Student Teaching Evaluations

Last week the Dean of Students office took ten minutes out of each of my two classes to administer our student evaluation forms. In principle this is a good thing. In practice, the verdict is much less clear, an uncertainty exacerbated by reading Michael Huemer and Mary Gray and Barbara R. Bergmann (references via the Invisible Adjunct).

Ideally, students would evaluate a class after they had all of it, including the exam. That’s especially significant in a course like Administrative Law which, for many students, only starts to make sense when they review and find that all the pieces actually do form a coherent whole. And for every class, whether the exam is fair or not seems like it ought to be an issue for students to discuss — and which should be of particular interest to students thinking of taking the course in the future.

My suggestion a few years ago that students be asked to fill out the class evaluation form immediately after taking the exam met with near-universal derision. Some faculty feared that students who thought they had done badly on the exam might be in a vengeful mood; others thought that students would just be too exhausted at the end of an exam and wouldn’t bother. The suggestion that if the response rate was too low (it’s currently only about 2/3) we could then require that it be turned in before students could get their grades was rejected as too complex administratively.

It doesn’t help matters that we have one of the most poorly designed course evaluation forms I’ve ever seen. The story round the faculty is that this an intentional feature. Supposedly the faculty committee that drafted this (before I turned up) wanted to make a form that revealed as little useful information as possible in order to discourage Deans from using the students’ feedback as an input to salary determinations.

Subsequent Deans, however, have made it clear to us that they read these forms, and that they are important inputs to their decisions on whether our salaries keep pace with, or on occasion, make up lost ground to, inflation.

I used to get really rotten evaluations. For the past few years I’ve gotten superb evaluations. It’s possible I’ve become a much better teacher, although to be honest I sort of doubt it. As far as I can tell, and I admit that I’m not inevitably the best judge, I’m doing pretty much the same things I was doing by my third year in teaching. I do think I made a lot of mistakes in the first two years, mostly assigning and expecting too much, but since then I think I’ve been in a steady state.

What’s changed, I think are these things:

  1. I’ve been around long enough that from the student perspective I’ve been there forever. There’s a tendency to beat up on new teachers (and especially women), and once you get out of the hazing period, things go better.
  2. I teach more upper-level courses these days, so everyone who takes my course is coming to the nuisance. Word has gotten out that I assign a lot of reading and am fairly demanding, and students self-select. I get good students.
  3. A few faculty members have been very kind in puffing my classes to students, and I get cited in some of the readings (or in some cases in the casebooks). I suspect that if the students think they are studying with a national authority, whatever the reality, they are more inclined to be forgiving.
  4. Probably the most important change of the years, however, is that students are just generally in a better mood these days. The student body seems to have a more positive vibe than it did, say, five years ago (it also has substantially higher test scores), and a rising tide lifts all the boats.

Of course what I'd really like is constant feedback during the semester. But that would have to anonymous, I think, because most students simply cannot believe that the faculty would not hold negative comments against them. And, human nature being what it is, I'm sure that they'd be right about that in some cases at least.

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6 Responses to Student Teaching Evaluations

  1. Heidi says:

    I don’t think reason (1) makes any sense at all.

    You think students are harder on new arrivals, particularly women? That may be confusing correlation with causation. I don’t know how it is teaching in law school (obviously) but when I was a lowly teaching assistant doing science courses, I quickly discovered that the strength of my teaching evaluation correlated strongly with my confidence in teaching. The first two semesters I taught (introductory general chemistry labs when I was still an undergraduate) I was scared of my students, and I didn’t do as good a job. At some point, I realized that my students were more scared of me than I was of them. They listened to me. They believed me. I had power over them (heh). Did I become a better teacher? Probably not in some abstract way. But I became more of a teacher figure, because I was confident (even when I was confident enough to say “You know, that’s a great question and I have no idea what the answer is.”) and responsive. Being a young female teaching assistant with no credentials at all didn’t stop my students from adoring me once I got confidence under my belt. Don’t underestimate the effect of experience on a new professor’s attitude. I think that new arrivals and women tend to have more confidence issues. That probably tracks your results better than assuming that students care about “national authority” or “hazing the professors”.

