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Evaluating Course Evaluations

By Molly Robinson Kelly /// Faculty Advisor

The time of year will soon be upon us when, during regular class times, one finds professors sitting forlornly on the benches that line the hallways of Howard and Miller, instead of standing happily in front of their classrooms. They wait alone, temporarily exiled from the classroom while their students fill out course evaluations. They may not show it, but they are nervous. After three months of teaching and evaluating their students’ work, they are the ones being evaluated. The 40+ hours of teaching and many dozens of hours they have spent helping students improve their work, in person and on paper, are undergoing an assessment which takes most students approximately 10 minutes, on a generous day. The results of these 10-minute assessments are used to evaluate their performance as teachers, and become a permanent part of their employment file. Lewis and Clark takes teaching quality very seriously, and student course evaluations are the primary way in which this quality is evaluated. As such, they play an important part in employment-related decisions at the College, including those regarding contract renewal, promotion, tenure, and salary raises.

Like all types of performance review, there is much that is useful and important about course evaluations. From preschool to graduate school, when a student steps into a classroom, they hand control over many things to their teacher. The teacher determines what topics are dealt with, and how they are dealt with. S/he decides what work students have to do and when they have to do it. S/he acts as the sole and practically omnipotent judge of whether the students’ work was done well. To be a teacher is to have, within a specific setting and context, a great deal of power. To be a student is to make oneself willingly vulnerable, in that setting and context, to this power. When you think about it, the whole teaching situation requires a considerable amount of trust, and that it works as well as it does is a hopeful sign about the world. Any educational institution must stand careful guard over the quality of its teaching, and course evaluations represent the simplest mechanism by which this guard can be ensured. They serve a crucial function of reversing, for a few moments, the intrinsic power dynamic of the classroom, by giving students the ability to evaluate their own experience. Without course evaluations, both students and institution would lose an indispensable tool for ensuring teaching quality.

The potential shortcomings of course evaluations lie not in the fact of their being done, but in how they are done. At Lewis and Clark, evaluations are divided into two basic parts: a numerical portion, which invites students to rate the instructor and course on a scale of 1-7 according to various parameters; and a narrative portion, which asks them to comment separately on both instructor and course. While I think most teachers would agree that the narrative portion is the most useful, the numerical results, being concrete and easy to compare and contrast, tend to get the most attention. I’m probably not the only professor whose eyes hasten first to the “overall evaluation of instructor” and “overall evaluation of course” lines of the statistical averages, hoping of course to see glorious 7s. And I don’t exactly mind when students claim in their comments that I’m the best ever. However, although getting a perfect 7, or reading that I’m someone’s “favorite prof at LC,” feels really lovely, I have to admit that these things are not particularly useful in helping me assess my own teaching.

The most useful evaluations are those that help both students and professors understand what was learned in the class, how it was learned, and if there are any problems that need to be addressed. What I most want to know from my students is this:

  • Did I take care of the basics you are entitled to as a student in my classroom (clear instructions and deadlines; fair, helpful, and timely feedback; pertinent and interesting course material)?
  • What did you learn in my class?
  • What did I do that helped you learn?
  • What did I do that didn’t help you learn?
  • What could I have done that would have helped you learn more?

In the end, I don’t have to be your favorite teacher ever. (I remember distinctly the epiphanic moment when I realized that I could stop trying to be more demanding / easygoing / funny / vibrant / solemn, like this or that amazing-teacher colleague. I could let those colleagues cover that portion of my students’ education, and content myself with the more discreet goal of being the teacher only I can be. What a relief!) What I have to do—what I strive to do—is teach in such a way that my students leave my classes having learned something.

At their most useful, course evaluations help me to understand if and how this learning has, and hasn’t, happened. They help me see myself as a teacher, both my strengths and weaknesses, so I can find ways to learn and improve myself, just as I hope my students will learn and improve through my evaluations of their work. As much as I love those 7s, especially in the “overall” categories, the numbers don’t tell me much. What’s worse, the numbers can lure us in, leading us almost irresistibly to give them more credence than they deserve.

So if you see one of these lonely figures sitting on a bench in a hallway, pretending to be nonchalant as they endure a period of forced exile from their class, show them that Lewis and Clark kindness (come on, I know you all have it) and give them a knowing little smile. And in your evaluations, as Gandhi said, be truthful, gentle, and fearless. It is part of how we will help each other learn to teach, and especially learn, better.

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