TEACHER EVALUATIONS - Some Numbers Don't Add Up

By Trout, Paul | Commonweal, April 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

TEACHER EVALUATIONS - Some Numbers Don't Add Up


Trout, Paul, Commonweal


When the spring term ends, college students throughout the country will fill out teaching-evaluation forms on which they rate numerically the degree to which their instructors "knew the material," followed the syllabus, graded them "fairly," showed "concern," etc. Then administrators will crunch the numbers and use them-along with material about scholarship and service-to decide about instructors' pay raises, retention, tenure, and promotion. On a growing number of campuses, these forms are the only method used to evaluate teaching-with some departments boiling the whole thing down to the "Overall Effectiveness" number.

Although the weight given to the data varies across departments and colleges, the numbers affect-positively or negatively and to one extent or other-an instructor's career from start to finish.

What could be wrong with asking students to help identify who should be rewarded for teaching and who shouldn't? Plenty. The administrative use of these numerical evaluation forms creates an incentive for instructors to do the wrong thing: to please students instead of teaching them. The use of such evaluations to reward and punish instructors is doing more to dumb down college education than any other policy or practice on campus.

The dynamic is brutally simple. Instructors-fallible and incentive- driven like everybody outside a Trappist monastery-try to get high scores on evaluations to compete for perks such as a decent raise in pay. To earn high scores, instructors must give students what they want. And what a lot of students want nowadays are stress-free classes, "understanding" instructors, easy-to-get high grades, and undemanding workloads-in essence, "education lite."

This may sound like "student-bashing," so let me quote a few comments that students themselves made on narrative evaluations used in my department (sic omitted throughout): "We were bombarded with information about authors that was boring with fact"; "who gives a damn if we call it elegy or loss? Are these terms used elsewhere in lit? I've never heard of them"; "it is really hard to come to class when every day the material is being shoved down your throat"; "it is unfair to drop someone's grade because he/she missed too many days"; "I feel that he, along with every other English teacher, feels that his class is the only one and give too many books to read....Lets try to cut back shall we?"; "eight books per semester is too much to learn and retain. Six would be a more comfortable amount"; "maybe fewer books or smaller books would be better"; "could cover a little less information"; "the instructor needs to lower her standards"; "ease down on exam grading"; "I also think 2 novels to read outside of class is a bit too much. It's hard enough to get through 1"; "she should have more concern for her students, their stress levels, and their GPA's!"; "this course helped and I got a lot out of it but I feel that the professors expectations of us were too high. He didn't give much leniency toward what we wrote or toward our grades." On and on, course after course, year after year. Not quite Mr. Holland's Opus, is it?

To be fair, some students want challenging instructors and courses. But more and more do not. According to the annual survey conducted at UCLA by the Higher Education Research Institute, 40 percent of those entering college each year are "disengaged" from academic pursuits, a polite way of saying they are disaffected with and alienated from the educational process.

Okay, so a lot of students don't want to study. Why can't instructors earn high evaluation numbers by helping those who do? Because good students-happy to get an easy A and to have more study time-seldom give low numbers to instructors who dumb-down courses. And because even a few disengaged students-angry about a demanding workload-can have a disproportionate and devastating impact on evaluation scores simply by giving an instructor zero on each item. …

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