Student Course Evaluations: Are They Worth It?

Evaluation

Toward the end of most undergraduate and some graduate courses, students complete evaluations of the course just taken. While the cycle grinds on, the controversy over these evaluations grinds on as a sort of undertone to the academic process. Some students take course evaluations seriously; others don’t. Some faculty find course evaluations helpful; others hate them. In general, the controversy over student course evaluations swirls around several issues:

  • Do student course evaluations provide a reliable basis for drawing conclusions about the quality of teaching? For example, several studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between students’ expectation of their grade in a given course and the positive/negative level of evaluation that they give for that course—what some call “reciprocal grading”: “You give me a good grade, and I’ll give you a positive evaluation.”
  • Are students good judges of their own learning or of teaching? Consider that less academically adept students, who often are unaware of what they don’t know, frequently overestimate their academic performance, while better students, who have a clearer glimpse of what they don’t know, often underestimate their achievement. And how many students are able to reliably estimate whether their instructor is “knowledgeable” or “well prepared” in his/her field? Do student evaluations ultimately boil down to whether students “like” their professors?
  • Given that most colleges value academic rigor, but that students tend to associate rigor with negative instructor characteristics and that such negativity is reflected in evaluations, how should the data from student evaluations be utilized? Should the results be used in a major way, or at all, by a college to evaluate teaching? If the answer is no, how should ineffective or incompetent instructors be identified and weeded out?

Currently at Trinity College, results of student evaluations of graduate courses are provided only to the instructor and are not shared with administrators. In light of the many questions that surround such evaluations nationally, is that practice appropriate, or not? Whether you are a student or a faculty member, now is your chance to express your opinion!

To enhance your knowledge about student course evaluations, take a look at one or more of the following:

Frank Donoghue (Professor of English, Ohio State University), End-of-Term Conundrums, Part 2: Student Evaluations

Dennis E. Clayson, Student Course Evaluations: Are They Related to What Students Learn?

Stanley Fish, Student Evaluations: Part 2

David Glenn, 2 Studies Shed New Light on the Meaning of Course Evaluations

And don’t stop there. The literature on this topic is vast!

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About William Barnett

I am Director of Graduate Studies at Trinity College (Hartford, CT).

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