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Student evaluations: is it time for reform?

Ask a Candidate | Topics in Higher Education

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on the future of student evaluations.

Previously on this blog, we talked about ways that you can make the most of the common practice of using student evaluations to assess instructors’ job performance in higher ed. Since then, the recognition that student evaluations are inherently flawed—data show that they don’t reflect what’s truly being learned in a class, may have contributed to widespread grade inflation, and often result in lower scores for women and minority professors—has become ever more widespread. Last summer, an arbitrator in Ontario, looking at this evidence, ruled that Toronto’s Ryerson University must stop using student evaluations in measuring teaching effectiveness in cases of promotion and tenure.

The recommendations we made in the earlier blog post about making the most of a bad system, and procuring solid student evals that can help you along, still stand:

  • Give students plenty of time to fill out the forms
  • Talk to them about the forms’ purpose
  • Try, if you can, to give them specific questions that reflect the course materials

But if the evidence that student evals are counterproductive and unfair has you sufficiently convinced that the whole practice needs an overhaul, perhaps it’s time to push for your institution to change its policies.

In a comprehensive review, published earlier this year, of the way that some universities are already altering their relationships to evaluations, Kristin Doerr of the Chronicle of Higher Education offers some models for reform:

  • The University of Southern California has largely moved to a peer-review process, whereby teaching evaluations from other professors take primacy over student assessments in the course of promotion-and-tenure decision making. Peer reviewers must take anti-bias training to reduce the subjectivity of their judgments. The University of Oregon is following suit in implementing a more comprehensive and standardized peer-review program.
  • At Berkeley, in the division of mathematical and physical sciences, instructors under review write reflections that are considered alongside evaluations, to give context to their students’ input. (This is similar to a practice earlier described by David Perlmutter, a dean at Texas Tech, who reports that his institution allows professors to give students supplemental evaluations that add more information to the picture that standard evaluations paint.)
  • Also at USC, the school has made revisions to the types of questions asked in student evaluations, making questions more specific in a bid to minimize bias.
  • At Oregon, the university is moving away from numerical “circle the 5”-type evaluations, and toward questions that ask about specific elements of an instructor’s teaching, and then ask students to provide written comment.
  • Oregon also offers a midterm student experience survey that only the professor can access, offering the opportunity for professors to learn about things that aren’t working in that semester’s classes before it’s too late to change them.

Maybe your university is among those rethinking student evaluations right now. If not, maybe 2019 is the year to suggest some change.

Tweet us your thoughts on ways you can harness your institution’s current policies on student evals, and/or ways you would reform them and include #Interfolio.

 

Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, polish and send out their materials at all stages throughout their academic professional path. Learn more about Dossier here.