Tuesday, June 29, 2010
The deleterious effects of student evaluations extend beyond the personal injuries these comments rehearse; they infect the entire system of higher education. Teachers who fear (correctly) that student evaluations will determine their fate become stand-up comedians — wave your arms around, praise students excessively and “dress sharp,” advises Dr. Bob — and alter their grading policy in an effort to be liked. Since “student evaluations are driven almost entirely by the perception of grades” (Troglomorphic), grade inflation — “an insidious weed choking out real education” (vince) — “is inevitable.” Once it gets going, grade inflation feeds on itself and initiates a race to the bottom, for “just as teachers in public schools will lessen their effectiveness by teaching to the test, college teachers can lessen their effectiveness by teaching to the evaluation” (Roger Bullard). ...
There are, of course, dissenters, and they raise two points: (1) that I display a profound lack of respect for students, and (2) that I offer no alternative to student evaluations and thus seem to leave students, parents and society without protection against bad and unprofessional teaching. (This is a concern expressed by fellow columnist Ross Douthat.)
(Hat Tip: Suja Thomas.)
To the first point I would say that I respect students as persons who deserve to be treated with courtesy, which means, minimally, that they should not be harassed or singled out for ridicule or graded up or down on the basis of gender, ethnic, racial or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation. But this courtesy and respect does not extend to their ideas, which may or may not be given a hearing depending on the instructor’s preferred teaching style, and which may be summarily dismissed if they are judged to be beside the pedagogical point. Treat them as human beings with inherent dignity by all means; but don’t treat them as sages before the fact.
And as for ways of monitoring and dealing with irresponsible teaching, here the posters come to my rescue with excellent suggestions. Several propose evaluation forms that determine whether a teacher is doing what he or she is paid to do. “Are grades returned in a timely fashion, does the prof hold office hours, do they show up on time?” (Madison). Questions like that will “detect bad actors” without falling into the error of putting students in charge of their own education.
Another proposal is to base teacher evaluation on student performance in future classes so as “to actually assess whether the learning to be achieved really took place or not” (Thane Doss). John would retainthe present practice of evaluation, but with a twist: “May I suggest that Teacher Evaluations be in the form of Essays,” for that would put the burden “on the students’ expository skills and the evaluators’ analytical skills.” A number of posters call for peer review by senior faculty members who would meet with the instructor, offer guidance and constructive criticism and file formal reports that could be reviewed by a chair or dean. (This was the system in place when I was a baby instructor and is no doubt still being used by many colleges and universities.) Each of these ideas deserves consideration, and together they give the lie to the assumption that it is anonymous student evaluations or nothing.
I cannot leave the topic without remarking on the passion voiced by many who took the time to respond. A Teacher lets it all hang out and speaks for many: “Sorry kids, you are not the authority in the classroom. Me Teacher. You student. Me Teach , you learn. End of discussion . . . Education is not a business. You are not my customer. My classroom is not Burger King. You do not get to ‘have it your way.’”