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Teaching Tip: The Problem with Student Evaluations

September 18, 2015

evaluationsTeaching evaluations are a part of our academic lives–and as such, they can bring joy and good feedback, as well as frustration and sadness. Recent research (see Faculty Focus, Sept. 16, 2015) verifies that when looking at small differences in student ratings (say a 4.05 vs. a 3.92), faculty and department chairs can draw unwarranted conclusions. That’s a problem when ratings are used–as they are– in decision-making processes regarding hiring, reappointment, tenure, promotion, merit increases, and teaching awards. Here are some ways to maintain your objectivity:

Aggregate your data. Look at your scores on individual items across different courses, taught during different semesters, and then look at overall ratings of your OM course across multiple sections over several years. If you see trends, you can think about drawing conclusions.

Look at how the instrument is defining good teaching. Rating instruments operationally define teaching. If they ask questions about giving lectures and about being organized, prepared, and fair, the instrument deems those items to be important characteristics of teaching. 

Work for a realistic perspective on the results. Many of us are too vested in the numbers. Nonetheless, we can’t let their importance blind us to what they’re providing. Feedback on instruments offers a view of our teaching. It’s not a 360-degree panorama, but rather closer to the view provided by a small window.

Don’t look at the results for answers; use them to generate questions. What questions does your data set raise? What tentative explanations need further verification? If some of the data conflict, that’s a place to ask questions.

Let others help you find your way to the answers. Tell students you’ve got some questions about the results; you need more information. They can provide valuable feedback if they’re asked focused, specific questions, and if they think you care about their answers. Colleagues can help accurately interpret the results. They can tell us if they think we’re overreacting to negative feedback, or if a conclusion seems justified by the results. They can offer alternative explanations and brainstorm potential solutions.

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