A Ku Indeed!

Posting Teaching Evaluations Online

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on October 2, 2008

Apparently the Missouri State legislature passed a law (I can’t remember the number) that, among other things, requires all public colleges and universities in the state to post, online, their teachers’ teaching evalutations. I haven’t had a chance to think this new law through, though at the gut level I’m not sure I like the idea. Anyone have any intuitions on this, one way or the other?

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5 Responses

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  1. Rob said, on October 2, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    I think the law is well-intended. But so is the road to hell.

    In theory, you’d be able to see what students think about their professors, how well they learned, etc. You could even potentially surmise the difficulty of a class by reading the reviews and finding the ratio of negative to positive.

    However, I imagine a future where students band together against teachers they view as unfair, writing horribly critical reviews (perhaps even outright lying) in an attempt to get even with perceived unfairness. Then gas will run out, society will crumble, we’ll all get around by motorcycle, and fight with other clans for survival and petroleum until global warming causes a new ice-age, forcing us to retreat inside to slow, cold, deaths… Also zombies.

  2. Jonah said, on October 5, 2008 at 4:53 am

    Well, there’s already an online service, http://ratemyprofessors.com that publishes student opinions (btw, Chris, you seem to have pretty good reviews there). As a student I was leery of other students evaluations of the teachers, because I had my own, peculiar demands. As a teacher, I still have the opinion that student opinions are not indicative of the quality of the teacher. I think its unfortunate that student evals are weighted so heavily in annual reviews, and thus to salaries, at least here at AUC.

    That being said, I am always in favor of more transparency. The more information a student has to choose classes or plan strategies on how to do well in a class, the better, in my humble opinion.

    On the other hand, I have a strong feeling that there is a correlation between a student getting high grades and that student giving good evaluations. So I would be more in favor of written evaluations, where the reader can more closely evaluate the judgment of the person writing, than straight numerical evaluations which can be misleading on so many levels.

  3. Chris said, on October 5, 2008 at 6:09 am

    Jonah/Rob,

    First — I know about ratemyprofessor; but this is different. There, there’s self selection bias, and it’s not even well controlled. I mean really: who knows who fills those out? The teacher might, students might publish multiple ones, angry parents might have a go, and so on.

    I mean the actual ones that students fill out in class at the end of the term — all of the information contained would go on the university’s website. All you need to do is click it to see the professor’s evaluations.

    In general, I’m actually always in favor of more transparency as well (sunlight being the best disinfectant, and all that). But…usually demands for transparency regard elements that are relevant to the question or issue at hand. This is my question here: are these elements relevant? Worse: are they misleading? Worse yet: do they send the wrong message?

    You folks have pointed to some of the concerns I have.

    1. IMO, teaching evaluations are not reflective of teaching quality. They are reflective of:

    a) the students’ (dis)approval of the teacher’s personality
    b) the students’ belief about how much fun they had in the course
    c) the students’ belief about how good the teaching was
    d) the students’ (dis)like of the subject matter, mostly here pre-determined before the class begins.
    e) the students’ belief about the grade they will get in the course.
    f) the students’ perception of the amount of work in the course.

    (A) for the most part has little to do with teaching effectiveness. Sure, if a teacher is a total ass, this will retard the ability of students to learn. But for the most part, this is irrelevant.
    (B) Same here as (A). Nothing wrong with a fun class, but a fun class doesn’t mean a class in which you learned anything, and a class that is not fun doesn’t entail a class in which you haven’t learned anything.
    (C) perception and reality are two different things. A student can think the teaching in a class is good, but be very, very wrong.
    (D) – (F) totally irrelevant

    A quick point: my claims here against evaluations are not personal. My evaluations are consistently very good. I just don’t take them to be about “teaching” — I take them to be about other things.

    2. Making evaluations public sends a message. It tells students: “Use this to decide whether to take a class.” Which means that they are endorsing (a) – (f) above as relevant criteria to use in determining whether a professor is actually a good teacher.

    Making them public — in the absence of any other public criterion — is a big move that should not be taken lightly. It embraces and endorses the suggestion that students are ‘consumers’ and that the customer is always right. But students, IMO, are not customers. The fact that they pay (or someone does) doesn’t mean that they are. All consumers pay for goods, but paying doesn’t make you a consumer. When I go to the doctor I pay, but I’m a “patient”; when I see a therapist the same applies. I don’t think of myself here as a consumer. I’m entering into a relationship with a practitioner of a skill (or service) of which I have no knowledge — I entrust my own good to that person, not being able to know for sure whether they are doing their job correctly because I don’t understand what it is that they do.

    That said, it may be the case that later on in the future I’ll have a better idea. The patient given certain drugs to battle an illness can tell later on whether the drugs worked, and then whether the doctor led them on the right road. Sometimes, however, patients die, and not because of bad doctoring! It would be hard for a layman to know whether the doctor is good at the time. Similarly, if I see a therapist, it’s not likely that I can “rate” whether the person is a good therapist.

    Sure, there are “bedside mannerisms” that I can rate both on, but they are just that — bedside manners. A patient is not the best judge of whether the doctor or the therapist is any good at what they do, and certainly not “in the midst” of the actual procedure (or teaching).

    Of course, these are all complicated issues, and there are millions of objections and counter-replies that can be made. But that gets at some of what I’m thinking here.

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