Repeat of My Earlier Invitation: If you are attending the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association this summer in Chicago, I will be participating in two different panel presentations on teaching on Monday, August 10. One is at 2 p.m. and the other is at 4 p.m. I would love to have you there as several of us chat about the challenges of becoming a better classroom teacher. If you are interested, grab me after the panel presentations and we can continue the discussion.
I have written several times over the years about my basic distrust of student evaluations. Based on the ones that I have seen, here are some of my issues:
(1) – Students are not encouraged to spend enough serious time considering the questions and their responses. Some students clearly give an appropriate amount of thought and make helpful observations. Many students appear to dash off their opinions as if they were late for dinner. “Good guy” doesn’t really provide much helpful feedback.
(2) – It is easy for too much of the evaluation process to be based on mathematical numbers that are hard to interpret. If I go from 4.28 on a specific question in the fall to a 4.21 in the spring, does that mean I am getting worse or maybe just more demanding?
(3) – A teacher’s popularity has some impact on evaluations. I am not interested in popularity. I am interested in how well the person motivates and guides students to learn.
(4) – Most of the evaluations that I have seen have so many questions that I think the individual questions quickly lose their impact. I do not think a lot of students have the inclination (and possibly the ability) to draw fine distinctions between various aspects of teaching over a long range of questions. It always interests me as to how many students give the same numerical grade to a teacher on virtually every question.
(5) – The evaluations that catch people’s attention are the outliers, the ones where the students either love you or hate you. Those people have strong opinions that can receive too much weight when judging the quality of the education. It is easy to ignore the feelings of the great mass of students in the middle whose opinions—although just as valid—are often more muted.
(6) – Evaluations really have two purposes and I think that duality causes a problem. Student evaluations are supposed to help provide feedback to the teacher so that he or she can improve in the future. That seems reasonable. In those cases, the teacher should want to hear the bitter truth so that changes and improvements can be made. However, evaluations are also used by administrators who must make salary, tenure, and promotion decisions. Then, the professor wants every response to be as positive as possible.
Okay, it is easy to be critical but how would I do student evaluations differently if I were suddenly made king? Here are some of my thoughts on the topic. I believe this is a conversation that we should be having. My ideas clearly have some practical flaws but, at least, they are a start toward doing something more creative.
I would view student feedback for a teacher as a separate goal distinct from student evaluations used by administrators. I think you always create a problem when you try to kill those two birds with that one stone.
As I have written in the past (see, for example, my blog posting titled “Congratulations!!” on May 2, 2012), at the end of every semester, I email each student who makes the grade of an A in any of my courses to let them know of their success. That is a true pleasure. I pass along appropriate congratulations. For me, that pat on the back is important—those students did the work and made the grade. The final grade should not be an anonymous reward. They deserve a word of praise. Then, I ask those same students to write a paragraph on how they went about making that grade of A. I eventually accumulate all those responses and pass them along to the next class to serve as guidance. I want each new group to understand, right from the beginning, how to succeed in my class.
Beyond that, those essays provide me with a peek inside the workings of my class. What do students of mine have to do to earn an A? How much time must they spend? Where do they need to invest their energy? What types of activities and learning strategies proved to be beneficial? You cannot ask a C student what it takes to make an A because they obviously don’t know (or don’t choose to pursue that goal) but you can ask an A student what it takes to make an A. I read each of those essays very carefully—often many times. I try to figure out what I like about the answers and what I don’t like.
If one of my main teaching goals is for every student to earn an A then I want to know what it takes to reach that achievement. If one of those students talks about working just 30 minutes per week and still gets an A, I need to consider making the course more demanding. If a student talks about making an A without ever reading the textbook, I should think about whether that is consistent with my educational goals.
I want every student to make an A. I am interested in what it takes to achieve that mark. That is feedback that I have found very helpful over the years in assisting me in the evolution of my teaching. Each semester, I read numerous essays that basically say “here is what it takes to be a successful student in Professor Hoyle’s class.” Am I happy with what I hear or do changes need to be made?
However, that does not provide adequate information for administrative decisions that must be made. So, if I were king, I would also have a formal student evaluation process. I would give every student in every class one assignment at the end of each semester. I would ask them to turn in those responses directly to the school’s administration.
The one assignment for the student evaluation would simply be: “Please discuss this course and this teacher as to how much they have helped to improve your critical thinking skills during this past semester. Please give as many specific examples as possible.” Okay, there might be a few exceptions such as a studio arts class or a basic language class but I believe the underlying goal of a vast majority of college courses should be the development of critical thinking skills. The student evaluation would start with a formal definition of what the school means by critical thinking skills and then make the assignment. This approach addresses the central issue in the educational process in college.
If a teacher can help a student develop his or her critical thinking skills, then I believe most everything else will take care of itself. That is certainly my number one goal in both my financial accounting and intermediate accounting classes.
Administrators get the information they need for salary decisions and the like by studying these responses. Read 75 student essays on whether a teacher helps develop critical thinking skills and you (or anyone else) will have a good understanding of the teacher’s success. It is not about popularity. It is not about entertainment. It is not about numbers that have a questionable meaning. The student is the one who benefits from the class. When it comes to critical thinking skills, what development did that student experience? And, of course, they need to give as many specific examples as possible.
Okay, one immediate question is going to be: How will the administrators be able to use this information? Here is what I would suggest. First, I think that at most schools about 20 percent of the teachers are excellent, about 60 percent of the teachers are average, and about 20 percent of the teachers are poor. That is just my perception based on what I’ve seen over the past 44 years. You can easily change those percentages if you wish (possibly 25:50:25 or 30:40:30) but, unless you teach in Lake Wobegon, please don’t tell me that all of your teachers are above average. That is nonsense. A few teachers are excellent, a few teachers are poor, the vast majority of teachers are average.
The administrator reads all of these essays and judges the faculty member to be Excellent (let’s say 20 percent), Average (60 percent), or Poor (the final 20 percent). We could argue about this but I imagine 80-90 percent of the faculty will fall into one of those three groups fairly easily.
After making this judgment, the administrator writes up an evaluation for each faculty member.
For the teachers in the Excellent group, the administrator congratulates the faculty member and describes why this person qualified for the top group. The administrator also points out any possible improvements that were noted. “Excellent” is different than “Perfect.” Improvements are always possible.
For the teachers in the Average group, the administrator describes why that decision was made, pointing up both the good and bad areas that seemed to be mentioned most often by students. Then, the administrator makes as many suggestions as possible on future efforts that might move the teacher from the Average group to the Excellent group. That is the one fundamental goal. That should always be discussed: How can the teacher move up into the next highest level?
For the teachers in the Poor group, the process is much the same. First, why was the evaluation made in this way? Second, what needs to be done to move into the Average group? The process should always be based on describing (1) what the evaluations indicated and (2) how the teacher can get better.
Student feedback to teacher: How did you make that A?
Student feedback for teacher evaluations: Please discuss this course and this teacher as to how much they have helped to improve your critical thinking skills this semester.
Would that really work better than the system we have? I honestly do not know but I do think it is time to have that conversation and start experimenting to see if better evaluations are even possible. I just think, for the systems I have seen, improvement is needed.