Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad asks for suggestions for minor tweaks in the student evaluation system. I thought I’ll add my two cents here, and ask the readers for their opinions. Just to be clear, like many others I think the current system serves no purpose whatsoever, and is often counter-productive. In my mind, any minor tweaks will not change things much, but some re-thinking of the system can make it useful.
First, for those of you who are not currently at a university, let me remind you that every course at a north American university ends in the ancient ritual that is called student evaluations. In this, students are asked some vague questions, all of which come down to “on a scale from 1 to 5, is the instructor any good?”. We tabulate the results, and pretend that we now distinguished the good professors from the bad ones, and in the same process allowed the student-consumer have some feedback on the system. Everyone wins!
And here is the thing, I don’t think students are in any position to evaluate teaching. Any rational system of evaluating teaching a specific course will have to specify the goals of that course and measure to what degree those goals were achieved. There are many ways of doing that, but student evaluation, of any kind, is not going to cut it. Students taking the course are missing by and large the context of the course, and I think their answer to any evaluation question will be pretty much independent of the question. They will invariably answer the implicit question “did you enjoy the course?”, because that is the only data available to them.
By all means, enjoying the course should certainly be one of the goals, and student satisfaction could be measured and tabulated to decide to what degree that particular goal is achieved. I just think that student satisfaction is not the only goal of the course, and that is the only parameter we are attempting to measure at the moment. Since I believe we do need a system of evaluating teaching, pretending we already have one is counter-productive if we want to improve the quality of teaching.
All that should not be interpreted as the statement that student feedback is not useful. This could be an essential tool in improving the course and checking your teaching ideas against reality. For example, having the students answer a set of a course-specific questions, during or after the course, could very helpful for this purpose. Just forget about the 1 to 5 scales, those are just silly.
As always, comments are welcome!