Evaluating student evaluations

The Times has an article about professors who are seeking more frequent feedback from their students. A BU professor, Muhammad Zaman, asks for ratings from his students every other week and charts the results.

It asks more, too: “How can the professor improve your learning of the material?” “Has he improved his teaching since the last evaluation? In particular, has he incorporated your suggestions?” “How can the material be altered to improve your understanding of the material?” “Anything else you would like to convey to the professor?”

When asked why every college teacher doesn’t take this approach, Zaman says:

“Excellent question,” he said. “I know evaluations are a very loaded topic. And it’s true you have to have a thicker skin. And there’s another problem. Is the evaluation the diagnostic or the cure? If you’re a tenured professor, and you don’t care very much about your teaching, would it make any difference if you didn’t get good ratings?”

I don’t think this is fair. There are reasons for not seeking such frequent student evaluations besides not caring or being thin-skinned. We talk a lot about this with each other. First of all (and less importantly), I can’t imagine asking students to evaluate me, as Zaman does, based on whether I take their criticism into account. Too many criticisms are slightly bizarre one-offs (“Too much black and white in the PowerPoints”), and too many are in direct contradiction of each other. Every semester, I get some comments telling me I allow too much discussion and should lecture more, and others saying I lecture too much.

More importantly, though, many, many professors and instructors are genuinely skeptical of what student evaluations can tell us. We’ve all had the experience of having taught a class where we know the students actually learned more, but we got lower evaluations. Students are often mistaken about what study skills are most effective — why should they be more accurate about what teaching techniques are most effective?

I take something of a middle path. I think students are not necessarily best poised to say what best helps them learn the material. But they are best poised to say what excites them and interests them the most. What is my goal for them? Twenty years down the road, do I want them to remember the difference between property dualism and substance dualism, or do I want them to apply enthusiastically philosophical thinking to their everyday lives? The enthusiasm they have for the class is as relevant as the material I actually teach them.

So I do a mid-way approach, partially borrowed from a professor in my department who thinks a lot about pedagogy. At the beginning, I ask them to write a paragraph telling me what their goals are for a college education and how this course fits in with them. I tell students they are free to send me an anonymous email at any time criticizing my teaching. (No one ever takes me up on this.) Halfway through the semester, I ask them to give me a self-assessment. I ask them how they are doing, what they could do to be better students, and what I am doing that is helping them learn and what isn’t. I prefer this to Professor Zaman’s approach because it puts some of the learning onus on them as well as me. What they could do better, not just what I could do better – especially since there is a bit too much of a “Spoon-feed me your material, make it entertaining, and give me an A!” attitude already. These are bracingly honest, with students often admitting they spend too much time in class emailing, don’t do the readings, etc. But I do get quite useful feedback as well, and have used it to alter my approach. They also have to do a self-assessment at the end.

(BTW, the single most useful innovation I’ve done in the past three years, according both to my students and and my gauge of how much they understand is a simple weekly true/false quiz. Made a drastic difference in attendance, attention, understanding, participation, everything. For next to no effort on my part. Awesome!)


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. My first thought about the ongoing evaluations was: ass-covering. Which might be smart. If you gave the students the opportunity to complain all term, and they didn’t say anything before they knew their grades, that raises questions about the validity of end-of-term grumbles.

    • Yeah, that’s why I give the standing offer of an email any time during the semester. I’m not sure it does anything.

      The other thing I’m thinking is that students think that a professor who thinks their opinions are important is a great professor, and will give higher (real, end-of-term) evaluations just for that.

  2. I’m very much in agreement with you, Rose.

    Two things that struck me with the weekly assessment were a) I. the techer, don’t need another weekly task, and b) many students will get irritated at doing it weekly. However doing it as much as every third or perhaps even ever quarter of the term would be reasonable.

    All your other criticisms are spot on. My regular, and frustrating, experience is getting contradictory evaluations (usually a combo of, “I love the way he explains things with stories,” and “he goes off on tangents and I get lost”).

    But evaluations must be focused on “Am I, the student, learning from this instructor,” and not, “do I like this instructor” or “did this class keep me entertained?”

    My own personal take is that evaluations from students who get an A or B and have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better should be kept and evaluated, and all others should be thrown away before anybody bothers to read them. This semester I have one bizarre class where I have a solid core of regular attendees, who will all do reasonably well, but collectively an absentee rate of over 50%, with some of those students not showing up for several weeks at a time. Why in hell should they even be allowed to evaluate me when they haven’t been there frequently enough to do so?

    • 50% attendance? You gotta wonder why they bothered to enroll in the first place.
      That’s when it’s about time to break out the shock collars (just kidding, Hanley; put down the remote control).
      Maybe they should go to this university instead.

      • Speaking of…

        I took a history of Germany class while I was working on a History Endorsement (never finished the requirements as our Social Studies Dept is a mess of political BS and infighting.) The professor based our grade one: Midterm Exam. Term Paper. 4 Short Essays written at any time in the semester.

        Notice. He did not grade a final exam.

        So the first week after the midterm I show up for class with 3 other people. The professor comes whistling into the room pushing a TV/VCR (he used a lot of German films to help illustrate what he was talking about) so he can’t see the room until he’s in it. He turns the TV and looks out and then stops dead.

        Worst was that I knew on Day 1 that this was going to happen and didn’t have the heart to tell him….

        It was his first semester at that college… poor guy.

    • James, I got a straight A in a class I’d only attend for 10 minutes a week.
      Another teacher announced that his class was for sleeping in (and judging by the sheer amount of homework assigned, he meant it) [got a B in that class, skipped about half the lectures. Know the material backwards and forewards, though — better than half my physics classes]

    • I know. It was nice when they did evaluations on paper, because at least only the ones who showed up did them.

    • What time is it? I took a statistics course that was in the middle of the night (8 AM), and attended maybe 3 of the lectures, but I did all of the homework and took the midterm and final. Got an A, and I can still talk somewhat intelligently about skew [1] and kurtosis.

      1. The professor’s hobby-horse was the idea that a skewed (asymmetrical) normal distribution fit empirical data much better than the standard symmetrical one.

  3. On evaluations, I think that they may be very useful at the College level but I can assure you at the Secondary level they’d be wasted printer paper. I can tell you that in about 4 years you’re going to get this crop of kids who have come to expect attendance as the only requirement of an A. Despite having had failing grades for 30 weeks, I still can’t get some to bring a notebook to class, do homework, or keep their hands off their phone for more than a minute. Heck in one class I have two 16 year olds who make fart noises to see who will get the most giggles.

    Part of it is our curriculum. We test the daylights out of these kids. Everything is broken down into objectives that can be turned into mulitple choice ACT-like questions. If it can’t be broken down, we don’t teach it. I wish I could listen to any feed back about improving but I have to keep moving because I’m expected to have reviewed every objective that’s on the test, just like it’s on the test in a way that preps the kids for that test.

    • Um, we’ve already got them. 🙂 By no means all students are like that. But I’m regularly shocked at the low, low expectations we have of students compared to when I was an undergrad. Like, that they should show up and have done the reading. Some of the writing is shocking. (But at least then I know they didn’t plagiarize it.) And their expectations are shocking too – that they shouldn’t have to work for their grade because we should pour information directly into their heads, that effort should count, etc. This semester, I told a student to read a paper that was relevant for his paper. Junior year level class. Gave him a full citation. He said, “Aren’t you going to give me the paper?” Turns out, our campus does have a library.

      But there are a lot of great enthusiastic students, especially when you teach upper level classes. My students this semester are kicking ass.

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