Teaching Evaluations

by Harry on December 19, 2004

I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me, but here goes. It’s teaching evaluation season again. Students fill out forms at the end of class rating their teachers on a range of qualities, and we carefully tot up the numbers (or rather, some computer does). I think this is nice for the students, and, so that I get something useful out of it, I ask them specifically to comment on issues concerning teaching style and topics in the course (I had one topic in my contemporary moral issues course this term that I definitely thought didn’t work, and was interested to see if they agreed). My department prides itself on maintaining reasonable teaching standards, and we take the evaluations pretty seriously when it comes to merit raises. I should preface these negative comments by saying there is no sour grapes here: my evaluations tend to be good, in fact better than I think I deserve and better than any other mechanism of evaluation would produce for me. Here are some observations.

I do not think the central problem with teaching evaluations is the ‘popularity contest’ problem. Students are reasonably savvy about attempts to ingratiate, and are frequently irritated if they feel that they are not learning much in a course. I am sure that an easy A makes for a better evaluation other things being equal, but it does not automatically produce a good evaluation; lots of students do want to learn too. (I realize that hard grading probably does damage evaluations, by contrast. I have no direct experience, because my grading standards are pretty constant across courses. Experimenting on this would be unethical, no?).

The main problem with evaluations is that students don’t reflect a great deal on teaching quality, and do not have a great deal of information on which to base their judgments. So they often make a judgment about the instructor that is really triggered by features of the experience over which the instructor had no control. The two key variables I notice are i) the quality of the TA and ii) the quality of the students.

The quality of the TA can work either way. A really bad TA can ruin a course, beyond the control of the instructor, and evaluations of both suffer. A great TA (and I have had a run of them) can make the instructor look really, really, good, if the instructor is good enough; but make the instructor look bad if the instructor is not good enough. (Relationships between TA and Instructor may have an impact here: I speculate that I do well from having really good TAs, and until this moment thought it was because I was good enough that they don’t make me look bad, but it may just be because I seem to be on good terms with them). In a department like mine, in which we get no choice over who TAs for us, we do not deserve the halo effect, or the reverse.

The other variable is the quality of the students in the course. My observation is this: if a course has a critical mass of good-natured, smart, and vocal students, it works well, and my evaluations are the better for it. Without that critical mass the course does not work, and my evaluations suffer. I suppose it is within my power to prevent a critical mass from emerging, but it is not within my power to ensure a critical mass. My worst ever evaluations were for a course at 8 am; I was lively and full of energy, but none of the students were; they took it because they were the group of students too off-the-ball to register in time for more reasonably scheduled courses. My best evaluations were last semester for the best course I ever taught. I co-taught with a much more experienced professor in another department, and our styles complement each other well. But what we were rewarded for was the once-in-a-decade accident of having not just a critical mass of serious, smart, and lively students, but a classroom full of them. All we did was refrain from wrecking it. But the students, who have not (in most cases) been taking 10 years of courses, attributed the fantastic classroom atmosphere not to their peers, but to us.

I don’t have a conclusion; I just think evaluations should be eyed with skepticism. Maybe, also, a preamble explaining to students what they re for, and emphasizing that they are being asked to make judgments, not merely to express their own reactions.



asg 12.19.04 at 4:42 pm

Here’s a paper another philosopher wrote about student evaluations; you might find it interesting:



Nancy 12.19.04 at 4:51 pm

Teaching evaluations have been shown to be most strongly correlated with the grade a student expects to receive in a class. Further, it is easy to increase or lower them by making biasing remarks before administering them to the class. I think they should not be any part of faculty evaluation.


Jason 12.19.04 at 4:58 pm

Where I’ve taught, professors have at least some control over most of the things you say are out of their control.

Professors can often lobby for a particular TA, a particular classroom and time, and have some influence over class size and prerequisites for a class and how strictly they are enforced.

It seems reasonable to me that if these things impact how the students learn (and I feel they do), and you have contol over them, then being evaluated as a teacher based on them is not too bad.

Now, TA’s on the other hand, they have little control.


Andrew Boucher 12.19.04 at 5:12 pm

I do think it is useful to divide the average evaluation by the average grade in the class.

