Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Are there better ways of using course evaluations?

Posted 17 Aug 2015 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher EducationStudent Evaluations Aren’t Useless. They’re Just Poorly Used.

As a person who thinks a lot about the meaning of my course evaluations, this was an important perspective for me to read. Overall I agree with what is said here, although the ought to be used argument is not that persuasive when course evaluations are actually being used in a different manner.

The idea of getting rid of student anonymity is an interesting idea (not proposed by this opinion piece, but alluded to). Clearly this would have to be anonymous until final grades are submitted, as professors have substantial power to take retribution through grading. I like that students would have to put their name next to their comments; in this age of poor internet etiquette, it seems like a clearly-anonymous situation is a pretty clear invitation for some people to behave in an unfair or even discriminatory manner. But there are issues too. Would students just write less if they knew their names would be associated with their evaluation? And what about students who are likely to encounter that same professor — or his colleagues — in the future? On balance I worry that the loss of student anonymity would lead to a less — rather than more — valuable assessment of a given course taught by a given professor.

The idea that many assessments do nothing more than test whether students like the class or not is also interesting. The Student Evaluation of Educational Quality instrument, alluded to in the article, does seem to be a lot better than what we use at our institution. I noticed that the I would recommend this instructor to my fellow students criteria is nowhere to be seen. That makes sense to me, as there are so many different reasons why a student might recommend (or not recommend) a particular instructor.

I also am intrigued by the idea of adjusting the scores on evaluations relative to correlation with expected grades relative to students’ GPAs. This might get a bit complicated, but the idea behind it is sound: if we know that students’ evaluations are partially biased by what grade they think they will earn in the course, then why not try to statistically remove that bias? Doing so would deal with what I consider to be the biggest problem with course evaluations: they often just reflect whether the student had an easy path through the course. Although I think all caring professors seek to provide the most efficient path through the course material, efficient and easy are not the same thing.

A Minor Post, Course Evaluations, Higher Education

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