Course ReEvaluations

“Bad teaching wastes a great deal of effort and spoils many lives which might have been full of energy and happiness.” Gilbert Highet
(Flickr)

The system that evaluates college teachers from those who are lacking is broken. Many college students can attest to the presence of boring, lazy, and even insensitive professors. Course evaluations intend to solve this by giving response power to students, but this instead degrades the teacher-student collaboration. Fueled by raises and promotions, professors turn to teaching not to educate, but to receive a “good grade” from students.

As sad as it seems, students are also contributing to the problem. They’re becoming less intellectual by rewarding the professors who don’t challenge them and getting rid of those who do.

Photo by Robert Hruzek, Bad Grade (Flickr)

THE BEGINNING

If all professors were trained correctly, we wouldn’t need to worry about evaluations. Something must have gone awry in the beginning, so take a step back and look at a timeline, starting when professors were students. In an article describing undergraduate research experiences (UREs), we find that students who participate in research receive little guidance. A researcher’s focus isn’t on teaching, it’s on grants and studies because that’s where the money is. Many graduates go into higher education to continue research, but forget that they must be an educator as well. If you love half of your job and despise the other, how could you complete its purpose well and with all your focus?

Though students take courses on writing, few take classes on teaching or public speaking. Without this experience, a teacher has knowledge but lacks a way to communicate it.

When graduate students do teach lower level courses things get complicated. Professors want students to teach, graduate students want teaching opportunities, but faculty and undergraduates want professor and student interaction. This conflict of interest leads to future professors not knowing what does and doesn’t work in the classroom.

After students become the professors we know and love, they’re left out to dry. There isn’t much pushing them to get more education on teaching tactics. The best teachers get no reward for their acts and they system favors doing research and publishing journal articles.

Riccardo Cupidi (Flickr)

WHY AREN’T COURSE EVALUATIONS WORKING?

Eventually, these problems were realized and a solution was proposed. In 1994, a prototype for course evaluations was created. In theory, when a student dislikes a teacher they can fill out this evaluation and the teacher will adapt. Unfortunately, that’s not how things played out. According to an AAUP survey, response rates are declining and those received are biased. Either students are afraid to speak up, or are so heated that they demolish the teacher’s reputation without restraint.

“Nobody can take all of the blame, the student-to-professor system is broken.”

To a university, a low score plus a high score is equal to an average score. This poor analysis of data promotes a false view of a teacher’s success. Professors too are influenced to make controversial decisions. According to an article, professors are, “pressure[d] to pass students who deserve to fail so they write more favorable evaluations”. Nobody can take all of the blame, the student-to-professor system is broken. Students aren’t properly taught to be successful educators, and don’t speak up about their issues maturely. Gradually, students grow to be professors and researchers who continue the cycle.

Charisma Jonesford (Flickr)

DISPROOF OF COURSE EVALUATION VALIDITY

Course evaluations are held highly at universities. “Student comments on course evaluations are not taken lightly: they weigh in on promotions, tenure, and pay raises as well”. When searching the topic “course evaluations” on the internet, one finds countless articles written by teachers for teachers. Some give helpful comments on how to receive positive feedback, many however treat the topic with less reverence. Some suggest bringing in food, others say to watch out, because no one likes an ugly teacher. These suggestions are immature, disrespectful, and don’t even give advice on teaching.

Those who are skeptical of the influences of course evaluations ask, “Has anyone ever been hurt over a survey like this?”. In 2011, students complained so much that a professor was denied tenure and eventually lost his job. There are many cases where students give professors the boot because they had a challenging experience. If this carries on, the end result could be an environment where students control the higher education job market, allowing only teachers who fit their needs to stay employed.

“the more students are challenged and prepared for the future, the more they’ll dislike their professor.”

These high stakes plus the biased student surveys, makes evaluations statistically unreliable. In other fields this data would be trashed immediately. If a psychologist presented a study seriously, with even a moderately biased results, they would be laughed out of a job. This feedback is hurting the system it was intended to improve. A study showed that the more students are challenged and prepared for the future, the more they’ll dislike their professor. The acceptance of bias must end, otherwise students will have little problem solving skills at graduation.

Matt Wynn (Flickr)

SOLUTION PROPOSAL

Despite many flaws, it’d be unfair to give up hope on the feedback system. Instead, reassessments and solutions should be found to improve the value of learning. To eliminate the bias that course evaluations have, surveys shouldn’t be held as the determinant of a teacher’s worth.

To start the process of revamping course evaluations, we can begin with the professors. Universities offer many communication courses and if they’re free to teachers and are incentivized, the impact could be great.

Enthusiasm for such a big shift can be hard to start. It’d be a mistake to attempt to reformation all at once. Universities will have to begin with individual piolet programs within the school, moderated by faculty and staff. The piolet programs can show schools what works best to motivate professors and continue improvement.

Course evaluations themselves measure student satisfaction rather than teacher performance. The easiest way to change that is to call them student satisfaction. This will increase response rates and give students more reason to talk about their personal experiences. To maintain the presence of teaching evaluations, leading teachers can perform in-class assessments to give feedback.

Higher Education is intended to cultivate knowledge. There’s a flow of students coming in, and a stream of professionals coming out. This cycle has started to whither, and nothing is being done to mend our situation. A reformation must happen to reinforce the education system and provide everyone with the most efficient experience possible. The professor-student relationship must be revamped to be less biased, and more focused on education and creating ambitious individuals who will continue to improve society.