When I taught, many many years ago, the professor had a certain leeway over the TAs assigned to his class, and vice versa. So the better TAs tended to gravitate towards the better professors.


Nicholas Weininger 12.19.04 at 5:16 pm

Another factor is that TA’s often get to play good cop to the professor’s bad cop. In a typical large-lecture calculus class at some universities, for instance, the TA gives students most of the personal attention they get, knows their names (which the lecturer doesn’t), and yet has relatively little say in grading. So the lecturer gets blamed for bad grades and the TA takes credit for the warm fuzzy feeling that a caring, attentive instructor inspires in students.

I hate to admit this, since I am a TA currently applying for academic jobs, but for the reasons above TA’s probably often get higher-than-“normal” evaluations and make the lecturer, unjustifiably, look less good in comparison.


eszter 12.19.04 at 5:17 pm

There is also a whole gender component to student evaluations. That is, expectations for female and male professors seem to vary quite a bit and are reflected in how instructors are evaluated. For example, it seems much more common for students to comment on a professor’s wardrobe if said professor is a female. I’m sure some male instructors get comments on their clothing as well, but it seems to come up more for female instructors. Women also seem to have to do more to prove that they are qualified in what they’re teaching. Other fairly common stereotypes apply as well (being assertive would come across differently from a male than from a female prof). There’s quite a bit of literature on all this, here are some pointers.


Luc 12.19.04 at 5:57 pm

Teaching evaluations have been shown to be most strongly correlated with the grade a student expects to receive in a class. Further, it is easy to increase or lower them by making biasing remarks before administering them to the class. I think they should not be any part of faculty evaluation.

But those two facts can be easily turned around and used as arguments pro student evaluations.

A good class should result in good results, thus it would be strange not to have that correlation.

On the second point, universities should know how to perform those evaluations. It would be odd if the normal standards wouldn’t be applied.

And yes, the teacher should be able to influence the result. If students prefer a bit of sweet talking, then the evaluation should show that.

Some students are motivated by saying that you should look at the person next to you, because half of the people won’t be there next year, and it better not be you. Some people are motivated by saying, it’s easy, you can do it, if you make the effort.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to find out wich teacher motivates his students better.

I suppose this comes down to the difference between a students experience being educated, and the university’s interests in maintaining academic quality and standards.


Matt 12.19.04 at 7:52 pm

I’d at least lightly disagree that professors have little control over the quality of their TAs- not becuase they might get to pick them, but rather becuase they surely have the ability (and duty, even) to guide them. I’m a TA right now, and when I’ve worked w/ professors who met regularly w/ the TA’s, talked about how class was going, asked what needed to be done more slowly or quickly, said what he or she wanted emphasised, talked about grading, made sure the material was clear to the TA, etc. it went better for everyone then when the professor was more “hands off”. Often TA’s are quite inexperienced and don’t know what they are doing very well. Here’s it’s clearly the professor’s responsibility to help out. (unlike Nicholas above, we tend to have a lot of discretion on grading, sometimes even largely setting the curve.) That said, I think its surely right that students often don’t really understand how factors out of the control of the professor might well be influencing their perception of the class, and that this sometimes shows up in evaluations.


Matt McGrattan 12.19.04 at 8:35 pm

It would be interesting to see how teaching evaluations here at Oxford compare to other institutions since students here may not, to the best of my knowledge, be assessed at all on some of the work they are taught.

While I’ve certainly set and marked collections for some of the students I’ve taught in many cases I have not – so the students’ only experience of my teaching has taken place without the the threat or the bribe of good or bad grades. Also, in many cases, the tutor who has taught a particular subject, particularly if he or she is only carrying out a little part-time tuition for a college which is not their own, may not be the person marking any assessed work which the student is asked to carry out.


Mimiru 12.19.04 at 9:22 pm

I guess I’ll relate my own experience in collge. Now I went to a small university by choice, both because I was in love with someone, and because I could much more easily afford it that a much larger or prestigeous place.

However it IS in Minnesota and Minnesota state college system is pretty solid as these things go.

