Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Reading Evaluations

A new correspondent -- and apparently the kind of student we'd all like to have -- writes:

As a student, I have gotten a lot more careful over the years with how I
fill out student evaluations, because I know more about what they mean
for the instructors. I've read a lot of complaints on academic blogs
that students do not carefully fill out the evaluations and that their
criticism is sometimes unfair. I try hard to be both constructive and
fair. I almost always include written comments, unless I've got
absolutely nothing to say.

My question relates to how the evaluations are used by administrators.
The form usually asks for separate written comments addressing such
things as what could be improved about the course, how useful the
readings and assignments were, etc. Thinking that the feedback could be
useful to the instructors -- especially brand-new, inexperienced ones --
I've always answered them honestly, identifying both strengths and

But I find myself wondering: if the way evaluations are used is as
abusive as some academic bloggers feel it is, maybe I should just opt
out, or bubble in all 5's and leave it at that.

If I give an instructor generally high numerical marks, and note in the
written comments that the instructor's assignments are clearly written,
obviously well thought out, and very helpful; the readings are
informative; and the class exposed me to concepts I hadn't been familiar
with but which were very important -- but that his lectures are somewhat
confusing due to disorganization and a lack of "signposts" -- have I
just hosed someone's (by all indications very promising) career by
pointing out a weakness?

Likewise, if I give extremely low ratings to a department-designed
cookie-cutter course, but not to the instructor herself, and make it
very clear in the written comments that it's the course itself I feel is
valueless, is the instructor going to be penalized for this?

If there's anything I've learned about course evaluations in my time blogging, it's that different administrators (and different colleges) treat them differently. I'll discuss how I treat them, and how I've seen them treated, and how I think they ought to be treated. It's entirely possible that not everybody treats them as thoughtfully as they should.

The evaluations we use separate questions into three categories: numerical about the instructor, numerical about the course, and open-ended.

When considering applications for promotion, we look at the first and third categories. The second category is mostly ignored. If I had my druthers, we'd include data from the second category in outcomes assessment exercises -- in which we look at the curriculum, rather than the instructors -- but we're not there yet. Maybe someday.

The first category lends itself easily to a single summary score, which is reported up the chain. The single summary score is relatively unhelpful for most faculty, but it does help you spot outliers. If one professor is coming in several standard deviations below everybody else -- it happens -- that's a red flag. It's not dispositive by itself, but it suggests taking a closer look.

The open-ended answers take the longest to read, but are by far the most useful. Some of them, I'll admit, I just tune out: "professor was mean she wouldn't let me do extra credit." Good for her. "Too much work." If everyone says that, I'd take a look; if a few do, I write it off to standard student griping. Some are just mean -- comments about clothes or hair or accents. And some are just inappropriate -- "she's hot!" Thanks for sharing.

The ones I've seen that have piqued my attention are the ones like "he takes two months to grade papers." That's a specific complaint about something relevant that is usually within the professor's control. If that one pops up a lot, I check it out. If it's true, then that's something the professor needs to address. I recall one professor at PU whose students commented, almost uniformly, "he changes the rules every week. We never know what the deadlines are." To me, that's a serious charge. Similarly, anything like "professor is often very late to class" or "professor misses class a lot" is a bright red flag. If those are true, then we have a very real issue.

The comment about signposts in lectures wouldn't really register with me either way; I'd read that as intended for the prof, rather than for me.

All of that said, I've heard of some people with 'bright line' rules about numerical scores, and of adjuncts being non-renewed for trivial complaints. I've never done that, and I've never seen it done at either of the colleges at which I've worked in administration. But I can't say it has never happened anywhere.

I've noticed a strong 'halo effect' in the numerical questions. If the students like the professor, they'll forgive many flaws. If they don't, they'll nitpick every little thing. An evaluation in which the student draws a straight line down the 'poor' column doesn't suggest 'bad professor' so much as 'disgruntled student.' An evaluation with mostly 'fair's and 'poor's, somewhat interspersed, is actually far more damning, since it suggests actual thought.

To my mind, student evaluations should be an element in evaluating teaching, but they can't be the only element. Some classes will consistently 'score' relatively low, no matter who teaches them. (Remedial classes almost always score low, as do required math classes for humanities majors.) And it's certainly true that most of us with any kind of experience have had some classes that just 'clicked' and some that just didn't. My standard for myself as a teacher was that on good days, I should be really good, and on bad days, I should be at least professional. Any professor who claims never to have had a lesson fall flat just isn't very self-aware.

All of that said, I'll fall back on the rule I use when I write up class observations: write what you saw. Ultimately, you can't control how it's read or used, and you don't control your professor's career. If your professor has an idiot dean or department chair or provost, that's beyond your control. If your comments are honest and thoughtful and constructive, you're doing your part.

I'm almost afraid to ask, but...wise and worldly readers, what do you think? What have you seen?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.