Thursday, March 03, 2005

Student Evaluations

I guess it is the time of year when college professors get their student evaluations back and, of course, some of those who blog have written about their experiences. For instance Bitch PhD cites some really hillarious ones, but concludes with this:

IMHO, while evaluations are important, one down side is that
they can and do encourage this kind of "customer service" attitude towards the
professoriate--an attitude that I think is inimical to really good teaching and
learning. IMHO, reframing evaluations to encourage students to reflect on how
and what they learned, and to offer feedback on how and what they might have
learned better, would be truly valuable. Presenting them to students--as if
often done--as evaluations, not of the course but of the instructor, fails to do

PZ Myers, on the other hand is very anti-evaluations:

They evaluate how well we meet the student's expectation of
the course, which is usually radically divergent from the instructor's ("sleep
through class and get an A" vs. "understand the basic concepts of signal
transduction and epistasis," for instance.)

My thoughts:

My evaluations are usually very good, so I should not object, but I never found them useful for improving my teaching. I have not taught a large course yet. I have mostly taught labs and have also designed and "taught" a graduate journal-club-type class once.

In labs, the students mostly say that I know the material very well, am approachable and grade fairly. I still keep a couple of evaluations that state "My best TA ever!". Yet, most of the comments address issues that are out of my control - the syllabus, the physical space, the availability of materials/equipment, etc.

For the grad seminar, the only objection was that I chose all the papers. I guess they forgot how many times, just before the course began, I e-mailed everyone who signed up and asked for readings suggestions and nobody responded. Good thing about the class is that several faculty members joined in (not always the same ones every week) which made the discussion in class better, as well as broke some ice between some younger grad students and faculty.

I also teach intro to biology to adults at a community college. We meet once a week for eight weeks. Every time, the lecture lasts four hours. I know I am capable of talking for four hours - I suffer from incorigible logorrhea - but I understand that the students would not get much out of it. So, I assign articles for them to read in advance, and start with a discussion of one of the articles. Of course, I know what I am doing and, after a while, I lead the discussion in the direction I want, so I can say "A-ha!" - to which my students know it is time to sit back and pay attention because I spring up to the white-board and give a passionate 20-minute lecture on the actual science they need to know in order to be able to continue with the discusssion in an informed manner. Then we go back to the discussion for a little while longer, than have a smoke-break. The same scheme repeats for article #2 after the break etc. until the class is over. I may end with a short video followed by perhaps five minutes of my commentary.

It took me a while to calibrate the difficulty of articles I can assign. At my school, I am dealing with kids who are biology majors and products of new (and excellent) biology high-school curricula, so I can assign anything. But at the community college these are adults majoring in business or computers and have ZERO background in science and are afraid of it. Thus, I cannot use anything harder than an article from Scientific American and even there I have to make judicious choices. I try to pick articles from mainstream media that cover hot news related to biology and explain the way one critically evaluates science reporting, how one finds relevant information on the Web, and how science underlies almost everything from daily life to politics. I usually get very good evaluations (and administrators like to see that I am a "hard teacher" but "very approachable" every time I teach this).

The problem I see with evaluations is their inherent support for the notion that students are "clients" or "customers". But, one of the most important roles of the University is to change the perception of students what education is.

Incoming freshmen think of themselves as "customers" or "clients" - they expect to get a "product" which is a diploma, a GPA of 4.0 and an instant job with a nice salary and benefits. It is the job of faculty to change that perception. Each student changes at own rate and in own way. I read much more carefully the evaluations by honors seniors than by sophomores. The Department Head does the same (a smart guy).

A professor I know once did an experiment. He taught the same class two semesters in a row. First time, he did not grade on the curve, the second time he curved. You can guess already what the result was - his evaluations went up by more than a whole point the second time around.

Letters and e-mails from ex-students who, sometimes years later, write to thank a professor for teaching a most useful (or life-changing) class, get filed by the Department Head as worthier than the current evaluations.

A professor in our department is an outstanding lecturer, designs extremely hard exams, and is a very harsh grader. He is used to getting bad evaluations. Letters from ex-students, on the other hand, thank him for being that hard as this made a difference once they got into med schools. The only comment he ever got that really bothered him was one that stated that he is "not funny" (he has a very European-style wry and sarcastic sense of humor which I find very funny, but 20-year old Americans may not) .

A few years back, a very tough and strict professor (in another department) who taught a class that is by its nature boring, was, for political reasons, going to be fired (though tenured and even an Administrator herself). When the case hit the media, literally HUNDREDS of her old students wrote to the University (and the press) explaining that though at the time they thought it was a horrible class, now, with 20/20 hindsight they realize it was the ONLY class they ever had that was actually useful for them in their profession. You bet she was not fired. Once she received a public apology she ceremoniously quit (her husband hit fame and fortune in the meantime so she could afford this bold move).

If the "customers" do not yet know what the "product" is, how can they possibly evaluate that product?

As a grad TA I always tried to also go to the lectures (not just teach the lab) and my opinions on the teaching (particularly of young faculty) was often asked and always valued. I think my words have helped raise the standing of some junior faculty (in spite of initially getting bad student evaluations). On the other hand my word was probably the last straw that resulted in not hiring a part-time faculty into a permanent position (I had to re-teach all of his lectures during lab every day and, although without any preparation, in my ad hoc lectures explained the stuff to the students much better than he did with preparation). Perhaps grad students should be used in some way to evaluate faculty.

So, how can faculty be evaluated? Student evaluations are just one method, but they need to be thoroughly re-thought and re-designed to ask questions about student's learning, not about professor's style. Peer review is employed for promotions in my department and it is a good second form of evaluation. I think that graduate students should have a role in evaluating faculty, as well as in advising undergrads in wchich courses are good or not-so-good as they have a much better idea than undergraduate "peer-advisors", or for that matter, better than the faculty who may like or dislike a colleague yet have no idea if that person is an effective teacher or not.

I also think that alumni can be involved. Let's say an evaluation form is given to students after about a month into the course (to help faculty make immediate changes if something is really going bad), at the end of the course, and then every year for ten years or so in the future. One can see if the opinion gradually goes up or down as the memory dims and the ex-students gain understanding which were and which were not useful ways to impart knowledge relevant to their lives.

Combining several different methods is probably the only way one can get a reasonable idea about the quality of teaching of individual faculty. Unfortunately, I hear that student evaluations are the ONLY method in many departments around the country. That is scary.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 10:22 AM | permalink | (5 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink