Magazine article Liberal Education

Reevaluating Teaching Evaluations

Magazine article Liberal Education

Reevaluating Teaching Evaluations

Article excerpt

COLLEGE PROFESSORS are not the only highly educated professionals who debate the value of evaluations from those in the demographic they serve. A nontrivial number of doctors, lawyers, and journalists also take issue with evaluations from, respectively, their patients, law clients, and readers. Indeed, the argument against such ratings is a strong one. That is, these individuals are not, in nearly all cases, qualified to assess teaching, medicine, the law, or journalism. Without knowledge of what constitutes best practice in these fields, unqualified evaluators may not actually be judging skill but rather the "hotness" of a professor, the severity of a doctor's diagnosis, or even the attire of a lawyer.

A backlash against such reviews has been simmering for some time. The Atlantic has compared most online comment sections to sewers, stating that they are "logistically required, but consistently disgusting, subterranean conduits for what is, technically speaking, waste."1 Popular Science abruptly ended online comments from readers, observing that comments not only polarized readers but changed readers' understandings of the stories. Explaining the Huffington Post's recent decision no longer to permit anonymous comments, founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington noted that "freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they're saying and who are not hiding behind anonymity."2 Ardis Dee Hoven, president of the American Medical Association, has stated that anonymous online comments about physicians should be "taken with a grain of salt."3

Some of the disgruntled in other professional sectors have attempted to game the system. The New York Times ran a story about a company that offered its customers a ten-dollar rebate for posting online reviews of their products on Amazon.4 (Spoiler alert: nearly all of this company's reviews were great!) Come to think of it, the actions of this company are not all that different from college professors offering doughnuts or extra credit to students who complete teaching evaluation surveys, presumably a quid pro quo for favorable evaluations.

What is the modern college or university to do? Do we surrender to the Yelp-ification of a society that suggests a Reddit-like "wisdom of the crowds" mentality should prevail? Or, in a nod to academe's rebellious roots, do we (in a term coined by the Atlantic) "pull a PopSci" and accept no student comments?

Feedback, not evaluations

The answer is not to ban student comments. Even Popular Science and the Huffington Post continue to accept feedback in the form of letters to the editor. Colleges and universities might take a cue from journalists by encouraging formal written comments from students concerning classroom experiences. Unlike doctors, lawyers, and journalists, professors are actually in the business of teaching students to think critically and write effectively. It would be hypocritical for faculty to discourage students from thinking and writing about any topic, including our ability to reach them as students.

However, given that language shapes how we think, we propose new terminology. Surveys provide students an opportunity for feedback about teachers, not evaluations of teachers. Students, professors, and administrators should not view the surveys as an opportunity to judge a professor, but as an opportunity to provide grist for the faculty member's mill. Like some writers of letters to the editor, some students may rant, some may be insightful, some may be boring, and some may move us to think in ways that we had never thought before. Our students' critical thinking and writing abilities will be uneven. Nevertheless, we must take to heart our duty to encourage students to develop- not suppress-these skills.

Of course, any policy that solicits student feedback should have integrity. In order to guard against survey-induced grade inflation, anonymity should be granted to student commenters as long as grades are pending. …

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