Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grading the Teacher: The Surprising Truth about Student Evaluations

Throughout my career I've had a love/hate relationship with end of the year student evaluations.

On the one hand, I value the input of diligent, hard-working students. The opinion of academically focused students matters to me.

On the other hand, I really couldn't care less what the chronically absent student thinks about me, the classes I teach, or the curriculum. Nor am I much interested in the opinions of students who suffer from hyper-rationalizing and bad behavior.

Still, I have often asked students to provide some kind of feedback about certain aspects of my teaching and their performance both during and at the end of a course.

So when Accomplished Teacher, a publication of Smart Brief, dropped a report questioning the value of student evaluations of teachers  in my email in-box, my curiosity piqued.

The study found that students mistake teacher fluency and public speaking ability with preparedness and effectiveness in teaching academic concepts. The finding doesn't surprise me. I've seen my Communication 1101 (a dual enrollment class) students mistake oratorical skill with speech content, even though I emphasize content over polish.

Although the original study, which was conducted by University of Iowa professors, focused on college students' perceptions, it should also encourage administrators and teachers to question both the validity and value of secondary students' assessment of teacher effectiveness.

Indeed, I've often wandered what "expertise," other than having attended school, students have that warrants their assessing teacher effectiveness via a survey. I'd go so far as to argue having students in both high school and college complete these evaluations is one way educators have devalued their role as the expert in the room. If students can adequately assess teaching, what's the point of pedagogical study both at the undergrad and graduate level? That hypothesis might be a stretch, but it's something we should consider.

Nate Kornell PhD describes an Air Force Academy detailed study of teaching effectiveness in a recent issue of Psychology Today that found for deep learning, experience and expertise trump inexperience and lower qualifications, despite student evaluations to the contrary:

Because they didn't teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking the worst in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance.  

Simply, the least qualified and experienced teachers are more likely to focus on test prep while those with more experience and expertise avoid teaching to the test, the long-term consequence of which is deeper learning.

These findings make me do a happy dance because I've long contended that experience and subject expertise matter, and they matter much more than many in education (teachers, administrators, ed-reformers, et al.) care to acknowledge.

In my role as an adjunct faculty member in Idaho State University's Early College Program, I am required to have students enrolled in the course complete an end-of-course evaluation. I think about this upcoming role reversal constantly, although not  to the point of obsessing.

Typically, students in the course are quite focused on academics, and I work hard to be fair and available to them. Happily, this shows in the evaluations, and these evaluations have made my principal happy and the counseling office exceptionally supportive of the class. Still, I worry I'll encounter a group with whom I don't click.

As Professor Kornell states:

My livelihood depends on what my students say about me in course evaluations. Good ratings increase my chances for raises and tenure.

Frankly, it's insulting to academics in our universities that their jobs are dependent on the whims of adolescents, and that's what many college students are. Similarly, those who teach high school deserve more respect than to have either jobs or teaching assignments contingent of the teen popularity contest.  Yet this is exactly what many propose and what some teachers already experience.

It's enough to make one feel a bit like that trapped spider hanging over the fiery pit of eternal damnation Jonathan Edwards speaks about in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Teachers deserve a judge, jury, and executioner of our peers.


  1. Glenda -- Like you, I care about what students think of the classes we build together, although I've never found or created an evaluation instrument that I valued very much. I used to use one that evaluated the classroom atmosphere, and it was pretty good.

    Have you seen It's an interesting site that teachers should know about but probably not take overly seriously. Still, if students take the time to write something online on their own time, it might be worth at least as much consideration as a survey given on class time.


    1. I know about Rate My but have purposely not looked at the site. Knowing myself, I'd probably be incapacitated by even one negative comment. I try to be reflective and honest w/ myself and do find the university evals insightful.