Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET)

One of the instructors in my department came by to see me. She was concerned about her spring semester teaching evaluations from her students (SET, which we call FCQs, for faculty course questionnaires). Now that she had seen the reports, she renewed a concern she had expressed about the chaos of the transition to online data collection for the evaluations. Her students were sent a link to the form, but neither the link nor the form showed her name.

In the student comments, she sees some that refer to an accounting course, when she teaches a marketing course. And some that refer to her as “he.” She brings a new, hopeful lens to some of the harsher comments: maybe they were intended for someone else?! We should all embrace uncertainty and chaos so willingly.

I often direct students to read the teaching and job search posts on my blog. I wouldn’t want them to get the idea from this post that I disdain their feedback about the classroom experience. But I do feel comfortable letting any student reader know that I don’t just accept student comments indiscriminately. For example, I consider comments about insufficient guidance on assignments (e.g., “she didn’t tell us what she was looking for”) carefully. Sometimes, part of the learning experience in an assignment is figuring out how to bring structure to a task. I also recognize a confound in some comments about instructor incompetence. Sometimes a student’s diagnosis of his/her own poor performance is instructor incompetence. But the poor performance could also come from a student’s lack of effort or effective effort.

Wharton students asked some of their professors to read comments from their evaluations. I found the video very funny.

Poor Adam Grant, who is likened to a muppet (at 1:20 in the video). Or Mike Sinkinson, who bundles “boring and difficult” (at 1:06). I am so interested to hear student reactions to this video: does it generate empathy for the professors? Or does it generate a “serves ’em right, the bastards” reaction? I could see it going either way. Some students must feel that all semester, we stand in judgment of them, and with course evaluations, it is their turn for judgment. I hope not, but that reciprocity seems plausible.

Whenever I feel discouraged by anonymous comments from students, I think of a Joe Queenan column on user reviews of great attractions. He writes,

Last Monday, I visited the Garden of the Gods, the spectacularly beautiful forest of Pleistocene rock formations in Colorado Springs. It is one of the most amazing places in the U.S., perhaps the world. It is perfect.

Or so I thought upon initial viewing. But as soon as we arrived, my son pointed out that the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center only earned a 4.7 out of a perfect 5 score on Google Maps, which lets tourists rate famous places. One of the 875 people who rated the site deducted two points, grumbling: “It’s cool, but I think they could have put a little more effort into placing the big red rocks a little more realistic looking. [sic] Neat idea tho.”

Joe riffs on that Garden of the Gods review, with his own one of The Pacific Ocean:

So-so, but too big to see in a day. Some awesome dolphins and giant turtles, and yeah, OK, the Great Barrier Reef rocked. But poorly organized, with weird, unpredictable weather. And the Great Whites just spoil the outing for toddlers.

So when “she must be really good at research because she sucks at teaching” (verbatim comment burned in my brain from my own SET 20 years ago) floats through my thoughts, I fight the discouraging effects by changing the channel in my head to “Pacific Ocean, too big to see in a day” or “Gobi Desert, too much sand.”

Recently, USC announced that it will change the ways it uses SET. At my own institution, studies are underway for a better approach to evaluating teaching, a Teaching Quality Framework.

When I do the evaluations of teaching for the faculty in my division, I ask myself whether the person in question is a valuable teaching asset to the division. Can s/he teach what we need to have taught, when it needs to be taught, in a way that shows thoughtful attention to student learning? I don’t have a simple way of measuring that. But that’s what I am looking for. The SET scores aren’t very helpful in determining that. I hope the Teaching Quality Framework bears fruit in my lifetime to give us a better tool.

1 Comment

  1. SJG says: Reply

    Another thought-provoking blog post, Laura! I’d like to propose linking teaching evaluations to learning gains. Meritorious teaching should lead to enhancements in student performance, outcomes, curiosity, motivation, and empowerment. SET encourages instructors to cultivate spoon-feeding, hand-holding, obstacle-removal, and a culture of grade inflation.

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