenty of issues with higher education. A recent statistic I read had roughly 2/3 of students who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class and went on to college not getting a degree after 8.5 years. In short they spent a lot of money and didn’t receive the benefit of the diploma. Is that the fault of the university for taking in students who wouldn’t do well, the professor for sub-standard teaching, the high school for sub-standard preparation or the student for not over coming the obstacles no matter what. A case can be made that all share some of the problem. But saying that it isn’t fair for the student to evaluate the professor isn’t the answer.

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  13. Michael says:

    And the students are paying the professor directly, but that would be like saying shoddy work by the bookstore clerk could be excused because the customer pays the bookstore and not the clerk.

    To bring this back to teacher evaluations, it’s like evaluating the quality of a book on the work of the store clerk.

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  14. Amongst the many problems with the notion that students are “customers” is the very American notion that “the customer is always right.” Quite clearly, students are not always right–and if they think that they are, it makes the whole teaching and learning thing a tad complicated.

    Yes, there are things that students (and their parents) are entitled to because they pay tuition, but the notion that when the student is in the chair in the classroom, the notion that they are “customers” is simply flawed. “Apprentice” may not be a perfect term, but it is closer to what the professor-student relationship is than is the service provider-customer model.

    And my favorite story from James’ experience with student evals was when several students complained on his evals that he didn’t get their grades back fast enough in a general studies American Government class–yet the exams where scantrons, and he had them graded and posted to the web in less than an hour after they had taken the course. Experience like that (and it happened, it seemed, every semester) does jade one to the efficacy of the process.

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  15. Steve Plunk says:

    How many of my professors followed up with me after my apprenticeship? None. It’s hardly that kind of relationship even if the professors like to imagine it as such. For every time I went to class hungover I can tell you the name of a cranky sourpuss professor or one that was trying get into a co-eds pants. Don’t flatter them too much, it’s a job like any other and students have a right to critique them.

    Actually it’s not quite like any other job. After getting tenure some of them couldn’t give crap about teaching and can’t get fired for their shortcomings. The system needs reform.

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  16. Michael says:

    Don’t flatter them too much, it’s a job like any other and students have a right to critique them.

    True, but they should be critiqued on what the are supposed to do, which is put knowledge into your head. Teachers are not Customer Service Representatives and the BigBox Education outlet. They’re not there to entertain you, or keep you happy, or even get you to buy more of their wonderful product.

    Sure a teacher’s interactions with their student can make the process more or less enjoyable. But think of them like doctors, bedside manner is a plus, but not what you pay them for, and it shouldn’t be what they get promoted for.

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  17. Steve Plunk says:

    Michael,

    I agree with you. The critiques should be serious and fair. Will the professors be serious about the critiques or will they discount them before they are written?

    There’s plenty of boorish behavior on both sides of the lecture hall. Students may end up with a ‘F’ for such but what happens to the prof? Usually nothing.

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  18. Michael says:

    Just to add to my earlier suggestion, one of the benefits would be that a teacher is not directly evaluating another teacher, so personal bias is harder to inject into the results. If a teacher just evaluates their current students on knowledge they should have received in previous classes, they may not directly know who their teacher was in the previous class.

    You can also weight it by the grade they received in the prior class, so if a student passed with a C, gets an “average” rating from their current teacher, that means that the previous teacher’s ability matched the current teacher’s expectations. If the student received an A in the prior class, but only showed average knowledge of the material, then you would know that the prior teacher was performing below expectations.

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  19. A shoe is not a shoe is not a shoe. Just because some people are paying a premium for the status value of a Prada shoe does not mean that it isn’t a higher quality shoe than you might get at, say, Shoes ‘R’ Us. “You get what you pay for” isn’t always true, but “you don’t get what you don’t pay for” usually is. Quality doesn’t come in Manichean increments of only good and bad in most consumer goods.

    For the record, my daughter is going to study Aerospace Engineering, so yes she, or more correctly, I am paying $100K+ for her to be in front of those professors and to use the facilities available there. Her 12 years, actually 12.5 years if you count kindergarten, of public education have hopefully helped prepare her to begin a rigourous engineering curriculum. Believe it or not, I think she may be well equipped to judge how well a professor has accomplished the goal of teaching her.

    My daughter will be consuming one of a finite number of spots available for incoming freshman. The limited number of these spots induces competition for them which to a (un)certain extent drives the price. Admittedly, though, if the school were not offering some nice, ahem, discounts, it would cost a good deal more than it is.

    As for my daughter (and indirectly her mother and I) not being consumers of this tuition, what am I buying when I attend a lecture by someone “famous”, take a golf lesson, or seek advice from my attorney or accountant? Am I not a consumer then as well when the service I am buying is essentially of the same nature as her education?

    Oh, and I don’t think her degree will be a fashion statement. I’ll ask her tonight about that and see how she reacts. I know she does expect it to lead to graduate study and a career working on space applications, which is what I believe I am really paying for. And yeah, I think it’s worth it.

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  20. FireWolf says:

    As a full time college student myself I have a pretty good relationship will both current and former professors. So much so that they know me by name, and even professors I haven’t had know me.

    That being said, I have for the past 2 years dealt with one of the math teachers who is just a piece of work. I mean the guy shows up for class late, takes class time off to pursuit personal interests (like fishing in canada, or softball tournaments in Vegas) and our class time suffers because we aren’t being taught lessons, and are expected to self teach the lessons to ourselves.

