Prof Evaluations PART 2 – The Bad

Students aren’t always, ahem, qualified to judge their professors

This is the second installment in my three-part reflection on student evaluations. It will probably generate more discussion, because after all, most students do believe in evaluations for a variety of reasons, and I’m about to go into all the reasons why reasonable people might disagree with using them. But please, before you assume I’m unsympathetic to the arguments in favor of student evaluations, read the first installment, “The Good.”

So, the bad:

  • Students are sometimes not positioned to reasonably evaluate what they are offered in the classroom, even when they make best efforts to be constructive about it. The truth is, some of what we are offered as students only makes sense years later. Therefore, some criticism about course content, and dissatisfaction with particular foundational courses, just gets repeated year after year after year, and annoys and discourages instructors who can’t really do anything about it. Believe me, it isn’t news to anyone that the large majority of students hate statistics and don’t understand, from a first year perspective, why they have to take it. But that doesn’t make it wrong to teach statistics.
  • As an extension of the first point, some instructors get stuck teaching the courses that students simply don’t like. They have to “take one for the team” as it were. But precisely because student evaluations do affect pay increases, and may have other impacts on performance review, it’s desperately unfair to these instructors that fundamental dissatisfaction with the course content reflects on them.
  • Despite some attempts to be clearer about the distinction, many forms of evaluation blur the line badly between review of the course and review of the instructor. Some of this may be the result of poor design, but the students who participate in evaluations contribute heavily to the problem. Students are notoriously bad about making this distinction. And it can be hard to do, sometimes. Just like it’s hard to distinguish between a rule you really dislike, and the front-line person who has to enforce that rule. It really isn’t that person’s fault, after all, but it sure does feel like it sometimes.
  • Many professors appreciate the importance of evaluations in their careers. Some like them and some don’t, but either way almost all instructors acknowledge their importance. Strangely, instructors are more likely to be aware of how important they are than the students who fill them out. This leads, unfortunately, to all kinds of behaviour aimed at gaming the system. Instructors who care about their results may attempt to manipulate them in any number of ways, and they frequently succeed. Hand back a set of quizzes with unusually high marks that same morning. Pass out timbits as a little “thank you” at the same time. It’s incredible, how very easy it is to game the system. Here’s one study where students were found to give better evaluations after receiving free chocolate, even when they were told the chocolate was left over from something else that happened before in the same room, and had nothing to do with the instructor or the class. As evaluators go, it turns out we’re very easy to manipulate.
  • Objective data collected in evaluations (numerical scores), which is pretty strong data, is frequently ignored in favor of highly subjective feedback in the form of comments. Students are guilty of focusing too much on comments when they are published (in the form of an Anti-Calendar or similar) but instructors and Department Chairs frequently make this mistake also. Comments are good at capturing certain issues that can’t be represented otherwise (such as persistent problems with AV equipment, for example) but most aspects of a course can be represented by scoring. This is far better data, where it’s available.
  • Speaking of Anti-Calendars, they are a great resource where they occur, but should not be seen as the real purpose of evaluations. Unfortunately, students do often get the idea that student evaluations are intended to be their opportunity to publicly review their instructors, and therefore get really upset over the fact that instructors have to agree to have their evaluations published. Really, evaluations are simply one aspect of performance review, which is a function of Human Resources. It’s great when they are available to students, but this is hardly the one good reason to conduct them. And even I can’t fault a professor (particularly one stuck teaching statistics) for choosing not to air an aspect of their performance review for all the world to see. Really, what job demands that? HR is considered confidential, by default. As it should be.
  • Because evaluations are the most easily accessed form of feedback, frustrated students (and there is no lack of frustrated students at university!) frequently use it as their one means of expressing their frustration. This results in many highly unconstructive comments that don’t fairly reflect anything about the course or the instructor. Of course, evaluations aren’t really the only way to offer these concerns, but not surprisingly the students who are most unhappy aren’t going out of their way to find other ways to air their concerns. Therefore, when they are handed an evaluation in class, the issues come out there.
  • Far too many students (and even a few are too many) approach student evaluations as some opportunity to “get back at” professors. I’ll omit any deep ponderings about why students so often resent their professors and just say that it happens. It only takes a few very ignorant comments to make the entire process seem like a joke. This becomes the excuse to ignore everything else that’s said.
  • And finally, the biggest problem with student evaluations, to my mind: they contribute to a consumer dynamic within education, where students are encouraged to perceive themselves as customers and professors as service providers. This simply isn’t right. While student feedback is important, and represents a very significant perspective on the classroom experience, it should never be thought of as a “customer review” of the “service provider.” Students should certainly demand quality education for their investment, but unfortunately too many students take the “I’m the customer, I should get what I want” attitude to mean their professors should keep them happy. And sadly, what keeps students happy most days is not quality education. Therefore, in the classroom, the customer is simply not always right.

Tune in for the final installment, where we’ll get into “The Ugly.”