Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere


May 19, 2015

Janet Wilson has a number burned into her mind: 4.7. That’s the average student-evaluation score, on a five-point scale, that she has to reach to feel safe. Her score helps to determine her fate as a full-time, non-tenure-track professor at her West Coast research university.

“Everybody in my department is obsessed,” says Ms. Wilson, a teacher in the humanities for more than a decade. (This is not her real name: Fearing career repercussions, she asked that a pseudonym be used.) “We talk about how we get into that 4.7-and-above range. We talk about that more than about how to teach.”

Often, rather than discuss challenges in the classroom, Ms. Wilson and her colleagues pass around advice on what it takes to reach the magic number. One popular strategy is to bake cookies or brownies for students. (Chocolate-chip cookies are seen as the golden ticket. And if you’re making brownies, leave the nuts out: A student’s allergy could tank your score or, worse, lead to a phone call from Human Resources.)

She and her colleagues have shared other tips, too:

—Hand out evaluation forms when the most irascible student in class is absent.

—Be sure that the only assignment you give right before the evaluation is a low-stakes one. “Have them write an easy paper where they can talk about themselves and their journey in the class,” Ms. Wilson advises. And never give back a graded assignment on evaluation day.

—Don’t leave the classroom while the evaluations are being filled out — even if you’ve been told that you’re supposed to do so. That way one or two unhappy students won’t talk out loud and poison the rest of the class’s opinions.

—Don’t give students too much time at the end of class to fill out the forms. “If they’re in a hurry, they’ll give you all fives unless they’re mad at you,” Ms. Wilson says.

—Oh, and let students hand in papers late, retake exams like it’s the DMV, and complete extra credit, which is almost as valuable as a chocolate-chip cookie. “You can’t make a student too mad at you,” she says. “We all know we can’t afford to uphold grading standards because of the pressure put on us.”

This is a grim vision, but it’s one many professors might recognize. Student ratings of professors can have the feel of a high-stakes game. Faculty members speak of evaluations’ driving decisions on hiring, promotion, and tenure; adjuncts say they feel paralyzed when a low score can mean a pink slip.

“They line up everybody’s evaluation scores and pick from the top,” Ms. Wilson says of her department. “If we don’t get good evaluations, the chair will call us in and ask: How do we get these numbers up?”

Of course, not every institution or department is a firm believer in the importance of evaluations. But faculty concerns remain strong — even among professors, like Ms. Wilson, who say they actually like getting feedback from their students. “Don’t get me wrong, I think student evals are useful,” she says. “I used to push my students, even the ones I didn’t like, to fill them out. I don’t want to do away with them. But it’s just frightening that administrators turn the entire discussion of what your teaching is like over to a bunch of 19-year-old kids.”

Is the Customer Always Right?

Like Yelp in the restaurant industry or TripAdvisor in tourism, the student evaluation can be a powerful tool of communication for the frustrated student-customer. That’s precisely what worries many professors: They view evaluations as part of the growing pressure, especially at public institutions, to treat students like clients and professors like service employees.

Earlier this year, a Republican state senator in Iowa, Mark Chelgren, proposed a bill — which never came close to passing — that would have fired professors, even tenured ones, who scored low on their student evaluations. Mr. Chelgren cited high student-loan debt to argue that students should be able to hold their professors accountable through metrics. “Professors need to understand that their customers are those students,” he told The Chronicle.

Many faculty members say it’s folly to place anywhere near that much emphasis on evaluations whose utility is questionable at best.

Michael P. Chaney, an associate professor of counseling at Oakland University, in Michigan, says that over the past few years, more of his colleagues have expressed concern over the role of evaluations. “We’ve been debating how relevant and beneficial they are,” he says. “There seems to be a disconnect between how faculty view their usefulness and how the university’s promotions and tenure committees view them.”

Among the reasons to be cautious: Response rates tend to be low, a problem that has worsened as more colleges turn to online evaluations. Completed evaluations all too frequently include racist and sexist invective. And students often use the forms simply as a space to vent their frustrations.

“I don’t view student evals as very valuable,” Mr. Chaney says. “Students either really, really like you, or they don’t. There’s no in between.”

