Professors read and reflect on their course evaluations, which are used in determining their eligibility for tenure.
Your student course evaluations matter more than you might expect. According to Dr. Teresa Reed, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, course evaluations are a portion of what is considered for a tenured professor, an important way for students to communicate class experience to their professors and a potential signifier to higher administration if something is wrong. However, a lack of student response and implicit bias make it questionable if student course evaluations are filling the role they should.
Course evaluations, while a standard evaluation method for universities, are susceptible to students’ implicit bias, as studies have shown. The American Political Association found that the wording of the evaluations themselves changes when a professor is a woman versus when they are a man.
Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Lisa Cromer cited these facts, adding, “Women are evaluated based on their personalities, they are based on how they dress, they are based on how nurturing they are. Whereas men are based more on how smart they are. And when women aren’t gender-consistent, if they aren’t nurturing, if they’re not understanding, then it’s reflected poorly in student evaluations.”
In the digital age, it makes sense that course evaluations would move from being taken in class to being taken online. However, a study from 2016 by the American Association of University Professors discovered that online evaluations come with their own host of issues. The study found the rise of online course evaluations has led to response rates dropping drastically, and some comments become more akin to internet trolls than the constructive criticism student evaluations set out to measure.
These troll-like quotes, while not a majority, do impact and affect professors. Dr. Jennifer Airey said, “I still remember every bad evaluation I’ve ever gotten. I can quote them verbatim. They do hurt your feelings sometimes, if they’re personal.”
When student evaluations can count for so much and are seen as a valid measuring system, this can be problematic. Academic research and writing shows that the fix to student evaluations could be as simple as going back to pen and pencil.
All three professors interviewed agreed that pencil and paper evaluations yielded higher response rates. As Airey put it, “When I used to do paper and pencil evaluations, everyone was in class, so everyone would do them. When we switched to the online evaluations, the response rate dropped substantially. In a class of thirty, about five to ten students will fill out an evaluation.”
The real issue with student evaluations comes down to how they are used. They are doled out at the end of the semester after students are aware of their potential grades, and students can be vindictive. As Cromer put it, “Student evaluations get at satisfaction, not quality of teaching.”
Not all of the negative feedback given in student evaluations is unhelpful, however. As Airey pointed out, the ability to report anonymous feedback can lead to opportunities for students to report instances they might not be comfortable reporting otherwise. Reed mentioned that at TU, “On rare occasions, those evaluations may present a case in which the instructor’s aggregate numbers are a signifier of concern.”
At TU, course evaluations are an important portion of tenure reviews. Evaluations go into the candidate’s portfolio under the teaching section along with other evidence of teaching competence, such as their syllabi and curriculum. In addition, course evaluations are taken into consideration for teacher awards.
While evaluations play a role in tenure reviews, Reed was quick to assure that this is a minor portion of what is considered. At other universities, however, use of student evaluations in job placement has lead to lawsuits. Kristina Mitchell, an author on the APSC’s study, spoke to Slate about the use of course evaluations: “Our research shows that they’re biased against women,” she said. “That means using them is illegal.”
Despite the issues with student evaluations, they can and should serve an important purpose in academia: giving professors valuable feedback. Every professor I spoke with had the same thing to say about evaluations’ utility to them in planning courses down the road. Airey said, “I have gotten good feedback over the years. Most students do seem to come at this with a genuine desire to report their experience in the class, and I respect that, and you can learn from that.”
Cromer agreed that there is no doubt evaluations are helpful. “I go and read all my teaching evaluations when I’m preparing for a class,” she said.
Reed spoke to the importance of making not just your dissatisfactions known but also letting professors know when they are teaching a course well: “This is a powerful way for students to use their voices. We want to hear about the praise — teachers need that too. They love that affirmation.”