This subject has been a long-time concern of mine. Do student evaluations help or hurt teaching and learning? On one hand, student evaluations provide important student feedback about a course, which may encourage the teacher to make positive changes. On the other hand, evaluations ask students to assume an evaluation role that, for some, may diminish the role of the teacher as an expert. For example, at UCSB every course is evaluated by students every time it is taught. At the top of the form is a statement that the evaluation will affect the promotion of the teacher. I believe that this statement needlessly conflicts with a student's expectation that the teacher is an expert. Personally, I prefer a statement that says something like: "I am interested in your learning experience in this course. What was particularly valuable and what was particularly difficult for you? Please make any suggestions that would have made the course more effective for you."
I recently found this quote, extracted from a study of student attitudes about the course evaluations and summarized in the Desmoines Register:
"About a third of students surveyed at both schools admitted they had stretched the truth on anonymous teacher evaluations, which teachers at colleges circulate at semester's end. A majority, 56 percent, said they know other students who have done the same. Twenty percent of participants admitted they had lied on the comments section of the evaluations.
The good news: Students fib in some cases to make their instructors look good, the study shows. The bad news: More often, they do it to punish professors they don't like."
"The stakes are even higher in classes where instructors dumb down their classes or inflate grades to boost the odds that students will like them. The practice is widely acknowledged by professors and has been studied by researchers, including Duke University statisticians who found professors who give better grades get higher marks on evaluations."
One of my colleagues in the UCSB biology dept. found a very high correlation between the mid-term exam scores and the overall rating for his course. These kinds of findings strongly suggest that some kinds of student evaluations lead to grade inflation. I also wonder whether students "liking" a particular professor leads to more learning. I have also observed that teachers who get good evaluations tend to like the current system, while those who get poor evaluations dislike it. This system, at UCSB, assures a steady stream of distraught professors to the office of instructional improvement. It is good that the teachers get advice on improving their courses, but at what cost?
I think we can improve courses, encourage teachers to spend time improving their courses, and improve the relationship between students and faculty, without evaluation forms that are so judgmental. A more collaborative and positive tone would be set if the evaluation forms reflected genuine interest on the part of the teacher in how students experienced his/her course. Truly, we are interested in students' opinions; just not their rants because a course is too hard or they don't "like" the professor.
What do you think?