Monday, November 10, 2014

My Teacher is (Check one) __ Poor / __ Good / __ Excellent

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Although it’s been years since I’ve had to steel myself to read student evaluations (teenagers evaluate on a daily basis with grateful smiles or withering stares) a recent report on NPR, Student Course Evaluations Get An ‘F’, has had my email in-box bursting with reactions from university professor friends. According to a couple of studies, those student evaluations that many higher education establishments rely on for rating their teachers aren’t as dependable as university administrators would like to believe.

Well, We Already Knew THAT, but Why?

Okay, we all know that you can’t make all of the students happy all of the time. But, what are the real failings of student evaluations? Philip Stark at the University of California, Berkeley discusses three  main reasons why they aren’t to be trusted:

(1) low response rates (Less than half registered students usually complete the evaluation.),

(2) difficulty averaging the results (Is a mix of high and low scores really the same as a lot of average scores?), and

(3) the lack of differentiation between evaluations for different kinds of classes at a large institution (Should a TOEFL Prep class be asked the exact same questions as a Beginning Conversation class?).

I would also add to this list the issue of the arbitrariness of assigning numbers to something that is so difficult to quantify. What might be a 5 to one student is a 4 to another. Also, in my previous school, I noticed a trend of beginning level students often rating their instructors much more highly than higher level students. Finally, there is the inevitable student who happily fills in all 1s, meaning to say his/her teacher is outstanding, not understanding that 1 is “poor” and 5 is “outstanding”. That mistake can skew a teacher’s results considerably, and the potential for it happening in an environment where students don’t always understand the instructions they are given (Seriously, who writes these things?) is high.

The Up Sides of Evaluations

Of course, the real problem isn’t that schools administer the evaluations. After all, students should have a medium by which they can voice their praise and concerns about teaching. For instance, when I was doing my undergrad degree in the days before student evaluations were common practice, I had an excellent professor. He was interesting, motivating and volunteered a lot of his personal time to take us on field trips. Unfortunately, the college fired him because he hadn’t published as much as he should have. I just wished that student feedback could have been taken into account.

Moreover, none of us are perfect teachers, and we can all learn from student feedback. I remember a particularly detailed and scathing evaluation I received after a TOEFL Prep class. A student (rather unkindly) commented that I didn’t have the grammar background to teach that class and I hadn’t always followed up when I didn’t know the answer to grammar questions that students had. She was absolutely right on the money. The next time I taught that class, I made a huge effort to look up the answer to every single potential grammar question (probably what I should have been doing all along) and when I was blindsided by a question I didn’t know the answer to, I made a point of responding in the next lesson. In short, that evaluation, even though I found it painful to read, made me a better teacher.

On the Other Hand …

Evaluations aren’t inherently bad. The real problem is that educational administrators use only the evaluation results (and often just the numbers) to decide which teachers to promote, which to keep and which to fire. Obviously, or at least it usually is to teachers, evaluations should only be a part of the picture. Many of the responses that filled up my email in-box argue for a more holistic approach to appraising staff. Conversations with students (often asking if they would recommend the teacher to a friend prompts some interesting responses), retention rates, and lesson observations are also a necessary part of the picture. Another study conducted by Michele Pellizzari from the University of Geneva in Switzerland also recommended using the success rates of students after they left an instructor’s class as a measure of teaching success.

In my opinion, evaluations are an important tool for my own professional development, but I prefer to give students the opportunity to anonymously feedback mid-way through the semester. I like to create my own questions that are specific to the course I am teaching and I ask open ended questions rather than ask students to assign my teaching a number. More often than not, allowing students the opportunity to evaluate my teaching gives me affirmation that I am on the right track, but occasionally it gives me food for thought, too. I try to keep their comments in perspective and either adapt to their (often surprisingly astute) suggestions or explain why I am choosing not to do so in a subsequent lesson. Of course, the benefit to giving students the opportunity to voice their opinions before the end of the semester is that I actually have a chance to do something about their concerns before it is too late.

So, how do you feel about evaluations? Does your gut clench at the mere thought of having to leaf through stacks of students riffing on your teaching? Does your institute lean heavily on these evaluations as an assessment of teaching? Do you use alternative forms of assessments?


Comment from David
November 12, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Hi Tamara,
Thanks for the very timely article! We were just talking about this at my university in Japan the other day. Another problem with these horrible evaluations is that over time, teachers become less and less strict about grading because they are terrified of being given bad scores. When we were evaluating the grades given out last year, we found that one teacher had given 25 out of 25 students an “S” (one higher than “A”) grade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also had very high scores on his student evaluations. Another thing is that there has been no attempt by anyone to find out how students interpret the questions, or even whether they interpret them in the same way. In most cases, I think they could be replaced by a simple one-item questionnaire: Do you like this teacher? Please circle a number. 1 2 3 4 5

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 13, 2014 at 7:15 am

Thanks for your comments. I agree, when evaluations turn into a popularity assessment, teachers and students lose!

Comment from suba suba
June 11, 2020 at 4:17 am

Really enjoyed this article.Much thanks again. Really Great.

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