Flipping the Course Evaluation

Student course evaluations have taken a well-deserved beating recently, most notably thanks to studies showing their endemic gender bias, but also for their broader unreliability as measures of teaching and learning. These findings add significant empirical weight to an older set of somewhat more anecdotal, philosophical or speculative criticisms: Were the teachers who taught you best the ones you liked most at the time? Can or should learning always be comfortable? And if it isn’t, what sort of evaluations can one expect while the class is still going on? How much of what is being evaluated is in the instructor’s hands to begin with? Not always, not always, not great, and sometimes not much.

Full disclosure: I still, always, eagerly-anxiously anticipate my own course evaluations. Like most people I know, I enjoy praise and dislike censure, especially when either feels personal — and judgments of one’s teaching always feel personal. Don’t get me wrong, I also glean what strike me as valid, constructive criticisms or usable suggestions from the written comments that accompany the scores for suitability of workload and effective use of class time. (Though for this sort of thing, I find other methods of in-class assessment more focused and informative than forms dominated by numerical ratings.) Mostly, however, I want to know what people think of what I’ve been doing so that I can either bask in ersatz confidence or let feelings of deep inadequacy eat at me for a week or two. No rational awareness of the evaluations’ shortcomings seems likely to destroy the psychic pull they have.

But my fragile scholarly ego is one thing. (Hey, sue me!) Formal procedures of contract renewal, tenure, and promotion are another — more responsive, one would hope, to the dictates of reason and the findings of, ahem, academic studies. Yet many schools continue to use traditional student evaluations as the chief if not the only measure of teaching ability, often without any discussion of or adjustment for their specific, documented deficiencies. To be sure, evaluations do come in for a lot of offhand criticism. Some institutions even compensate for the “subjectivity” of students’ written comments by using only the quantitative scores — as if numbers were somehow less subjective than words assigned by the same people, at the same time, and in the same way. Another strategy is to look not at the scores but at averages or trends based on them: sure, the data is still terrible, but the portions are generous. But the prevailing tendency seems to be to take praise as genuine and criticism as dubious — or the reverse, if that better suits the politics in the room. After all, if evaluations are biased, their biases might as well confirm our own. At least they don’t take much work.

If we can’t or won’t get rid of them, though, perhaps we could modify our course evaluations to bring some of these lurking problems into the foreground. Here’s a prototype that might yield illuminating results, with a bonus section for the use of Tenure and Promotion Committees. It’s a bit rough, but it’s drawn from shared experience. I’m sure others can think of further questions.

Section I: To be completed by students. Unless otherwise indicated, please answer the following questions with a number from 1 (I feel validated in my long-held beliefs) to 5 (I am considering my legal options).

  1. Was your instructor male or female? How did that make you feel?
  2. Was it pregnant or otherwise compromised? How, in your view, did this affect its teaching? (Please elaborate in the comments section)
  3. The course conformed to my preexisting idea of the subject
  4. The instructor conformed to my preexisting idea of a professor
  5. My parents’ input was welcome, whether by email, phone, or in person

Section II: To be completed by senior faculty. Unless otherwise indicated, please respond to the following statements with a number from 1 (s/he reminds me of a younger me) to 5 (I wish him/her the best of luck on the market).

  1. Dr. X’s belief in the power of the five-paragraph essay matches my own
  2. Dr. X assigns the same books I would, if I didn’t teach something unrelated
  3. Dr. X enjoys hearing about my innate genius for teaching, despite having no hope of replicating it
  4. The popularity of Dr. X’s course makes me doubt (a) its academic rigour; (b) Dr. X’s commitment to research; (c) both
  5. Dr. X’s teaching will (a) prevent; (b) delay; (c) hasten the end of civilization

That’s the last of the summer snark. Back to those syllabi!

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