Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Student Evaluations of Teaching Useful - in Context

Students' evaluations of professors have great value for administrators who seek an accurate
assessment of the quality of teaching at their universities. This is in turn drives their decisions regarding faculty promotion, pay rates, and termination.

One of the problems with placing such heavy weight on student evaluations in making decisions about faculty employment is that students don't always give valid feedback. Students, like most people, don't always play fair. Students will sometimes give poor scores (not to mention rude comments) in evaluations, not because the scores are warranted, but because they felt the class was too challenging or made them work too hard. When these ratings are included in aggregate, they punish professors who simply teach difficult courses or demand high standards from their students.

How can student evaluations be more useful? A recent article outlines some suggestions on using student evaluations of teaching more effectively. The best ideas seem to revolve around cross-checking teaching quality using measurements other than student evaluations alone. For instance, finding innovative ways to assess how much students are learning by the end of their courses, rather than asking them to solely self-report how much they liked the experience of the course, is one way to supplement assessment. Other ideas that have been successfully implemented include classroom observations (both scheduled and surprise) by administrators or senior faculty, spot-checking faculty practices feedback on assignments, and including multiple iterations of student evaluations throughout the semester to give professors a chance to adjust their strategies. The Office of Faculty Enhancement at UNF provides a number of alternatives to end-of-semester student evaluations.

Context is very important in using results from student evaluations, especially because research has shown positive correlations between students' expected grades and their evaluation scores. Essentially, student evaluations are important because they provide direct feedback on how students feel about their professors' ability to educate them. However, they do not tell the whole story, must be taken in their rightful context, and need accompaniment to be used as a key metric in faculty assessment.

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