Are student evaluations unfair or effective?

Bethany Montgomery, Staff Writer

 

At universities across the country, student evaluations have long been a method of measuring a professor’s abilities. At Saint Martin’s University, professors hand out these evaluations at the end of each semester, allowing students to anonymously critique, commend, or comment on the teaching style of the professor to benefit the university and future classes. While this is theoretically an excellent idea, its real-life implementations have been put under scrutiny by some. While these evaluations are distributed among students at Saint Martin’s and other institutions, according to Inside Higher Ed, many universities have already stopped using these to influence any personnel choices or measures of teaching effectiveness. 

According to the American Sociological Association, the popularity of this method is largely due to the fact that “…these instruments are cheap, easy to implement, and provide a simple way to gather information, they are the most common method used to evaluate faculty teaching for hiring, tenure, promotion, contract renewal and merit raises.” 

However, these measures of feedback are heavily influenced by other factors. Evidence from various studies suggests that there are common patterns of positive or negative feedback relating closely to the time of day in which the class takes place, as well as in accordance to the race or gender of the professor. 

The association suggests that a more beneficial way of gathering student thoughts would be better reflection in feedback instead of just ratings. Student comments can more accurately present the way they absorb the material and learn from the professor’s teaching style, as opposed to merely collecting scaled ratings and short non-specific comments. They also recommend peer observational feedback, lists of source material, and self-reflections by the professor. While these reviews may still be beneficial, class size, topic, and audience must be considered. Student evaluations at Saint Martin’s University have a space for students to share their thoughts. 

Students at Saint Martin’s have somewhat mixed feelings about the evaluations, but show a general indifference to the forms. 

A communications student, Rebecca Richards says, “I think they’re helpful–as long as the professors or high-up take the advice—then sure, they’re helpful. Especially if their getting the same feedback from a lot of different students.” 

A business administration major expressed her slight disdain for the evaluations. 

“I feel like they don’t allow you to express your thoughts enough about the class.” 

Professors also seem to show a variety of thoughts, making comments in classes as varied as “I look forward to hearing your thoughts” to “it doesn’t matter what you write on the evaluations, I’ve been teaching here a long time and know what I’m doing.” While there can be some benefits to hearing student feedback, evaluations cannot accurately judge the effectiveness of different teaching methods or if the feedback is a reflection of the student’s personal feelings of the professor. When presented with an opportunity to complain, the number of willing participants is significantly higher. Some professors have also mentioned the number of direct and indirect targeted comments that are unproductive to the class. In these cases, for example, criticizing a particular professor’s haircut, passion for a topic, or even their smell. Tenured professors have even less of a motivation to care about student evaluations, as their job position is not dependent on perceived efficiency or student approval, essentially rendering the ordeal pointless.

The association does not recommend the abolishment of student evaluations, given students role as customers of universities, but it does recommend a step back from using them so heavily. In this way, professors will be more accurately evaluated, and student thoughts better represented for the benefit of future students. 

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