- By Julia M. Williams
I have just finished reviewing my student evaluations
from the Fall quarter, and as usual, the experience has been bittersweet.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am satisfied, even pleased,
by the results of these evaluations. And I recognize how significant
the results of student evalua-tions can be. They dictate promotion
and tenure decisions, determine raises, and often influence the way
a faculty member views his or her own teaching. My problem lies in
the nature of student evaluations themselves. Because of an inherent
paradox, student evaluation forms fail both students and professors.
The forms reflect an evaluation culture that places an inordinate
value on personal opinion but does not require students to reflect
on the nature of their educational experience. Until we address those
problems, student evaluations will remain inherently flawed.
Student evaluation forms differ to some degree from
institution to institution, but in general most of them resemble the
one my college uses. The form is divided into three parts, with one
section on learning, one on the course, and one on me, the instructor.
Within each section, students are asked to evaluate aspects of the
course by marking a response ("Strongly Agree," "Agree," "Disagree," "Strongly
Disagree," "Not Applicable") to statements like "The
instructor's teaching style kept my attention" and "The
laboratory for this course reinforced the lecture material." The
numerical averages for each statement represent the quantitative component
of the evaluation. In addition, each section is followed by a window
to allow students to write additional comments. These comments cannot
be totaled and averaged like the quantitative portion, and thus represent
the qualitative component of the evaluation.
Current research has demonstrated the problems with
a form like this: They are often used to compare professors to one
another based on the quantitative results, they are biased against
women, and so on. Little attention has been paid, however, to the cultural
context in which students fill out the forms. We live in an evaluation
culture. No matter where we are and what we are doing, we are asked
to evaluate our experience. A visit to Amazon.com requires us to scroll
past lists of recommendations from people we do not know. Whether we
attend a symphony performance or pay the phone bill, we are continually
asked to rate the service or the string section. It is no wonder then
that when students are asked to evaluate my "Technical Communication" course,
they approach the task as if they considered my course the latest Hollywood
blockbuster and were now giving it two enthusiastic thumbs up: "Dr.
Williams rules!" Some will argue that student evaluations are
not part of the evaluation culture, that marketers use the response
cards to sell cellphones and video games, not college education. I
would claim that students see the evaluations as comparable, since
evaluation forms look so similar; the results are used to market certain
professors and the university, and students are accustomed to their
roles as "customers" for education.
We have also erred by making forms that are too easy
to fill out and take only minimal class time to complete. The university
requires us to collect student evaluations at the end of the quarter
or semester. Usually this means taking 10 or 15 minutes on the last
day of class, a point in the term when students are tired, overworked,
and distracted by the various assignments and exams that must be completed.
In addition, the same evaluation forms are used in every class, so
students become familiar with the nature of the questions and can speed
up their responses. As a result, we do not ask students to reflect
substantially on their learning throughout the course. Essentially
they record their feelings about the last day of class. In order to
assess their educational experience, students will have to evaluate
the course multiple times throughout the term.
The current evaluation forms are easy for everyone,
students who must fill them out, faculty who must sacrifice class time
to distribute them, and administrators who must use them to make promotion
and retention decisions. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking
that they measure a student's educational experience.
Julia M. Williams is the coordinator of technical
communication and an associate professor of English at Rose-Hulman
Institute of Technology. She can be reached at email@example.com.