Doug Cohen: A critique of student evaluations

In some classes, professor evaluations are the only chance students have to give an honest opinion of the course – making them one of the truest forms used to judge professors and learning.

And their importance is rising, as many universities – GW included – are weighing student evaluations more heavily in their review and promotion of professors.

The University’s recently-established Teaching and Learning Collaborative, which is seeking to improve the quality of teaching and learning throughout GW, is exploring how the evaluation process can be strengthened and how to optimize student feedback for better teaching.

Updating the criteria that evaluations measure will allow for a better system to gauge student learning, but this must be done in a manner that does not overburden professors or define how they teach.

In students we trust?
As college tuition has steadily increased, the idea of the student as a consumer has gained prominence. Since students are investing more in their education, higher education experts, politicians and students have argued they deserve more of a say in how their education is provided. Evaluations are one such way to give that voice to students.

This idea has most clearly manifested itself in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry proposed that the Texas State University System have tenure promotions based in large part on student satisfaction.

Yet as universities and colleges have experimented with allowing student reviews to dictate promotions and pay raises for professors, critics have fought back, arguing that professors dilute their course material and workload to earn higher student ratings.

Opponents also doubt that students are actually able to judge their own educational outcomes. When students enter the classroom, they are not like traditional consumers. A college-aged student isn’t equipped to make a decision about how a professor should teach material, or what strategies should be implemented throughout the course. Education is ultimately dictated by the wisdom of the university, and not impulsive student perception.

Stagger, specify, survey
This does not mean that student evaluations are worthless, as “well-designed evaluation forms,” can in fact, “capture important information about student learning,” according to a report by three economics professors at the University of California, Riverside. There are many effective strategies being implemented across higher education, designed to improve the value and accuracy of student reviews.

Often, professors find that many of the mandatory questions on departmental reviews do not appropriately measure the type of learning that occurs in their particular classes, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

To combat this, professors should instead ask their own questions. By seeking feedback they deem most important to their courses and material, professors will get the best gauge on how students are performing and more importantly, learning.

To better integrate student input throughout the semester, there should also be mandatory evaluations mid term. What is the point of only garnering student feedback at the end of the semester, when students are almost finished with the course? If evaluations are collected in the middle of the semester, professors will be able to see if they need to improve or adjust a particular aspect of the course or their teaching styles.

Many surveys ask broad questions to determine improvement in intellectual capacity or critical thinking skills, but this might not be the best way to measure student performance, according to a recent study by Patrick T. Terenzini and Ernest T. Pascarella, authors of the book “How College Affects Students.” Instead, asking more specific questions on the surveys yields more information about courses and instructor quality.

Questions such as how well a professor explained and reviewed material, outlined instructions and used class time are better indicators of student learning, according to the study by Terenzini and Pascarella.

Similarly, the study from Riverside found that the most effective questions asked were if the instructor was clear and easily understandable and that the supplementary materials were informative and useful.

Course evaluations should also have students assess their own learning gains.

A professor could list a variety of learning techniques used in the class, such as discussion, group projects or hands-on activities, and ask them to rate which were most helpful and effective.

To convince students that it is actually worth the effort to fill out the new course evaluations, professors must use the new strategies seriously and take into account new and improved feedback. The University should work with each department to standardize how professors review and analyze their assessment data.

Moving beyond student feedback
While these improvements will likely make student evaluations more authoritative, the University should continue to use student feedback in conjunction with other methods of faculty review.

That’s because student reviews, “used alone and unadjusted…appear highly questionable,” according to a study by three professors at The Ohio State University. The study found that many students do reward professors with higher ratings for better grades and easier course material. Many students are also biased against certain types of professors, which can significantly alter the nature of student reviews.

This demonstrates why it can be extremely dangerous to directly tie student evaluations to promotions and pay raises. Professors do inflate grades and water down their material if their job statuses or salaries depend on it. Having evaluations play too strong of a role in academic assessments can seriously dilute students’ education.

It’s tough for us as students to be able to judge a course’s quality while we’re enrolled in it. Education is not like a trip to the mall, where we as the consumers know exactly what type of product we want. For better or for worse, professors are teaching the way they do for a reason, and often it’s because their methods are the best ones for relaying information.

Student evaluations can be used as an important guide for teaching quality, but how professors teach and the material that they use should not ultimately be at the mercy of student judgment.

Student reviews can be used to improve the educational outcomes of students, but they should not define it.

Doug Cohen, a junior majoring in political science, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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