My wife and I have a good friend who completed her first year of college teaching in 2013. As with many first-year instructors, her student evaluations have troubled her. While not bad, they were not nearly as good as she had hoped. Some of the negative feedback was fairly typical for a first-year instructor (e.g. "too much work"), while other comments were more personal (e.g. "you're not as outgoing as some of the other professors in the program"). She was frustrated, and understandably so. As an Education professor, she viewed herself as an expert in teaching, and expected her evaluations to reflect that. Instead, they touched on things that seemed irrelevant (e.g. personality), and left her wondering how she was supposed to be something she was not. She worried how the evaluations might reflect on her and affect her tenure prospects. Most importantly, she was bothered by the sense of failure; she had poured so much into her classes, and the results did not seem to show it.
This topic touches on a host of others, such as personality, persona, and the challenges of teaching millennial students. These merit attention, and we will address them later. This blog, however, will focus on the simple question of how to "take" student evaluations.
Student evaluations are a "given" in today's college experience. They are practically universal, and have been so for as long as almost anyone in the academy can remember. Like most things, they are a result of an identified need. In days past, instructors at many institutions were minimally accountable for their teaching. In the wake of the protest movements of the 1960s, this changed, as students demanded a say in their education. Course evaluations were one outcome. I suspect many of us would agree that this has been a good thing—to an extent. After all, negative feedback wouldn't bother us unless we gave evaluations some credence.
We should take student evaluations seriously. The real question is: how seriously? In the minds of many instructors, student evaluations now garner excessive institutional attention and carry too much weight in evaluating a professor's performance. In sum, they are a good idea taken too far. This is not merely a curmudgeonly tendency or defensive reaction; there are good reasons why we need to take student evaluations with a grain of salt.
For one thing, our treatment of student evaluations sends a message about education. In this age of excessive consumerism and entitlement, excessive concern about evaluations has the potential to reinforce some undesirable and unrealistic student expectations. They could easily conclude that this is an arrangement in which they are customers, and instructors are their customer service representative. This perspective is obviously flawed. While a transaction in involved, we are not merely peddling a product, and our students are not merely customers. (This is yet another topic for a future blog.)
Furthermore, we should ask: how much does an 18-year-old know about how a college course should be conducted? Yet many evaluation tools ask students to assess a professor on a broad range of matters in which they have little or no expertise. Not only does this reinforce the consumer mindset, it generates a lot of numbers and comments that are effectively useless. Many evaluations also invite comparisons with other faculty that can be unfair or immaterial. In sum, we should not treat evaluations as "gospel."
That said, they are not going away—nor should they. Amidst the rough are some diamonds that, once dug out, can help you become better in the classroom. We'll address this in my next blog.