This recently completed semester I had a Classical Philosophy class. The professor has been teaching for more than 30 years. It was a tiny class, barely 20, and the students were by and large very smart.

We all, without deviation hated his guts. I have NEVER had a class that boring, that devoid of discussion in my life. Even the required fucking math classes were better than that because at least you learned. Did I learn anything? Not really it ended up being rote learning. The only time we could discuss anything was when a few of us forced the class onto tangents.

When one person brought up during evaluations that we were, as a class, basically grading his life and I looked and noticed I had given him the lowest possible marks in about half the categories I laughed.


Giles 12.19.04 at 10:31 pm

My view of teaching evaluations is that they’re handed out at the wrong time – its not how you feel at the end of the course that matters but how much you remember 6 months later.

After all we’ve all done courses that we hated at the time, bnut which later, on reflection realised were quite productive. And, of course, visa versa.

So might it not be an idea to have students do their evaluations on graduation – ie rank their all teachers when they finish?


Rob 12.19.04 at 10:49 pm

That said, I still think the system is defensible. I’ve worked for lots of professors as a TA, I’ve supervised a number of TAs, and I’ve served a couple of times on my departmental financial aid committee. Although there are some curious outliers, it seems that my estimation of an individuals teaching ability tends to correlate pretty well with the student evaluations.


Bill 12.19.04 at 10:54 pm

I’m not so interested in what determines good or bad evaluations as in how they are used to judge teaching quality. I think Harry is right that the students, even at their most sincere, are not the best judges, especially in intro courses. Besides the fact that many (probably most) of them simply care more about grades than about teaching quality, they also don’t have the experience, especially as frosh and sophs, to know how to judge. While evaluations can be useful and should certainly be considered by the powers that give raises and promotions, I think higher ed (and probably ed at all levels) in general needs to get more serious about monitoring teaching quality. Having people in one’s department play too large a role in judging performance might get too political (though deparmental input is no doubt essential). Perhaps we should consider an independent department in the Dean’s office (staffed w/ ed. experts?) that engages in evaluating teachers (or does this sound too much like the equivalent of an IA department, which invariably has an antagonistic relationship with the police department – at least in the movies – but you know what I mean. Would it threaten academic freedom or something?). Maybe if such a department was also responsible for providing teaching support and training (“we’re working with you, not against you)? Just an idea, but something needs to be done. Students are being short-changed, even if they don’t know enough to care. More importantly, over the long haul, our politics and culture are being short-changed.


Neil 12.20.04 at 12:27 am

There is some evidence that teaching evaluations correlate with perceptions of teacher attractiveness:



Donald A. Coffin 12.20.04 at 12:28 am

A couple of comments.

TAs? Who has TAs? Only (mostly) you lucky people at large, PhD-granting institutions (which is not most of us).

And I have always hated the “generic” evaluations which ask students to score such things as organization, preparation, availability outside class…I’ve always thought that the evaluation ought to focus on the stated objectives of the course, or of the academic program. For example, I teach in a business school that has as an objective developing a student’s capacity for working in groups. So you’d think we’d ask about that on the evaluations. Nope.

Bad evaluations provide useless information. Good evaluations may provide useful information. That is the bottom line.


Donald A. Coffin 12.20.04 at 12:37 am

I tried to post this once, and got a “server not responding” message. So if it appears twice (and in slightly different form)…

A couple of comments.

TAs? Who has TAs? Only (mostly)people at large, PhD granting institutions, which is not most of us.

And I have always hated “generic” evaluations, that ask students to score things like organization and preparation and availability outside class…I’ve always thought that the evaluations ought to address the goals of the course or academic program. For example, I teach in a business school that has as an objective developing a student’s effectiveness in working in groups. But do we ask them about that on the evaluations? Nope.

Bad evaluations provide useless information. Good evaluations may provide useful information. That’s the bottom line.

(I should note that I look at evaluations as a means of improving what I do. Their value in making merit judgments is of less interest to me.)


Chad Orzel 12.20.04 at 2:57 am

A colleague here made an interesting suggestion regarding the written eveluations we use in addition to the bubble-sheet numerical forms. She said that she always makes a point of asking students to comment on specific features of the class (basically, whatever she did that term that was different) in the written evaluations.