    From a law student perspective, I can assure you that we don’t think at all about hazing our professors. That’s totally anathema. We’re too busy worried about you hazing us. We don’t collectively want to make your lives difficult. The only thing is that we’re horribly insecure, and so if a professor also seems insecure, it heightens our worry. After all, we’re insecure now but we all hope that in ten years, we’ll be happy and confident in our abilities. We like and respect confidence because that’s what we want out of life. When we see someone who must have done everything that we dream of in terms of performing in law school, we want them to be confident because dammit, if the cream of the crop lacks confidence, how will we ever get it?

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  3. Michael says:

    Well, the word “hazing” may have been badly chosen in that it implies an organized campaign (“Let’s get Smith! S/he’s new”). I don’t think that’s what happens. What I suspect is something much less pre-meditated, but nonetheless communal. Students talk about their profs. When someone is new, the ordinary grousing about Smith and the difficulty of the material gets combined with the thinking that since Smith is new, it’s probably Smith’s fault that we don’t get this. I think the tendency to blame the messenger is greater when the person is young, female or minority, and the more of those you are, the more you are at risk of being beaten up on. It’s not an iron law, but it is a real tendency.

    In reaching this view, I have the advantage of comparing notes with my spouse. We started here at the same time. I had no teaching experience. She had lots — she’d had tenure at a better law school before coming here, but the students probably didn’t know that. She had lots of people suggesting she didn’t know what she was talking about (mostly men attacking a woman teaching business subjects…); I didn’t have people attacking my knowledge, just my “arrogance” and teaching skills.

    Of course, there are always a few outliers. The late and missed John Ely used to have a student evaluation posted on his door in which a student had written that “This guy knows no Constitutional law.”

  4. Heidi says:

    Fair enough–I might be (drastically) underestimating the various -isms of my peers. (As an aside: law school was a bit of a culture shock. At supposedly liberal and PC Michigan I’ve been surprised by how sexist some of my 1L class mates really are. It’s bad, even compared to my experience in the math department at Florida State.) I guess I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what people really think. Still, I naively/optimistically/selfishly want to believe that we’ve gotten past all that. I’m young, female, and minority–maybe I don’t want to believe things work this way because I foolishly hope that I won’t have to deal with it.

    Still, it seems like the student gripe fest might work both ways. I’ve heard students claim that so-and-so doesn’t care about teaching now that he has tenure. Or that he’s so old that he’s out of touch, and he’s made that same bad joke in the last four years of classes. I have great faith in the ability of students to blame everyone but themselves for not understanding course material. Disclaiming responsibility is a favorite student activity. Maybe it’s correlated with age and gender, but it finds victims everywhere.

    And there’s probably a lot of positive feedback. If a student doesn’t respect a teacher as much because of race or gender, it’ll show up in the classroom, which will probably make the teacher feel less at ease, which reinforces stereotypes about capabilities which result in students showing less respect in the classroom….

  5. Matthew says:

    I couldn’t speak to any inherently prejudicial tendency about how to rank professors, but I think that you’re right about the usefulness of the evalution forms. I found myself answering questions either strategically (I heard a rumor that the checkboxes can be used to develop a mean for the professor and I want to get across a basic idea) or incorrectly because the answer I want to put (usually “non-applicable”) isn’t present. Generally speaking though, I try to be very nice to professors, as do I believe most students. I think that by the time you’re in front of me teaching you know what you’re doing and – the crucial aspect – I would be horrible in your place. The process doesn’t help when our professors harp on the fact that the deans read the evaluations and reflect upon them; I would suspect it skews the result (and I know it skewed a few of my sectionmates’ evaluations for at least one class).


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