    I say “WTF!”

    I am not paying tuition for a teacher and a required class where I have to teach myself. My only recourse besides talking to the Dean of Students and the Dean of Gen Ed is to fill out those student surveys and truly make my voice heard. If teachers can’t handle the criticism (Even when it wasn’t warranted and the students are clearly retaliating) then get out of the kitchen!

    These student surveys help when it comes to informing whoever is reading these things that “Maybe we have a problem here”.

    Coincidentally, my math teacher cancelled a class 2 weeks ago because (as he told us) he was being interviewed at another college for a math job and was eventually given that job so won’t be here next year.

    Hooray for my college, but I am set to move on to my 4 yr.

    That was 2 crappy years that students were given a shoddy math education and that should never happen.

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  21. vnjagvet says:

    The notion that students are not consumers of the faculty’s educational services in the typical university setting seems to me lacking in logic.

    What, exactly is a student paying for if not the aggregate credit hours taught by a qualified faculty which results in a degree upon satisfactory performance? Part of that product is a certain basic level of instruction from the school’s faculty.

    When an associate (employed) attorney at a law firm renders advice to one of the firm’s clients, the client is both the “customer” of the firm and of the associate attorney. If the attorney screws up, the client can go after both the attorney and the firm which employs him/her.

    Similarly, a patient in a hospital expects a certain level of performance from the physicians which are authorized by the hospital to practice there. The patient has the same expectations for the hospital’s employed staff. I suspect most people consider the hospital’s patients to be analogous to the hospital’s customers.

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  22. Michael says:

    I am paying $100K+ for her to be in front of those professors and to use the facilities available there.

    Yeah, but I’m guessing that if she sat in front of those teachers for 4-6 years, used the facilities available, and then left with absolutely no knowledge of aerospace engineering, you’d be kind of unhappy, no matter how personable her teachers were. In the end, you’re paying $100k for her to learn how to be an aerospace engineer, not for her to hang out with nice teachers.

    what am I buying when I attend a lecture by someone “famous”, take a golf lesson, or seek advice from my attorney or accountant?

    You are either paying for the information, or for the experience. In the end, though, a bad experience may detract from it, but a lack of information undermines the whole point. It’s better to have an accountant with good information and a bad personality, than vice versa.

    Oh, and I don’t think her degree will be a fashion statement. I’ll ask her tonight about that and see how she reacts.

    Aerospace engineering certainly isn’t a fashion statement, I certainly wasn’t trying to say that it was. In fact, I was pointing out that the a college education should be the opposite of a fashion statement. For what it’s worth, I hope she gets a good education _and_ enjoys it, but Calc 2 is a bitch, just a warning.

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  23. Michael says:

    What, exactly is a student paying for if not the aggregate credit hours taught by a qualified faculty which results in a degree upon satisfactory performance?

    You’re paying to acquire the knowledge. The teachers are there to convey the product to you, and the degree is a certification that you attained it, but the thing of value that you are gaining from the transaction is the knowledge.

    When an associate (employed) attorney at a law firm renders advice to one of the firm’s clients, the client is both the “customer” of the firm and of the associate attorney.

    Yes, but they are not paying to consume the attorney, the firm, or even their time, but rather the information that they possess. In fact, the consumer would probably rather occupy as little of their time as possible to get the desired amount of information.

    Similarly, a patient in a hospital expects a certain level of performance from the physicians which are authorized by the hospital to practice there.

    Same here, the consumer is not there for the doctors, they are there for the treatment. A good doctor is someone who provides good treatment, not someone who provides a good experience.

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  24. Calculus wasn’t too bad, IMHO, but I got a degree in mathematics and computer science, and enjoyed graduate foundation of mathematics courses, so maybe I’m not really a good judge of how hard Calc 2 is.

    Trust me, if she’s not learning, she won’t be there for 4 years. In fact, she’ll have to do well to stay there past the first year. And let’s try to keep it at 4 rather than 5 or 6 if we can.

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  25. vnjagvet says:

    I think your “fisks” make my point Michael. That students are as much customers of their teachers as clients are of employed attorneys and patients are of doctors.

    Knowledge, advice and treatment are the respective products. The products are dispensed by teachers, lawyers and doctors.

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  26. Michael says:

    Calculus wasn’t too bad

    Calc 1 didn’t give me any problems, I took it as an AP course in high school. Calc 2 I just couldn’t grasp, because like James I learn better when the math has a physical manifestation, and either what they were teaching in Calc 2 didn’t have that, or nobody could show me what it was. In the end I was memorizing equations, and memorizing which ones should be used when, without ever understanding why.

    And let’s try to keep it at 4 rather than 5 or 6 if we can.

    With everybody and their dog having a 4 year degree now, I’d recommend she get a masters if she can, it will make her more competitive in the job market, especially for aerospace engineering. Taking some elective business courses couldn’t hurt either.

    But then again, I’ve only got a 2 year degree from my local CC, so what do I know.

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  27. how to buy a house with bad credit…

    In the last week, I have been focusing on settling a number of matters before I go east for a few days for the Horatio Alger ceremony. I’ ve been working on my speech, which will contain lessons learned during my lifetime and which are important for …

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