Since she’s started doing that, she says she’s gotten evaluations that not only reflect more thought put into the comments, but that are also generally more positive than what she got when she didn’t suggest anything. My limited anecdotal experience would seem to back this up– in the classes where I did something similar, I got much better evaluations than in previous sections of the same course.

It’s an interesting bit of advice, and I’ll probably stick with it in the future.


missgrundy 12.20.04 at 4:30 am

Hi, newbie here — For many years I was the administrator of a very large composition program, and I grew curious after hearing faculty complain that their student evals were low because they were “hard graders.”

I did a study from the remedial to the upper division comp courses, looking for correlations between the average grade an instructor gave and the average number on their student evaluations.

Outside of the lowest remedial classes — the youngest, weakest students, barely out of high school — there was no correlation between grades and student evals. Small study, to be sure, but that’s how it came out.


Kate 12.20.04 at 5:20 am

While I agree that there are some unfair factors that influence faculty evaluations, I still find them incredibly useful. I’m a student at the University of California, and I believe that if a professor is especially despicable or especially talented, that is accurately reflected in the evals. I just had the worst professor of my academic career (I’m a senior) and couldn’t wait to get our eval forms and rip him to shreds, because he made 95% of my classmates’lives hell, and that must be addressed.

But my larger point is that just as the faculty evals can be influenced by uncontrollable circumstances, grades often share this same quality. Yet, like evals, they retain the “especially despicable, or especially talented” aspects.


kelebek 12.20.04 at 5:34 am

In case anybody is interested here is what a student thinks of the evaluations. I am a Junior at University of Wisconsin. We have TA’s and those wonderful bubble sheet eval forms to fill out.
our eval sheets asks us what grade we are expecting in class, as well as our year, how often we attended the class, and our current GPA. Also on the back of the form we get room for evaluations.
I personally take the evals very seriously. I read each question and try to fill in a bubble that I believe is fair. I write detailed comments in the back of the evals. That said I have seen many, many students who just fill all 5s n hand in the form, because they just don’t care. of course evals are anon so how are they going to know.
I have mixed feelings about the TA’s. My TA for logic class is a God send because the prof is very very confusing. the TA I have for my intro jour class is horrible. The class itself has 450 students and 9 TA’s with varying qualities. we also get to do TA evals in midsemester and at the end of the semester. I think midsemester evals are great because they can fix whatever problems the class has before the class is over.
This has been an opinion of a student, goodnight!


one laura 12.20.04 at 6:02 am

And sometimes the problems a class has are so profound that there is nothing a TA can do but suffer. Suffer while the teacher lectures about how the prehistoric matriarchy dedicated to the peaceful growing of food and children was replaced by the patriarchy which introduced authoritarian leadership and war. Suffer when the teacher gives you the exams of several of her students to grade, implying that you haven’t been keeping very close track of attendance if you don’t know who they are, then emails you in the middle of break demanding to know where those exams are because they belong to her students and didn’t you know it’s against the rules to take exams off-campus. Suffer when she doesn’t give ANY guidelines for a paper assignment beyond the single sentence in the course syllabus.

Gosh, I’m bitter.


anon 12.20.04 at 7:17 am

Given the relatively poor quality of teaching at the university level (with some outstanding exceptions, of course) and the high price paid by the students, there ought to be some mechanism to evaluate teaching and some consequences for bad quality. Unfortunately, the more prestigious the university, the less attention seems to be paid to undergraduate teaching.

I vividly remember the Stanford math professor who faced the board, while lecturing, erasing with the left hand while writing with the right hand. Then there was the world renowned computer scientist who spent several lectures bemoaning the fact that he had to teach the class we were attending. Very bad price-performance, in my opinion, and someone ought to be evaluating and correcting it.


lth 12.20.04 at 10:51 am

At the University of York (UK)’s CompSci department, we students didn’t wait until the end of a course to complain if there were problems.

Two weeks into one of them, it was clear to the students (3rd year) that the lecturer was basically crap. So we complained immediately, and got some changes made in his delivery style, course content and support in the form of better teaching assistants and online docs.

