I’ve been thinking about student evaluations. Actually, I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts on student evaluations after a colleague in a meeting had crapped all over the concept and then proceeded to lay it on thick over all the people who receive high numbers, accusing them of dumbing down their courses.
Student evaluations of teaching are imperfect: they measure student satisfaction and professor popularity; students are biased against women and immigrants; they should be supplemented if not supplanted by peer evaluations and other objective evaluations of student learning outcomes (I shudder at admin speak and wonder however this objective evaluation is done that’s not, you know, an exam in the course)… And so on, an so forth.
The thing is, I don’t think evaluations are completely useless because I know that most students, at least where I teach, are in fact invested in their success. They want to learn, they want to get an education for their money, and they definitely share among themselves information on who’s worth taking a class from if you want to learn versus whom you should take if you just want an easy grade.
I always get pissed when I hear my colleagues dismiss summarily student evaluations by saying that all who get good evaluations just make their courses easy. I get very high evaluations because I work my ass off.
I am apparently notorious for how hard and labor-intensive my courses are, and the students who want a challenge and who want to learn will organize their coursework to make sure to take courses with me. I am most definitely NOT a softy—by a long shot—and I am deeply offended by the colleagues who imply otherwise. I get very high evaluations because I work my ass off.
I have a ton of office hours. Students need contact hours and my office hours are always full.
I often teach my own discussion. That’s more opportunity for contact and in a less formal setting than a lecture hall.
I learn everyone’s names. It’s a lot of work for me when there are 100 people, but it’s worthwhile because it makes for more engaged students (they feel someone cares whether they show up or not) and it’s more fun for me when I know them and they’re not just an amorphous undergrad blob.
I carefully craft homework and tweak it every year to closely follow what we’re doing in class. I have created small programming assignments to accompany each topic and give the students a more projectlike feeling when working at home.
It take a lot of effort to provide the students with the time and attention they need, with carefully selected topics and attention to how those are presented (no PPTs! I talk with them and derive/draw everything on the board so the pace would be appropriate for taking notes). I created quality course material that I feel maximize information transfer. I teach 3x a week instead on 2x because the courses are complicated and I’ve found that shorter, more frequent class meetings are better for the students. We have weekly ungraded quizzes that help the students keep track of their progress. I make sure we have the classrooms that I think work well logistically for the type of material I teach and thus enhances delivery. I know and use my strengths as a communicator.
Most students recognize quality and they know when they are learning. When they give high evaluations, they are not delusional.
I don’t know how it is for the colleagues who teach at very expensive places where I hear students can be obnoxious and entitled. Here, I find that most people do actually want to learn because they are paying good money for this education, and the money is not trivial for them or their families.
I have sat in many classes of my colleagues, doing peer review. I can say that a professor who is engaging, energetic, and knowledgeable always ends up with high student evaluations in classes that are large enough for proper statistics. I have sat in classes of several who are notorious for receiving low scores, and I can’t say that I was surprised as to why. Rule number one of teaching is that you have to be engaging enough for students to come to class and to stay awake during lecture. I am shocked by how many of my colleagues refer to this as ‘entertaining students’, as something dirty or laughable. It’s not entertaining, it’s a basic requirement—you have to have your audience’s attention. I have been in some lectures of my colleagues that made me want to blow my brains out, that’s how boring they were. Speaking in monotone, minimal engagement with students, standing next to the projector the whole time. I wanted to be anywhere but there.
You can’t teach anyone anything if you don’t want to put yourself in their shoes, envision what they know and don’t know, understand what they need from you. Empathy. You gotta have empathy for your students in order to connect with them.
Evaluation haters: please, next time when you want to advocate for supplementing or supplanting student evaluations with something else, I will support you, but please try not to crap all over your colleagues who actually do well in students’ eyes. Maybe their classes are very easy. But maybe they are as rigorous and hard as they can be, just really well taught.