Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Repeated Low Teaching Evaluations: A Form of Habitual Behaviour?

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Repeated Low Teaching Evaluations: A Form of Habitual Behaviour?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Just as Consumer Reports ranks soap and deodorant on an annual basis, Maclean's and The Globe and Mail, using the results of student surveys, rank Canadian universities along a number of dimensions, including teaching. Just as Consumer Reports' rankings are intended to help buyers make sure that they get the right soap or deodorant, among other things, these university rankings are intended to assist young Canadians in making wise decisions in their selections of universities. Usually, questions used in surveys to gather information for this purpose focus on the overall student experience at a particular university.

Within universities, surveys are also used to assess the teaching of professors in individual courses. Such surveys (or course evaluations) typically ask questions about specific professors. Often, one of the goals of these evaluations is to assist students in future course selections.

While considerable research has focused on the validity of questions used in assessments of individual professors, relatively little has been written on questions designed to measure the effectiveness of professors treated as a collectivity. For example, we do not know whether the personal characteristics of students making collective evaluations of their professors affect evaluations independently of what actually happens in classrooms. For this reason, using research conducted on individual professors as a point of departure, in this article I examine the degree to which first-year students' teaching assessments of professors, treated as a collectivity, are predictive of assessments of a different group of professors in the students' third year.

Background

For some years, in part as a way of dealing with decreased government funding, Canadian universities have been forging more links with the business sector (Turk, 2000, 2008). According to some critics, a concomitant development has been a decline in academic standards and an increasing concern with the acquisition of vocational skills at the expense of skills gained through an active engagement with the liberal arts (Côté & Allahar, 2011). In addition, students have increasingly been viewed as "consumers" (as they view themselves) of a product rather than as participants in a process leading to intellectual growth (Côté & Allahar, 2007). Within this perspective, student evaluations are viewed as consumer satisfaction surveys rather than as instruments contributing to the discovery of better ways of facilitating teaching and learning. As Côté and Allahar argue, the "concern about students 'having their say'," via student evaluations, "is . . . derived from the wider consumer mentality of contemporary society, and encourages the perception that professors should satisfy students' expectations rather than students satisfying professors' expectations" (Côté & Allahar, 2007, p. 85). In fact, given the impression of many faculty members that the awarding of high grades results in high evaluations, student evaluations may actually detract from improvements in teaching and learning.

Whether or not we completely agree with this perspective, it is clear that in Canada and elsewhere, the nature of students' university experiences, as measured through student evaluations/satisfaction surveys, is of increasing concern to governments and university administrators. In the province of Ontario, for example, universities are co-operating with the provincial government in their administration of the US-based National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (Zhao, 2011). Recognizing that university outcomes are difficult and costly to measure, the survey is based on the proposition that we can infer desired outcomes from the presence of behaviours with which they are associated. For example, in the past, in the United States, associations have been found between measures of student engagement, such as the degree of interaction with professors, and their beliefs that they have increased their knowledge over the course of their studies. …

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