Thursday, December 16, 2010

How to Read Student Evaluations

‘Tis the season for student evaluations of their instructors, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how best for administrators to read them.

In a phrase: look for outliers. It’s really about spotting the folks who are badly trailing the rest of the pack. Putting much weight on the difference between the lower middle and the upper middle is missing the point. There’s considerable normal variation, and all kinds of irrelevancies can push one instructor slightly above or below another. But when the same few names show up at the bottom of the list semester after semester, it’s difficult to write that off to random variations.

That’s where comments are useful. Some comments suggest ideological or cultural antipathy at work; those discredit themselves. (About once a year I get a student complaining that his professor is gay, and wanting to know what I’m going to do about it. “What would you suggest?” usually ends the discussion.) But some comments are actually revealing. I tend to discount references to “arrogance” or “full of himself,” but I take seriously comments like “he takes two months to grade papers” or “he’s incredibly disorganized.” When clusters of students make the same basic comment, there’s usually at least a conversation to be had.

Some professors like to say that student evaluations shouldn’t exist, or at least shouldn’t count for anything. I have to disagree. When a dean does a class observation, she observes one class meeting. Things like “speed of grading” simply won’t show on the radar, and of course, anyone can have an uncharacteristically good or bad day. But students see every day, so things that might seem inconsequential (or be entirely invisible) in a single moment take on their full significance.

Students also have different ‘eyes’ than faculty peers or deans, and reaching them is really the point. Inferential leaps that may seem obvious to someone with a doctorate in a related field may be entirely opaque to a freshman encountering the subject for the first time. It’s hard to fake ignorance, so we need to ask those who don’t have to fake it.

That said, I’m often struck at faculty paranoia around student course evaluations. They’re part of the picture, but they’re far from dispositive. In my student days at Snooty Liberal Arts College I remember a young professor -- maybe second year -- handing out the evaluation forms and then just sitting there and staring at us as we filled them out. He seemed paralyzed with fear that we’d be lukewarm and get him fired. After an uncomfortable silence, we started filling out the forms, wondering when/if he would leave. Another student -- I can’t take credit, though I wish I could -- raised his hand and asked “how many m’s in ‘incompetent?’” It broke the tension, even if it seemed just this side of cruel.

Of course, most student comments aren’t quite so clever. I don’t know why students feel compelled to comment on professorial hotness, and I wince whenever I read something like “he helped me write more better.” (I actually got that one once.) My brother reports that he once had a professor in the later stages of his career, perfectly fine in class but long past caring about evaluations. The students decided collectively to write their comments as baseball metaphors. “Although he’s lost a little on his fastball, he makes up for it by painting the corners.” Okaayyyy....

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever read anything on a student course evaluation that stuck with you? Is there a right way to read these things?