Course evaluations can teach schools a lot about their professors, but how much should they be relied on?
Students grading their instructors is one of the only viable ways institutions can assess the performance of teachers. Even so, experts such as Elizabeth Barre, Associate Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University say that it should not be used alone.
Course evaluations are one of the best tools for measuring educator effectiveness. Though, they are still very poor at it, said Barre.
Factors like student bias make them poor measuring tools. Barre provides the examples that larger classes get worse ratings than smaller classes and humanities professors get better scores than science professors.
The reasons for these phenomena are unknown, though they play important roles in shaping course evaluation scores.
What’s more, only one survey question, “overall was the instructor effective in this course?” number eight on Chapman’s questionnaire, has been adequately tested for correlation to teacher performance and checked for these biases effects, Barre said.
It has been found that positive ratings for educators on question eight indicate effective teaching, although, the strength of the correlation is debatable. Conflicting data keeps things “noisy,” according to Barre.
Other bubble-in questions like, “did the instructor communicate effectively?” and the written responses have yet to be thoroughly researched.
At Chapman, “all questions are looked at in review of an instructor’s performance,” said Roxanne Miller, Director of the Institute for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
Other methods of evaluation like having professors visit and review each other’s courses or standardized testing are just as flawed, Barre said.
Teacher visits fail because “the visit itself alters the teaching,” there are too few visits to make any generalizations about the class and each professor has different opinions as to what the best teaching methods and styles are, according to Michael Sriven, former president of the American Educational Research Association, in his essay, “Summative Teacher Evaluation,” from Jason Millman’s book, “Handbook of Teacher Evaluation.”
Standardized tests, while very good at demonstrating student achievement, require that classes have the same curriculums and don’t account for students’ out-of-school learning and knowledge prior to the course, said James Popham, professor of teacher education at UCLA, in his essay, “Why standardized tests don’t measure educational quality.”
Student course evaluations offer more reliable information about teacher performance than the other options.
Though, according to Barre, given how poor all measures of teacher performance are, they should be used in combination with one another, to gain a better understanding of what’s happening in the classroom.