Student evaluations

It is a frustrating fact for academics that a not insignificant portion (sometimes the entirety) of our career advancement is based upon the whims of hung over 19-year-olds. I've been lucky enough to get good evaluations, but I'm pretty sure it's for the wrong reasons (for example, I'm an upbeat lecturer). But I've still felt the pain of being evaluated by someone not capable of true evaluation. Some of my favorite comments I've received: "this class was a waist of time," and "to much reading." Dan mentioned a zillion posts ago (I'm too lazy to find it now) that he was worried about websites that post patient evaluations of doctors - for professors, that nightmare is already here!

This is an interesting analysis that shows just how useful evaluations are (hint: not very). It also demonstrates that student evaluations have pernicious effects on teaching style, such as encouraging dumbing down of material and suppression of controversial stances.


  1. Yes, interesting. Faculty evals were even less useful measures of teaching effectiveness, according to the post. If I were in charge of the lightning bolts, I'd use student evaluations, but from students who had graduated five years earlier. *That* would be interesting.

  2. Hmm! Does this mean I should open the envelopes that contain the "grades" from my classes last semester.

    I'll have to see if I can still find them.

    You are right in assuming, however, that after being promised that they would not be used in evaluations of performance when they were first introduced, they are now relied on as a critical gate in deciding on faculty performance at all levels.

  3. All of your posts are so utterly condescending toward and dismissive of undergrads. It's actually shocking. Why are you even in academia if you think so little of them?

    Who, if not students, is qualified to evaluate their teachers? Students *do* recognize good teaching. They recognize who is engaged with the material, and who is not. They recognize who knows how to communicate, and who does not.

    How is being "an upbeat lecturer" the wrong reason? It means that your students are able to stay conscious during class. That is 100% relevant to teaching quality. I mean, my God. And "too much reading" IS a valid critique. Undergrads, other than taking classes, also occasionally like to sleep and, God forbid, socialize.

  4. Jennifer,

    1) "too much reading" is, of course, a perfectly valid criticism. "To much reading" is kinda funny.

    2) If you follow the link, you'll see that students are probably best qualified to evaluate their teachers. But that does not mean that they are that good at it. If you look at the data in terms of what students actually learn and what information they retain, upbeat-ness, easy-going-ness, and all the other things that make students score a prof highly do NOT correlate with what a student actually learns. They just affect how much a student enjoys the course, which is something, but not why one is actually paying huge amounts of money for an education. Follow the link and read the data. You'll see what I mean.

    3) I love and care about my students a great deal. Almost all of my former students will tell you that. I spend a great deal of time working with them. I keep in touch with many of them well after they have graduated. I don't feel condescending toward them as a whole. SOme are extremely bright, some are extremely motivated, some are not either, and I think I can tell them apart. I wouldn't read too much into comments about teaching made in a joking manner. I joke about how horrible and difficult owning cats are, and I threaten to kick them out of the house. I love them dearly, however. I love what I do, and as I tell my students, I have the best job in the world. That does not mean it is perfect, and it doesn't mean THEY are perfect. It does mean that my job, like life itself, is complicated. In a blog in which I focus (sometimes) on problems facing academia, you are not going to get a representative sample of my feelings toward my job.

  5. Thanks for your response, Elizabeth. I am honestly glad to hear that you have overwhelmingly positive feelings about your students. Part of the reason I reacted the way I did was that condescending and uncaring teachers were something I had to deal with quite a bit as an undergrad, and that I think pervade academia.

    To address one point you made: You said, "If you look at the data in terms of what students actually learn and what information they retain, upbeat-ness, easy-going-ness, and all the other things that make students score a prof highly do NOT correlate with what a student actually learns."

    But I don't think how much a student learns or the amount of information they retain are actually good measures of a course's value. In fact I think they are largely irrelevant. What *is* the best measure of a course's value is the degree to which the course/teacher inspires the students to want to learn more themselves--to go out and do their own reading and thinking. I think this has little to no correlation with the amount of hard information retained, but a HIGH correlation with the student's overall enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the course, which in turn is related to their perception of the teacher's mood, interest level, etc.

  6. Jennifer:
    With respect, somehow I don't think you're talking about engineering courses, where if I don't teach them how to design that bridge . . . . .

  7. Well, no. I'm talking about liberal arts courses.

  8. I am with Elizabeth on this one, I am a University Professor who has tenure. Students need to take my class as a pre-req. to go on to more advanced classes, damn straight they have to know the material or they won't pass. A good chunk of my class drops out, and I am not easy, I average about a 77 on my exams for the students who stick around.
    It is not my job to "inspire" students to learn more, they are plenty busy enough to learn what they have to learn.
    I am not a hard ass, I care enough about the students to devise a course framework to make it as easy as possible to learn what they have to learn, and to retain it for as long as possible. I try to make the class as enjoyable as possible, but only as a means to an end, not to get good evaluations.
    Both the students and administration know this, which is why I got tenure. The ultimate value of my teaching style is evidenced in how profecient the students are when they go onto the next level.
    I think this philosophy should apply not just to the sciences, but also to the Liberal arts.


  9. Thank you for being the literal embodiment of all that is wrong with academia.