Of Students, Customers and the Agony of Evaluation

Earlier this month the opinion piece “The Unnecessary Agony of Student Evaluations” by Spurgeon Thompson at The Chronicle of Higher Education examined some issues associated with student evaluations of courses. I would like to examine more closely 4 of the themes in the piece.

Students Are Not Customers

I will accept that students are not customers in the way many of us define “customer.” To me, students are more like clients. They are people I would like to help succeed, and I would like them to feel my help is worth spending the money we charge them. I would like to establish a long term relationship with those that are willing, and I would like for them to provide feedback that will help me help them in this journey.

Even though Thompson’s iPhone example is interesting, I can think of another example that may support why students should be able to give evaluations. Think about getting your first driver’s license or permit at the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you need to reacquaint yourself with the process, please review the requirements for your state or review obtaining drivers permits for Minnesota. Here are the highlights for the MN instruction permit:

  • be at least 15 years old
  • have completed at least 30 hours of driver education
  • be enrolled in a behind-the-wheel driver class
  • pass a vision test
  • pass a written test
  • pay some fees
  • complete an application
  • depending upon age, have a parent or legal guardian sign the application

Should the DMV care at all what the applicants think of the process? Should any part of the process be subject to feedback from the people seeking the permit? What would they know anyway? They are being told by the DMV whether they get to advance or not. When it comes to permitting driving, the applicants are not even “amateurs,” so letting them evaluate the process must be “almost absurd.”

Few Professors Get Fired Because of Bad Evaluations

Okay. So the argument is “few professors are fired because of bad evaluations…” which indicates a lack of efficacy on the part of the student and is indicative of the myth of consumer power. As a result, there is no value in student evaluations. Perhaps the goal is not to get professors fired, but to gain feedback that may be valuable in teaching future classes.

A professor could even ask for formative feedback during the term in order to improve the class while it is being taught, but this would require the professor to care what the students have to think about the class. If a professor believes students are not even “amateurs,” formative feedback would be a pointless effort.

All of Us Internalize the Responses We Get

So the people who are not even amateurs and are without efficacy can do the following damage?

But all of us internalize the responses we get; we’re told to be tough inside when they are negative. We somehow believe them, as if they are truths objectively obtained. Students once ourselves, we hunger for grades and approval. Regardless of how many times our colleagues tell us not to worry over the bad evaluations, and not to let the good ones go to our heads, we are still very much students inside, seeking grades.

Wow. I admit finding the value in some evaluations can be tough, but if this is what students can do what is the expected outcome if other faculty (peers) do the evaluations?

Professionals Should Handle Quality Control

Apparently, this is the expected outcome: “Let the professionals handle quality control. Let the teachers evaluate each other, and create an environment of trust and humanity, honesty with consequences, intellectual growth, and improved institutional values.”

Lovely. Assuming this utopia exists, the student inside “seeking grades” would have no issues with this process? Does anyone know of any department where the faculty have issues with each other? If there is a department where the faculty have issues with each other will the responses not be internalized?

Another issue is what is the definition of a “professional.” Who is qualified to assess teaching? Will the faculty members evaluating the professor include someone credentialed in teaching or the learning sciences? I expect there will be someone credentialed in the discipline being evaluated, but we know too much about how people learn to leave evaluation to those who may only be amateurs. “Leaving it to amateurs doesn’t make sense.”

A final issue with this idea is having the time for the faculty to evaluate each other. Hopefully, this service would be valued when it comes to promotion and tenure decisions and merit raises. This cannot be a hit and run evaluation, but one that looks at the entire class from how the professor conceives it to how it is executed over the course of a term.

What to Do?

Ideally, evaluations of courses would include the students because without them we have no one to teach. They may not know how the class should be taught, but they sure know what it is like to be a student in the class.

Well designed peer evaluation can be very effective even if none of the evaluators is credentialed in teaching or the learning sciences. I suggest they work with those on campus who are credentialed in teaching or the learning sciences to develop an evaluation that would include what we are learning about learning. This would be an ongoing process that would help elevate teaching across all disciplines.

Whether evaluation is done by students, peers or both, the use of evaluations should be to improve teaching rather than to inflict punishment. I wish I could claim that I do not make mistakes when I teach, but I do. My failure would be if I do not learn from these mistakes.