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7 Years Later Excerpt #4: Student Evaluations

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Given that many of us have just had our semesters conclude, I thought it would be appropriate to share a snippet that focuses on how graduate students should assess the end-of-semester evaluations that they receive from their students. If you have additional or different advice on how to interpret or react to these evaluations, feel free to mention it in the comments.

At the end of each semester, students will have an opportunity to evaluate their courses. In doing so, they will score you (usually on a 5-point scale) and the course on a wide range of metrics. There is some variance across institutions, but they are typically asked to rate things like how much they learned in the course, how much the instructor helped the students learn, how well the instructor knew the material, how organized the course was, and their perceptions of the course as a whole. If you’re a teaching assistant, the questions will be a little more specific to your interactions with students in discussion sections.

As you will learn after your first semester of teaching, reading these evaluations can be disheartening. Even if the numerical scores are reasonably good, there will almost always be some written comments that are not very complimentary. Sometimes, they will insult your character. Other times, they will disparage your course or your teaching style or make weird insinuations about your personal beliefs. What’s the appropriate reaction to student evaluations?

The first important piece of advice is not to overreact. Student evaluations are notoriously unreliable indicators of the quality of instruction. Here are a few of their documented shortcomings:

The empirical literature on student evaluations generally shows that they do not correlate with student learning or teaching effectiveness.
Course evaluations tend to correlate with students’ expected grades. Other things equal, an easier course – where a higher number of A grades are given – will result in more favorable evaluations than a more difficult course. As a result, some have argued that student evaluations contribute to grade inflation and encourage less rigorous teaching.
Typically, all students enrolled in your course will be allowed to complete course evaluations, even if they do not regularly attend class. Thus, some students who complete evaluations may have a deeply inaccurate sense of what a typical class session is like.
Student evaluations can be affected significantly by arbitrary factors, such as whether or not students have access to cookies when completing their evaluations.
Student evaluations tend to be biased against female instructors. Overall, men are perceived as more knowledgeable and as having better leadership skills even though students appear to learn just as much from women as men. These biases may be more pronounced in large courses.
Even assuming these evaluations are unbiased and reliable measures of student learning, they are still too imprecise to be an accurate way of assessing the quality of instructors’ teaching relative to their peers.

There are also other problems associated with interpreting student feedback even if we bracket these considerations. One common problem, especially in larger courses, is that written feedback on these assessments tends to be internally inconsistent. Sometimes you may see one comment that praises your passion for teaching while another laments that you are not enthusiastic about teaching. One student will regard your lectures as boring while another praises them as extremely interesting. The most recent example of this in my own teaching occurred when I received comments that said one of my courses contained too many readings and contained too much material while simultaneously receiving comments that said the course did not cover enough content. When you have directly contradictory feedback, it is often difficult to know which perspective is more accurate.

Another problem is that students sometimes base their assessments of your teaching on claims that are just plain false. Students will claim you do nothing but lecture even if you devote significant class time to discussion and other in-class activities. They may accuse you of grading short answer responses based solely on whether you agree with their opinion. In some cases, they will make remarks that demonstrate that they do not understand course policies. Written feedback based on demonstrably false claims should be disregarded.

As a teaching assistant, you will also sometimes be held accountable for things beyond your control. Students might comment on your evaluations that they did not like the exam formats or textbook choice, but as a teaching assistant, the primary instructor makes decisions about course content and assessment. You will usually have extremely limited – if any – influence on these choices. Students may also make direct comparisons between you and the instructor: a charismatic and experienced professor may indirectly cause you to be scored lower than you would be otherwise since you will look worse by comparison.

Overall, you should approach end-of-semester evaluations with a healthy skepticism. However, these evaluations do often play a role in tenure, promotion, and the distribution of teaching awards. They will also be an important component of your teaching portfolio if you elect to apply for academic jobs. Thus, they should not be ignored. As a general rule, you should strive to maintain about a 4/5 (or equivalent) on your numerical evaluation scores once you get a few years into graduate school. Evaluations with these scores will generally keep you competitive with other applicants: higher scores are obviously better, but most faculty are aware of the problems with student evaluations. Hiring decisions are unlikely to be made solely based on marginal differences in the numerical scores on student evaluations.

Use your initial teaching experiences as opportunities to define your teaching style and improve your weaknesses. Look for patterns in your student evaluations, and if you notice that you are persistently scoring low on a metric, then take some steps to address that in future courses. Most importantly, seek feedback from faculty in your department – especially those who observe your teaching directly – about ways in which you can improve. As you get better at teaching competently, your evaluations should improve (unless they were very high to begin with). Finally, remember that it will often be impossible to please everyone: some students, despite your best efforts, will not like you or your class. So do not lose sleep over occasional negative feedback. It’s a persistent feature of almost all evaluations, even those that are excellent overall.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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