It must be noted that, in a department where 95% of the TAs don’t have English as their first language, there was nowhere on our evaluation forms to rate the quality of the teaching assistants…


Shai 12.20.04 at 12:24 pm

we have a book here with student evaluations for all the courses. it’s a useful, if rough measure.

i do like how you figure the students into the analysis. sometimes an evaluation will give the impression that the course is very difficult, but I later discover that the average student in that course must be retarded. especially first and second year courses.

another example: i’m taking a language course right now that tends to reinforce passive rather than active language skill. it’s a structural problem because there is no mark based incentive, nor time devoted to its development. and yet student evaluations say that the course is great. it’s an illustration of ignorance on the part of student evaluators: they haven’t had a look at trends in the L2 language literature, nor have they had a look at the many courses operating on more sound principles


Shai 12.20.04 at 12:38 pm

“Every professor realizes, sooner or later, the vast attention that students give to every detail of his or her appearance. A political science professor I had in college wore just two suits, a blue and a grey, prompting the guy next to me to speculate that he actually had a closet full of identical ones, like Superman costumes. My colleague Allan receives on his course evaluations long paeans to his impressive wardrobe and suggestions he should go into acting. On mine I have been asked what brand my watch is and where I bought a certain rather flamboyant tie. I have even been shyly consulted for fashion advice, something to add to the already lengthy list of topics — illness, relationships, car trouble, family conflicts — that make up the unseen, pastoral element of university teaching.”
— Mark Kingwell


Shai 12.20.04 at 12:55 pm

oh and, the practice here seems to be maybe five minutes to fill out an evaluation, with no notice. i’ve gotten a little better at storing some good comments in anticipation of the end of the semester, but with no notice it’s hardly conductive to deliberation. and who hasn’t been subjected to something like the donut trick. yay for manipulative framing.


Ted 12.20.04 at 2:56 pm

In many (most?) cases the students are not equipped to evaluate the content of the course. For example, I assign Plato’s _Apology_ and Sophocles’ _Antigone_ and draw a comparison between the way in which a trial is conducted and the way in which Greek plays are performed and then talk about how the Assembly worked and bring in that comparison (i.e. all three things would involve two people arguing in front of an audience; the experience of each would have been similar in important ways for the jurors/Assemblymen/playgoers and this has certain consequences). Anyway, the students basically have to take my word for this. They know nothing about the Athenian Assembly and I could be making it all up for all they know….so there’s no way for them to tell whether I’m providing them with useful information, which is a major part of what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’d also like to agree strongly with those who have said that a lot of it comes down to the students themselves – if you get interested, involved people, you tend to get the credit; if not, you tend to get the blame. I always include this in the first class lecture: I tell the students that although I’ll help them as much as I can, in whatever way I can, there’s only so much I can do and that a lot of it is really up to them.

Ultimately, of course, what’s really important is that I resent not having a hot pepper on ratemyprofessor.com. Oh well. :-)


Clayton 12.20.04 at 3:21 pm

Just a quick question,

What role do teacher evaluations actually play in the decision to hire somebody or in the department’s evaluation of the teacher? I think that many are quite sceptical of the idea that these evaluations generally provide useful information about a teacher’s ability or performance.


Jonathan Goldberg 12.20.04 at 8:40 pm

My memories of my long-ago aborted graduate student career is that when I took a course with undergraduates (or TA’d one) my evaluations were the opposite of theirs. Professors they though were lively and interesting impressed me as spouting BS; the ones they thought dull I found careful scholars, people one could really learn from.

It’s a very small sample from long ago, but I’ve wondered about it ever since.


Moebius Stripper 12.20.04 at 8:45 pm

Clayton, I can give you my university’s answer to your question: I am an adjunct at a medium-sized institution, on a four-month contract. My school is in the process of hiring some permanent faculty, and there was a possibility my contract would be renewed. The department head told me that his decision rested almost entirely on my evals. (Full disclosure: my evals were fine, and I was rehired.)

