Prof Evaluations PART 1 – The Good

Even if it isn’t all that effective, evaluating your professors has advantages

My last writing here, which was theoretically about TVO’s Best Lecturer competition, ended up generating a lot of discussion about student evaluations simply because I mentioned them in passing. So I guess there’s some appetite for this topic. I’ll oblige with a three-part series on the topic, covering the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Because, after all, the world has arranged things that come in threes according to these categories ever since 1966 (see the link if you’re confused).

Briefly, my qualifications on this subject are as follows. I published three editions of the Anti-Calendar on my campus. This involves reading a lot of evaluations, and the raw comments that come with them. I’ve been involved with academic governance for quite some time, and professors just love to talk about this stuff. And I regularly read Rate Your Students, which is just an awesome site for anyone who particularly cares to delve into the (frequently unattractive) private lives and feelings of professors.

So here are all the really good aspects of student evaluations, that I can think of immediately:

  • They do provide valuable feedback. There are many kinds of student evaluation that even the most curmudgeony professor cannot dismiss as illegitimate. Important stuff like “we can’t hear you in the back” or “class discussion frequently goes way off topic” or “many readings in the course pack were never used and are irrelevant to the course as taught.” Comments like these are very important, and if there isn’t a mechanism to offer them they might never come forward.
  • They refocus priorities on teaching over research. At many institutions, unfortunately, there is a great incentive for professors to concentrate on their research work to the detriment of classroom instruction. Student evaluations can’t address this problem on their own, but they do help. By their very nature, these evaluations focus on the classroom experience. If a professor can really bring current research into that experience (a feat many claim, but few can prove) then so be it. Otherwise, evaluations focus on what students really get from their time at university, instead of what professors achieve in their own professional endeavors.
  • Evaluations (at least at U of T, where I’m most familiar) affect professors’ pay raises. Yep, I’m really not kidding. There’s considerable debate over whether or not they really influence any professor’s career progression, but they do at least affect pay. The formula is a bit complex, but suffice it to say that professors face annual evaluation just like anyone else, and student evaluations play a surprisingly strong role in determining who gets a larger raise and who doesn’t.
  • More objective data from evaluations (in the form of numerical responses, rather than comments) is very valuable over large sample groups. The comments are sexier, and inevitably most students and many professors focus solely on the comments, but the numerical data collected actually contains far stronger information, that can be used to compare trends within departments, across departments, and similar.
  • Much of the information collected in evaluations isn’t intended to review the professor. Though people tend to approach it as if this were the case, some of the questions and many of the responses have more to do with the course itself than the person teaching it. This is valuable information too, and needn’t be taken as a personal critique of the individual professor.
  • Well-conducted evaluations put ammunition in the hands of the folks within institutions whose job it is to promote excellence in instruction. As a student, you may never deal with these people, but I guarantee your university has certain folks employed partly or exclusively to enhance teaching. They are very concerned with the results of evaluations (they probably conduct them, actually) and even though your professor may dismiss what you write, and even the Department Chair might not care, I guarantee the folks who want to improve classroom teaching will pay attention.
  • Sometimes, evaluations may be made available (in the form of an Anti-Calendar, or similar) for future students to consult. This is far down on my list because it’s really a small part of what evaluations do and are intended for. I know it seems like a big deal, and it certainly is if you find your Anti-Calendar useful or wish you had one, but evaluations are valuable regardless and I hope students take them as such. Which brings me to my final point.
  • Evaluations remind students that they are a part of the university community, and their opinions do matter. That is a good unto itself, if it encourages students to be active and contribute to the community. Unfortunately, many students don’t believe in the value and usefulness of evaluations (that is, they think they are ignored) and hence this benefit is lost.

Student evaluations do matter, and the more seriously students take them the more impact they can have. Of course this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, and this is a topic I’ll return to next entry. But I very strongly encourage all students to put thought into the evaluations they fill out and to be responsible with their feedback. There’s no excuse to throw away a meaningful opportunity to make your voice heard, just because you suspect (and most likely you’re right) that it won’t have as much impact as you’d like. The accumulated feedback of many students saying the same thing does have impact. But if too many students throw away the opportunity to be part of that, it can’t happen.