TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, June 25, 2010

NY Times Debate on Student Evaluations

New York Times, Deep in the Heart of Texas, by Stanley Fish:

If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways. A course I absolutely loved may turn out be worthless because the instructor substituted wit and showmanship for an explanation of basic concepts. And a course that left me feeling confused and convinced I had learned very little might turn out to have planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding.

“Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching. And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

New York Times, In Defense of Student Evaluations, by Ross Douthat:

Allow me to respectfully dissent. Yes, in an ideal world, a student’s impression of his teacher’s abilities would be allowed to ripen, over years and decades, before anyone asked for an assessment of said teacher’s pedagogy. But I still think that more often than not, a good teacher will be recognized as such by his students while he’s teaching them, and a bad one will be accurately-pegged as well. (A decade removed from my own classroom education, I’ve revised my opinions of some of my teachers, but not that radically …) Such evaluations will always be necessarily imperfect measures of a teacher’s real quality. But in the context of a higher education system that has radically undervalued teaching skills in favor of a “publish or perish” model of professorial advancement, I think there’s a strong case for placing more emphasis on how students react to their classroom experience, however provisional those reactions may be.

Legal Education, Teaching | Permalink

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