“Teaching Evaluations Are a Mess”

It is almost unthinkable that colleges and universities would stop using student evaluations of teachers, but if you want an argument for doing so, please have a look at an article by Victor Ray, a professor at the University of Tennessee, in Inside Higher Ed.

At issue primarily is bias—involving gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors. The article includes links to empirical studies indicating that such biases are commonplace. Simply put, students tend to employ stereotypes with disturbing frequency and it shows up in faculty ratings.

So why do we keep using student evaluations? One reason may be that we live in a world in which decisions are supposed to be driven by data. If you can’t attach a number to something, it shouldn’t exist. Plus, we have made the collective decision to treat students like customers at a cafeteria. If they don’t like broccoli, they can have ice cream instead. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t have a better idea how to evaluate instruction. It’s almost impossible for supervisors to visit the classroom of all instructors, even once a semester, especially at large colleges that employ hundreds of adjunct faculty.

When you visit with supervisors, they tell you that it’s not hard to determine who the good and bad teachers are. Word gets around quickly. Students complain if they perceive a problem. You’ll hear “awesome” used in the halls to describe the good teachers, if you listen. But these evaluations are anecdotal, and hence invalid.

Here is a key passage from the piece:

From a methodological standpoint, teaching evaluations are a mess. These evaluations lack external validity and don’t correlate with student learning outcomes. Typically, when social scientists recognize a research instrument is providing an incorrect measure, or that a measure is systematically biased, the measure is abandoned and (hopefully) replaced with a better one. Everyone knows — or should know — that teaching evaluations are better measures of student stereotypes than teaching effectiveness. Yet colleges and universities persist in laundering systematic bias through tenure and promotion processes, the legitimacy of which depend upon their supposed neutrality.

Although the methodological problems with these tests matter, it is also important to not get lost in the abstract; we must remember that biased evaluations can actually destroy people’s dreams. Promotions, raises and tenure are partially based on biased evaluations. Students who are unhappy with a grade, who dislike the opinions of a disciplinary expert or who are simply sexist can play an outsize role in their instructor’s future job negotiations.

Community colleges, unlike research universities, are completely focused on teaching. So student evaluations are much more important at our institutions. If these instruments are fatally infected with bias, what should we do? The author of the article says, at a minimum, we should not take student evaluations seriously. This is good advice, which supervisors confirm privately. But it’s curious and occasionally tragic that we are wedded to such a practice routinely.

Adjunct instructors, especially young females and persons of color, are the individuals placed in the most jeopardy, based on the evidence cited in the article. One might add that, at large institutions, flawed evaluations are more significant, since they are all we have to guide our decisions.

1 Comment

  • Student evaluations are only a problem for teachers “laying an egg” in the class room. There’s nothing that automatically excludes the benefits of “personality teaching” from high-level learning. One thing’s for sure: When a class becomes so oppressive that students drop out at a rate that would embarrass WWI generals, no one is learning.

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