Why I didn’t fill out the Student Evaluations

So, I realize that student evaluations of their professors are, in principle, great. Still, I didn’t fill out any, for a number of reasons. Most of these were ones that can’t be avoided by those handing out the evaluations – for example, laziness, exams & papers due, and so on – but one reason stuck out, as it was a stupid, easily fixable problem.

This evaluation consisted entirely of rating our professor’s performance in one aspect or another  (e.g. “How would you rate your professor’s preparedness for class?”) except for one space at the end where you can write any additional comments. Not necessarily bad, except that these were the 5 ratings we had to choose from: Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor.

What you’ll notice is that 4 out of the 5 options are good ones. In other words these questions are designed to encourage students to lie about our professors’ performance, presumably in order to make the professors feel good. This is one of my pet peeves in education – I hate this “everyone is wonderful at everything” mentality that sometimes crops up in evaluation. Sure, only give criticism that is constructive, and sure, try to point out what was done well in addition to what was done badly; but if you’re going to flat-out lie (say something was good when it was mediocre, for example) then you might as well not evaluate at all?

What’s more, because of this lopsidedness, the questions introduce a huge amount of ambiguity – if I answer honestly, and circle “fair” when the professor did a fair job at something, will this be interpreted as actually meaning he did a poor job? It’s the second worst option available, after all. If I answer honestly while most other people answer under the assumption that “fair” really means “poor,” will I be punishing my professors solely for having me in their class? (these evaluations are, according to an email from my psych professor, “the  major component in the evaluation of teaching for decisions regarding promotion, tenure, salary increases, and teaching awards” – yikes!)

If I answer honestly my answers will predominantly be in the bottom 3– Good, Fair, and Poor should cover like 70-90% of your answers unless the professor was just outstanding. This isn’t a huge problem, but it’s just so easily fixable (change the options to “Very Good, Good, Moderate, Poor, and Very Poor” and the problem is solved) that it really frustrates me to find it in a university, which is supposed to be a place where people will excercise things like “judgement” and “critical thinking.” I don’t know how common this kind of lopsided evaluation is in universities, but wherever a lopsided evaluation is present it will make results unreliable and make thoughtful students not want to respond.

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3 Responses to Why I didn’t fill out the Student Evaluations

  1. UserGoogol says:

    I tend to be counter-contrarian on this issue. People who make this complaint seem to implicitly equate “good” with “above average,” which seems flagrantly wrong to me. A good teacher should be defined by a more or less fixed standard of goodness. If goodness is just a matter of percentiles then it would be impossible for the quality of teachers to ever be improved, which seems like a perverse definition. And given that sort of definition, it does seem fairly straightforward that you would expect more “good” teachers than “bad” teachers. Teachers make an effort to be good. Teachers who are absolutely terrible are at least in theory removed from the system. So it seems somewhat reasonable that the average teacher be good.

    That said, the fact that this argument is made so constantly is a flaw of the evaluation system even if the argument is false. “Good” is simply a very ambiguous term. So when students have to rate on a deeply ambiguous scale, much variation enters because of differing definitions. Some of this variation cancels out across classes, but not all of it does, since not all classes have the same student set. And in so far as this causes what you say in your last sentence to happen, (even if the argument is wrong it takes a certain amount of reflection to arrive at it) that exacerbates things.

    • screwplato says:

      Now that you point it out, I agree that “good” shouldn’t be a relative term. I still think the lopsidedness of the evaluation is a problem though, even setting aside its ambiguity (which, as you say, is a problem in itself even if I’m wrong about what I say next).

      Even if professors are on average “good,” the focus of the evaluation should still be on the areas that need improvement, and how badly that area needs improvement, rather than on stroking their egos. And yet we’re only given one option to indicate that an area needs improvement – whether the professor was simply “not all that prepared for some classes” or “a complete mess all of the time” the response will be the same. On the other hand we’re given 3 or, arguably, 4 different ways of telling a professor “aw shucks, you don’t need to change a thing!”

      If a professor is doing a good job in an area, the fine gradations between “good,” “very good,” and “excellent,” don’t help the professor improve. With weak areas, simply having them pointed out is often enough for you to improve, but if you’re already “good” at something then having a set of multiple-choice responses let you know that you’re doing a good job isn’t enough for you to move from “good” to “very good.” And even if it was, the priority should be to improve the poor and very poor areas first.

  2. Tierlieb says:

    Don’t worry about whether “good” is a relative term, as long as you are consistent within your own value system. If you mainly use the lower three options, you’ll be giving the same rating as someone mainly using the top three options: Simple math like standard deviation and range can be used to normalize such input.

    That is, if this is a scientific analysis of the student evaluation. Which it does not need to be. There is both incompetence and politics to be considered 😉

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