June 23, 2004
Professorial Musings on Student Evaluations
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Law professors handle student evaluations of their teaching in various ways. One makes a ceremonial show of tossing them in the trash unopened. Another assiduously pores over each one, trying to extract pearls of wisdom to improve her classroom performance. A third worries that a drop from 4.5 (out of 5.0) to 4.4 will adversely affect his tenure chances.
Why, then do we rely so heavily on student evaluations? It is hard to believe that professors and administrators do not realize how weakly they measure the amount a teacher has taught his students. Even if they did not, if good teaching was the objective, surely we would pay some attention to the syllabi and what kind of tests were given and use objective evaluators -- students or faculty observing single class sessions -- which we do not do in any serious way. Rather, I think that "good teaching" means "contented students" for the people who rely on student evaluations. Student evaluations are indeed a good way to measure this. And it is a reasonable objective. Administrators are trying to sell a product, and if you view the student as a customer rather than as someone to whom you have a moral obligation, you want to design a product that he wants. The student will likely want a course that has a low workload and gives him a pleasant feeling of accomplishment while being described as difficult course on an advanced topic. Professors have incentives similar to administrators-- it is more fun teaching contented students, and while it is quite difficult to know how to make students learn (I know that after 20 years I still don't know when I have succeeed and when I have failed, or even whether I, as opposed to the students' own efforts, make much difference), it is much easier to figure out how to make students pleased.Mike Rappaport (San Diego) adds:
Interestingly, at one law school I know, the student evaluations ask the students many questions. Not a single one of them, though, asks how much the student believes he learned overall in the course. They ask all kinds of things, like how well the professor integrated current events, but not how much was learned. Hard teachers, who give a lot of work, would benefit from this question being asked. And so would the students.
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As if law professors really care! Law professors could improve their teaching in so many easy ways. For example: mid term exams, bi-weekly quizzes, brief writing assignments, more targeted reading assignments.
Professors do none of those things because they don't care if their students learn. At every level of school there are more tests than just one final exam--testing is the only way for students to assess their developing understanding and stay interested and focused.
Law professors however are too lazy to mark the 100 exams or quizzes they would have to do. But then, can you blame them--I mean, they do teach one whole course per semester!
Posted by: russel trust | Jun 24, 2004 11:58:21 AM