Thursday, 28 June 2012

Some Thoughts About Teaching Evaluation

It's been a long break between posts.  I've been caught up in the mayhem of end of semester panicked emails from students and then.... marking, marking and more marking!  Amongst all of this the students' evaluation of teaching are also released.  I generally perform OK with student evaluations - not brilliantly - I tend to polarise students, in that they either rate my teaching very highly or very lowly, giving me a solid statistically 'average' score overall.  Student evaluations, while undoubtedly flawed, are very valuable to my career.  Firstly, they are as close as I get to genuine feedback on my work and secondly, good results in student evaluation help me to secure work in future semesters.  Around my school it's a known trend that student evaluations of tutors and evaluations of the unit go hand in hand, therefore unit coordinators tend to look for tutors with good scores.  I have learned a lot from students' evaluations about my teaching over the years, once I have recovered from the initial shock of some of the more abrasive remarks.  I have also seen good friends completely demoralised by the hurtful comments students write under the safety net of anonymity (she writes as an anonymous blogger).  If we have to provide feedback and grades to our students face to face, why can't their feedback be provided in the same manner?

While I can't rigorously ground the argument I am about to present, anecdotally, I suggest that student evaluations may impact how critically we mark students' work.  For the majority of students the only method for them to evaluate their education is by the grades they receive - the better the grades they attain the better they feel about the quality of their education.  Therefore, I think, there is an undercurrent here to dish out better grades in order to receive better teaching evaluation scores.  I am always made aware of this when I work with first time tutors who grade students' work so harshly.  Although it does also take a while for new tutors to understand the university can't simulate the complexities of practice and therefore students can't respond and produce the same level of work.    

As a tutor I receive plenty of feedback throughout the semester informally, through conversations and emails with students.  These conversations are frank and helpful to my developing teaching style.  The problem with the anonymous student survey is that a student who has hardly attended a class can use teaching evaluation forms as recourse for a grade they are unhappy with, rather than discussing the mark face to face.  My suggestion is that teaching evaluations shouldn't be anonymous.  I do value students' feedback on my teaching but I think the manner in which it is delivered is unfair to teaching staff.  David Holmberg wrote about the pain of student evaluations in an article titled 'Student Evaluations' in the New York Times magazine in 2007.  He wrote:

"A journalist-professor friend who is less than enamored of teaching caustically refers to them [student evaluations] as 'customer service.'  Translation:  He has been burned by his students.  But his larger meaning is that higher education..... is increasingly market driven and by his jaded reckoning a student and his parents are not markedly different from Harry the Striving Suburbanite roaming the aisles of Home Depot"

I think this is a fairly uneven criticism of evaluation systems (although I know many who would agree with Holmberg).  I think his comments on the market driven premise to teaching evaluation are spot on.  On that note, I wanted to finish this post with a quote by Chris Hedges on education. 


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