Recovering from the Course Evaluations

Student Course Evaluation questionnaires are a necessary evil for most college professors.

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Depending on the college or university, they may be used in salary and promotion decisions. At some places, like here at Vassar, they are taken extremely seriously and play a prominent role in these sorts of personnel decisions.

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With more than 20 years here, my courses and I have been evaluated by students upwards of 80 times. Each and every time, I get super nervous on the day I hand out the questionnaires and even more nervous when I get the results back several weeks later, long after I have submitted the grades for the course. Over the decades, out of about 80 courses, I have received disappointing course evaluation results less than 5% of the time, which, if you tend towards statistical analyses of these things, is not a significant number of times. The vast majority of the time my course evaluations are very good to excellent. If I suddenly stopped having to give these out in every course, would my quality as a teacher suddenly become poor? Do the evaluations serve to keep me on my toes? Do I teach to the eval? No, I do not. I do my very best in each and every course I teach because I care about the quality of my work and I care about my students’ educational experience. I get the impression, though, that my administration thinks I teach my best only because of the evaluations. And, perhaps, when my evaluations dip a little on one of those rare occasions it’s because my teaching quality is suddenly and inexplicably poor. (My evaluations were very good this past semester, so I’m not just grousing.)

Student feedback is really important to me. So important that I give out mid-semester evaluations so that I can respond to any student concerns while that class is still going. But, the end-of-semester evaluations are more like the final exam for me and my course, graded by the students. This feedback is less helpful since every class is different and every student has a different experience.

What purpose is really served by end-of-semester evaluations if they are too late to be helpful to those particular students who just took your course? What do they evaluate? Quality of teaching? Quality of the course? How well the students “got” what you were trying to accomplish for them? Or are they student satisfaction surveys that give students a chance to make anonymous comments at the time in the semester when they are most stressed out about their grade in your course? Can students judge quality teaching? Or a high quality course if this is the one time they will take a course like this one (most students do not take the same course twice unless they failed it the first time)?

Here are some characteristics of great teachers, summarized from lots of different sources:

1. High expectations- the professor expects the students to achieve and also is confident in their ability to do so.

2. Prepared, organized with clear course objectives- the professor has clear pedagogical goals as stated in the syllabus

3. Engage students and help them see things in different ways- this is often the whole point of learning, to see things from different perspectives

4. Form relationships with students and show you care- that personal connection seems to be widely considered an important aspect to being a good teacher

5. Masters of subject matter- ya gotta know what you’re talking about

Okay….now, how might students evaluate these five things? I think they can certainly tell if a teacher is prepared, organized and has clear goals. But, can a student judge the appropriate level of expectations? How does a student who has never taken that course before know whether expectations are appropriately high, too high, not high enough? Can a student judge the level of subject mastery? How does a student know if the professor is knowledgeable in a subject? If a student resists seeing things in different ways, can that student judge how well a teacher can help them with this? Can a student evaluate a teacher’s level of caring? How would level of caring be measured on a questionnaire? (Most questionnaires I’ve seen do not probe this characteristic at all.)

Another question that I have is how many times must a teacher be evaluated by students before the powers-that-be will believe that you are a high quality teacher? Is it necessary to have an evaluation after every single course for an entire career? Why? Are we afraid that our teaching quality will be that variable that we need to keep tabs on each and every class? And, what does it mean if you have a class or two that for whatever reason doesn’t like you or your course, or where your class chemistry was problematic? Does that mean that suddenly you’ve become a poor teacher for that course? Is the thinking that, if we don’t have the evaluations hanging over our heads for each and every course, we’ll just decide not to try or that we’ll do a horrible job?

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Quite honestly, I think the practice of end-of-term student evaluations is absurd once you’ve established to your employer that you are a high quality teacher. The surveys are not developmental for the teacher (they can be punitive though)- they do not help the students of that particular course. They are handed out at the most stressful time of semester for the students, when they are worried about their grades. And… them out for every single course and using them for salary determinations for thirty years or more suggests that the institution doesn’t really believe you can be a good teacher from year to year. Maybe, once you’ve had tenure for awhile (three years maybe?), the frequency of course evaluations could decline to perhaps one course each year or a set of evaluations once every three years or so. Give us a chance to try some new things without fear that, if the students don’t like what we try they will charbroil our chances at a decent salary raise. Who knows? Our teaching quality could improve if we are treated like we are assumed to be the good teachers we’ve shown ourselves to be.