Adam McKible, an associate professor of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoes Mr. Chaney. Faculty members at his institution, which is part of the City University of New York, are scored on a five-point scale, he says, and “you either get ones or fives — there’s no subtlety in the middle.”

“There’s space on the back for comments,” he says. “Occasionally students write something thoughtful. But they mostly say things like ‘He’s an awesome dude’ or ‘Loved your mustache.’”

Those comments aren’t particularly useful for his teaching, nor will they carry much weight in promotion decisions. Still, Mr. McKible, who has been teaching since 1993, keeps a big, fat file full of evaluations. At times he has adjusted his teaching based on the feedback: “I’m more conscious of my behavior in the classroom if students say I’m being too tart or assigning too much work,” he says.

Other comments, though, are just downright hurtful. Mr. Chaney, a gay white man who teaches courses about diversity, was particularly bothered by one student’s note: “I’ll pray for you.” Other students have accused him of having “an agenda.”

“Because of those types of comments, I don’t read all of my evaluations,” he says. “I collect them, but they’re sitting in a file cabinet.” Thinking about the harsh feedback, he says, “makes me hypersensitive and hyperaware to the point where it is difficult for me to be fully present in the classroom.”

Valuable Data?

Such concerns aside, do student evaluations work as a tool for measuring professors’ classroom work? Philip B. Stark, chair of the statistics department at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the question. His findings: Evaluations are little more than popularity contests, it’s easy to game the system, good professors often get bad ratings, and bad professors often get good ones.

Mr. Stark has argued that “fear of bad ratings stifles pedagogical innovation and encourages faculty to water down course content.” His study concluded that “relying on averages of student teaching-evaluation scores as the primary measure of teaching effectiveness for promotion and tenure decisions should be abandoned.”

But many administrators aren’t ready to abandon evaluations just yet. For them, faculty concerns are overstated. Evaluations, the administrators say, are just one tool to help them make decisions about tenure, promotion, and hiring.

How important a role they play varies by institution. Christine W. Thorpe, an assistant professor of human services and chair of the department at the New York City College of Technology, another CUNY campus, says her faculty colleagues are rated on a five-point scale. When she sees a score under a four, that’s a red flag.

New adjuncts with low scores are generally not asked to return, Ms. Thorpe says. If professors who have been teaching for a number of years find their scores trending downward, Ms. Thorpe pulls them in for a talk: It could be a sign that their strategies are stale.

“We tell that instructor, We know you’ve been committed to the department, but your scores are low. What’s happening? Can you improve this?,” Ms. Thorpe says. “My intention is not to fire them but to help them improve their teaching experience.”

But if two or three semesters go by with no change, she says, “I try to phase them out by reducing the number of classes they are given to teach, and then I bring them in and counsel them out of teaching.” (She sometimes proposes that terminally low-rated instructors take a break before possibly returning to the classroom.)

Ms. Thorpe says that the evaluation scores of full-time faculty members are monitored just as closely — especially professors fresh out of graduate programs, which are notorious for not teaching Ph.D.’s about pedagogy. And she points out that evaluations aren’t the only tool for tracking that development: Peer observation plays a large role as well.

Ms. Thorpe and other administrators say they are aware that student evaluations are sometimes rife with bias and accusations. “We take all of this under consideration,” she says. “We don’t just run with an accusation and penalize a professor.”

If evaluations aren’t going away, administrators can at least make sure to put them in context.

There’s much to be gained from building a student-evaluation data set, says John A. Holland, director of the writing program at the University of Southern California, which employs many faculty members off the tenure track. “It’s very important that we look at the data carefully to understand a professor’s interactions with students over time,” he says. “I have a whole history of evaluations to look how they perform in a cumulative fashion.”

But “there can be aberrations,” he says. So once he has his results, Mr. Holland sends the data to instructors. Those with low scores are invited to come in and discuss them. “We have a mentoring relationship with newer faculty,” he says. “Mentors can talk through how to improve.”

“Student opinions are only one measure — not the exclusive measure,” he says, but a symbolically important one. “We want students to know that their opinions do matter. Evaluations are not just a blow-off at the end of the semester.”

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