It’s the end of the quarter, and as you walk into the stifling lecture hall, the TA, poised to strike at the door, hands you an all-too-familiar white and pink sheet. “We’re doing evaluations today,” he chirps, shuffling the stack of papers and repositioning for the next unsuspecting student who walks through. They’re stationed at every entrance, and pacing the aisles to make sure that no student goes without paper. Your professor beams down at everyone from the stage, ready to leave the room while students decide if the professor’s lecturing methods are a 3 or a 4.
At University of California, Santa Barbara, students do evaluations for all the TAs and professors at the end of the quarter. The responses stay anonymous, and the results scanned for their eyes only, as they see what students think of them and how they can improve. Some take it to heart, and some don’t—but that may change soon in some states.
A bill recently introduced in the Iowa state Senate suggested that professors should be evaluated simply on student evaluations, and any low-rated professors would find themselves out of a job at the end of the year. The former professors would not be able to rely on tenure or appeal to get their job back.
While student evaluations are sometimes thought of as the most candid and dimensional way of analyzing how professors teach and test their students, a number of problems are buried in such an approach. One key problem, while not common, is that it is easy for people to flame teachers under the guise of anonymity. You can easily give your professor a ‘1’ (meaning worst) for everything he/she did, and write “haha u suck” in the additional comments. While this often does not happen, many students don’t care enough to give a well-written and thought-out evaluation of how their professor has performed.
On the flip side, some students might choose to give a professor straight 5’s (meaning best) just to get the evaluation over with. Evaluations can feel forced down our throats when it’s the end of class and everyone is itching to fill it out as quickly as possible so they can leave. While it’s great to see someone get a perfect evaluation, it allows very little room for professors to grow if they receive an abundance of these and actually do need to improve on some of their teaching methods. This system can be easily abused, and it isn’t as reliable as we’d like to think it is when it comes to ejecting professors from their offices.
These two groups seem like the outliers, but studies from a UC Berkeley professor show that the straight 1’s and 5’s aren’t chock full of trolls. Philip Stark, the chairman of Berkeley’s statistics department, says that it is generally very happy or unhappy students that fill out these evaluations. With such polarizing results, how are we able to generate an equal, fair response?
Professors who see these evaluations may feel pressured to perform in a certain way, and not necessarily a way that provides students with the material they need to perform well. Some may resort to bribing students (suspicious bags of Starbursts and individually-portioned M&Ms have been seen floating around classrooms near evaluation day). Others might not teach much in favor of being known as a cool professor who doesn’t test on anything important, or give no work to learn from, leaving students woefully unprepared to face future grad schools and job prospects.
Thankfully, this bill died several weeks ago in the state senate, but educators are still pondering ways to best evaluate professors. If there were some way to guarantee that every student would give a fair, proper evaluation of their professors, it’s possible that the system could even out enough to paint a picture of what their teaching is really like. Perhaps it could be incorporated into an overall evaluation that also encompasses, say, random undercover students watching and then evaluating the professor’s lectures and exams during the class duration. Either way, it’s clear that teacher evaluations can’t be our only way of determining what makes a professor worthwhile.