I took issue with this; I’m glad that my school takes student feedback into consideration – I used to work for a school that didn’t care. However, I teach a required course – math – to nonmajors, most of whom would rather claw their eyes out than graph a parabola. I taught a challenging course, and my tests required students to apply their knowledge on the tests, not just cough it back. Class average was a C+ when evals were being taken. A colleague of mine taught math-lite, giving pretests before each midterm; these pretests were virtually identical to the actual tests, with only a few numbers changed. If the comments under his name on ratemyprofessors.ca are any indication, his students loved this. His class average when he took evals was a B, and his kids gushed over how nice he was. A month later, both of our classes the final, and my students kicked his students’ asses – but this wasn’t reflected in the student comments.


Mimiru 12.20.04 at 10:16 pm

I suppose I should add that the TA for our Logic teacher had been in school about 8 years, a perpetual student or so.

Anyhow I wrote in about the largest letters that I could IF YOU COULD, YOU SHOULD FIRE HIM. Why? Because he consistently graded our assignments wrong! On every assignment I turned in, there were 4-5 problems that I had the correct answer/process down and he had marked wrong. The fucking bastard.


Observer 12.20.04 at 11:08 pm

I’ve found numerical student evaluations to generally be a weak indicator of professors ability. At best you can identify the real stinkers by reviewing evaluations from multiple classes. But you can’t rely on them to identify the best teachers. Here’s why:

A few years ago I did a study on evaluation and found that most people have a narrow window of possible numerical evaluations they will give. That is, there won’t be a large numerical difference between their evaluation of their “best” and “worst” teachers.

For example, suppose that you have a 5 point system (as we did), with 5 being “outstanding” and 1 being “poor”. A large segment of students will tend to rate everyone high, such that “4” is actually a weak rating and “3” is really bad. Another group will tend to cluster around 3 or 4, and another group will split ratings between 3 and 5.

Only a few will ever venture into the 1 category, and that includes those who fit the definition “chronically discontent”. Most classes had at least one of this kind of person.

I found that the average rating was not good predictor of teacher quality. That is, teacher who got a 4.8 average was not necessarily better than one who got a 4.65. In fact, it was clear that certain classes scored more poorly regardless of who taught them, and also that electives in general tended to score better than requisites.

However, where the surveys were useful were for teachers who consistently had 3 or more students trash him/her with a lot of 1 ratings. Invariably, follow-up investigation revealed that such teachers were perceived as weak by most of their students … yet funnily enough their average ratings were still in the 4.5 range.


h. e. baber 12.21.04 at 3:55 am

I got trashed repeatedly for wardrobe and appearance. One particular class years ago was perfectly awful–they put stupid notes on my desk ridiculing me and, needless to say the evaluations were awful. About two years after the fact I happened to have a conversation with a student from that class and it came out that I’d been pregnant at the time. His response was, “Gosh, I’m sorry. We thought you were just built that way.”


Erik 12.21.04 at 4:28 am

The best evaluations I ever got (not necessarily the most positive, but the most interesting and useful) came the one time I wrote the evaluation form myself. The course was honors freshman composition, and at the top of an otherwise blank page I asked one lone question: “What did you think of this course?” Almost everyone wrote at length. My department wasn’t too happy without numbers to crunch, but I didn’t really care.


mv 12.21.04 at 5:50 am

Observer – thanks for confirming something I’ve always suspected.

Also, only people who actually show up on the day the forms are handed out get their opinions counted. People who hate the class may have stopped coming. The department may take this into consideration, but I doubt that many students flipping through the eval book do.


Shai 12.21.04 at 8:08 am

“Anyway, the students basically have to take my word for this. They know nothing about the Athenian Assembly and I could be making it all up for all they know….”

i took Kierkegaard and Nietzsche course first year, taught by someone who usually teaches a more general existentialism. i thought it was great at the time, but i’ve since learned that Nietzsche was mangled. i look at the evaluation for that semester and it’s rave reviews.

“People who hate the class may have stopped coming. The department may take this into consideration, but I doubt that many students flipping through the eval book do”

yeah, i’ve dropped several courses because i didn’t like how they were being taught or evaluated. at the time i regret not being able to stick it to whomever was responsible, but sometimes misgivings are generated when we fail, not the course. an illustration of the tendency to blame situation rather than disposition when doing something blameworthy like failing. so including these people won’t necessarily correct for perceived bias.

