Let's not scrap student evaluations just yet

The debate about student evaluations is an old one.

There have been studies showing they're influenced by bias and that they don't correlate with student academic performance. This has led some in higher education to conclude that student evaluations are "worthless," writes David Gooblar, a lecturer at the University of Iowa who runs the teaching site PedagogyUnbound.com.

While Gooblar acknowledges that student evaluations have their weaknesses, he argues that there is still some value to be gleaned from them.

Gooblar cites research from Betsy Barre, the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University. She completed a literature review of research from the 1970s to today about whether student evaluations are effective.

It turned out that a straight answer doesn't exist, Gooblar writes. Barre did find a correlation between student evaluation scores and student performance—after controlling for things we know can influence evaluations, such as class size and discipline. However, she also found that there are more factors influencing evaluations that we haven't yet identified.

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In the end, Barre concluded that "student evaluations may be flawed, but right now they're the best instrument we've got," Gooblar writes.

Gooblar recommends three ways to make the most of student evaluations:

  1. Take a break before reviewing them. Your initial reaction to the evaluations might be defensive, Gooblar writes. After an initial look at the evaluations, he recommends coming back to them in a week or so. It will help you take a more impartial view.

  2. Consider all the facts. Gooblar suggests investigating the details of your student evaluation data to look for patterns. Do negative reviews and critical comments come from a small group of unhappy students, or are they more spread out among several students? Comments from evaluations could be from students who had trouble getting to class on time, didn't do their readings, and other factors. Gooblar suggests interpreting negative evaluations with this insight in mind. He also suggests choosing which factors and questions matter most to you and focusing on the responses to those. Gooblar also suggests a tip from James Lang, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, who recommends that instructors who are early in their careers discuss student evaluations with their department chair to gain more perspective on them.

  3. Take a pulse check. Gooblar recommends experimenting with ways of collecting student feedback partway through the term. He suggests that this can not only alert you to potential issues while there's still time to fix them, but also remind students that they need to participate actively in the course to succeed.

(Gooblar, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/31)

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