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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.