“Professors they though were lively and interesting impressed me as spouting BS; the ones they thought dull I found careful scholars, people one could really learn from”

false dilemma. anyhow, it doesn’t necessarily follow that students are unable to recognize quality. the semester becomes a long grind with a very boring lecturer and some students might be willing to trade some quality of argument for quality of delivery. especially when the course is an elective. if you really love the topic you can follow up by reading lots of secondary sources.


lth 12.21.04 at 3:13 pm

Our Uni has a centralized, computerized module feedback system. Every student is emailed a link to the relevant online form to fill in – this means that even students who stopped coming to class can have a say.


h. e. baber 12.21.04 at 5:45 pm

Radical thought: as anyone succeeded in abolishing teaching evaluations? I’m sick of being in a situation where I have to perform for students like a trained monkey. Students aren’t accountable when they do these evaluations and, even assuming good will it’s hard to avoid having their assessments colored by the very factors that we try so ard to filter out in hiring and other evaluation processes: sex, race and physical appearance.

Universities as far as I can see did just as good a job in teaching before the 1970s or so when these evaluations were introduced. Initially they were supposed to be a good left-wing thing to empower students but, predictably, they became just another means for administrators and faculty in positions of power to put the screws on junior faculty.

I’m tenured but I well remember the hoops I had to jump through–enough is enough!


will 12.21.04 at 6:04 pm

>A few years ago I did a study on evaluation and found that most people have a narrow window of possible numerical evaluations they will give.< That's quite right. I recently evaluated the worst instructor of my undergraduate career, an octogenarian German who taught transistor physics by pointing at equation after equation and graph after graph and rambling. I gave him a 3 for "competent"; after all, I was able to get enough of a flavor of the subject in lecture that I was able to teach myself. That's the lowest rating I've ever given a professor. I don't think my fellow students were as kind, however.


will 12.21.04 at 6:07 pm

>A few years ago I did a study on evaluation and found that most people have a narrow window of possible numerical evaluations they will give.< That's quite right. I recently evaluated the worst instructor of my undergraduate career, an octogenarian German who taught transistor physics by pointing at equation after equation and graph after graph and rambling. I gave him a 3 for "competent"; after all, I was able to get enough of a flavor of the subject in lecture that I was able to teach myself. That's the lowest rating I've ever given a professor. I don't think my fellow students were as kind, however.


Jill 12.22.04 at 12:49 pm

We don’t have teaching evaluations where I work, at the University of Bergen in Norway, and I don’t think they’re ever used in Norway in the way they are in the States, as a way of working out who’ll get to keep their job. Lecturers are expected to run evaluations of some kind, but how we do it is up to us, and usually the information isn’t centralised. Evaluations are rarely numerical – I’ve been told to make sure that I ask the students questions in a way that will actually help me improve the course. The two key questions I use, on the advice of more experienced teachers, are:

1. What would you do differently if you were in charge of teaching this course next semester?
2. What should definitely be done the same way as this semester?

That gets you constructive criticism that you can use – and makes sure that you know what you’re doing right, as well. Some semesters we’ve let the students organise the feedback themselves -that is, we ask them to group themselves and for each group to discuss an aspect of the course, and then to present it to the class. The class then comments, the group responsible for that aspect of the course takes notes and hands the collated notes to the teacher at the end. We got the idea for this system from Torill Mortensen.

In Arts and Humanities, each course is supposed to be more formally evaluated every two years, but the format is up to the lecturer. The student services people set up the electronic questionaire when my course was evaluated last semester, and they did the hard work of getting students to answer, and analysing the results, but I had the final word on which questions students were to be asked, and the emphasis was always on how to improve the course, not on whether or not I was good enough.

This is one reason I like Norwegian universities.


David Hunter 12.23.04 at 4:39 am

I just got my evaluations back from Massey University and was amused to find that I got a 4.8/5 response to the statement: The lecturer encourages active learning.

I asked my class what active learning was after the evaluations were done. Only a handful of people had any idea.

This to me represents the main problem of standardised testing, those writing the tests and those taking them are standardly not coming from the same perspective

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