In high school, teachers have been conditioned to “teach to the test.” (Thanks, Obama. Wait, no. We need to blame that nonsense on Dubya.) In college, professors are increasingly being conditioned to “educate to the evals.” It’s no secret (especially among higher ed. faculty) that relying on course evaluations as the primary (or in many cases, only) method for evaluating an instructor’s effectiveness is the worst possible way to determine how good instructors are at their jobs. Now it seems, the courts want to add their fingerprints to this crime scene, and in a big way. It’s great if we want to reassign the blame for this criminal act to the government. The problem, of course, is that the damage is done—the house has been emptied of its valuables. The stereo equipment has been pawned for pennies on the dollar two counties over and we homeowners are left sitting here trying to make a go of it with nothing to show for our efforts but the ratty old grammar textbook that even the thieves didn’t bother with.
There is an excellent article on NPR right now that discusses the problem of student evals in depth—with research! Here’s an excerpt that accurately describes a serious problem with reliance on student evals as a measure of instructor effectiveness:
"If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations from your students," Pellizzari said. Students, by and large, don't enjoy learning from a taskmaster, even if it does them some good . . . An easy-A prof may earn five stars in return for handing out good grades. But this leniency, his research suggests, does the students no long-term favors.
That’s right—handing out A’s like Halloween candy gets you smiley faces from students, but it doesn't result in an educated populace. I have to rely on these students’ decision-making abilities about my healthcare and finances years from now when I’m confined to my bed in the nursing home and I want them to be critical thinkers and socially aware of the world, not people who coasted through college by getting beer money from hocking their roommate's iPhone.
Another serious issue related to asking students what they thought of the instructor is that some students have no idea what the course was supposed to teach them so they equate doing poorly with the instructor’s personal feelings, either towards them as individuals or towards their socio-political beliefs. Rarely do poorer performers recognize that their grades reflected an inability to distinguish between "their" and "there." Worse, there are students who don’t even know what’s going on at all. Case in point: I received an email from a student this morning apologizing for not attending my classes this whole week. His reason? He “was informed” that the semester was over and his attendance was no longer required. Institutional practices have students like this evaluating my skills as an educator. Several such students noted that they didn't like my fashion choices. Also, I am apparently going to hell.
When it comes to gen ed. courses, often students don’t know why they’re required to take the classes and feel like their time is being wasted before the semester even starts. It’s difficult to get good evals from students who explicitly state on the first day that they’re only taking this bullspit course because the university wants their tuition money. There is a disconnect between what it means to get a liberal arts education and how liberal arts classes may, you know, be important to that goal. In a broader sense, these students have never been told by anyone along the education ladder—parents, high school teachers, academic advisors—that attending college (especially at a large university) will not magically result in them “making lots of money” down the road. College is not vocational training. I suggest if that’s your goal, you invest your tuition money in an apprentice plumbing program. You won’t have to take stupid critical thinking courses and in a few years’ time you can be pulling in $60K annually.
In summation, my favorite student course evaluation of all time said simply “Bush/Cheney 2004!!!” It was from Spring 2009. That student gave me a slightly higher rating than the one whose entire evaluation was a single word: poop. That’s the current value of my teaching.