Course Evaluations Are Useless, At Best

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The holiday season is course evaluation season for universities. Right now, students across the country are earning a few points of extra credit or goodwill from their professor in return for filling out a course evaluation. This is a short summary of students’ comments, concerns, problems, anxieties, and suggestions for the class that they have just completed. The professors promise that the evaluations will not be read until after grades are submitted, so students are encouraged to be brutally honest.

As a former undergraduate and current graduate student, my question has always been: Does anyone ever read the evaluations at all? I will never forget one of my professor’s remarks to my class years ago. He was passing out evaluations on the last day of the semester. Everyone was exhausted from a week of testing and in exactly the wrong headspace to fairly assess the class. He said to us, “If you have time to fill one of these out, please do. I can’t guarantee anyone will actually read it, though.”

Dr. Michael P. Chaney, an associate professor of counseling at Oakland University in Michigan, says that over the past few years, he and his colleagues have begun reading fewer and fewer of the course evaluations they receive from students. “I don’t view student evals as very valuable,” Dr. Chaney says. “Students either really, really like you, or they don’t. There’s no in between.” Dr. Adam McKible, an associate professor of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoes Dr. Chaney. “There’s space on the back for comments,” he says. “Occasionally students write something thoughtful. But they mostly say things like ‘He’s an awesome dude’ or ‘Loved your mustache.’”

Course evaluations are like the ‘Door Close’ button on an elevator. This button is a dummy button. Its purpose is not to close the doors of the elevator. Rather, it exists only to give a claustrophobic person riding the elevator a sense of power over his environment. Course evaluations serve the same purpose for students. They are false impressions of control.

But what if professors do read course evaluations? What if a Dean reads course evaluations written about a professor within his division? Well, that might actually worsen the situation for everyone involved, more so than tossing the evals down a garbage chute upon arrival. This is because, not-so-shockingly, college students are terrible at making accurate assessments of a professor’s worth.

Dr. Michele Pellizzari conducted an experiment in 2014 titled Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors. The experiment compared the student evaluations of a particular professor to how those students performed in a subsequent course taught by that same professor. The results: The more challenging the professor, the lower their ratings from students. (This is even true in the case of students who received high grades.) “If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations from your students,” Pellizzari says. In other words: Students—in general—do not enjoy learning from a professor who challenges them.

So if university faculty do not read course evaluations, then students are continuously putting time and energy into a bold-faced lie. If university faculty do read course evaluations, then good professors—the taskmasters who refuse to inflate grades and who push their students to achieve success—suffer. George Leef—a fellow SeeThruEdu contributor and director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy—perfectly articulates the core issue with course evaluations:

“Using the standard course evaluations by students turns college teaching into a ‘popularity contest’ where good professors often get bad ratings and bad professors get good ones.”

The solution is simple: Get rid of course evaluations. Measure a professor’s effectiveness through students’ fulfillment of class learning objectives, the professor’s teaching practices, and students’ overall performance. Spurgeon Thompson, an adjunct professor of English at Fordham University, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “[Student evaluations] have become either as bland as a cheerful status update or as cruel as online bullying.” Course evaluations are an unnecessary, bureaucratic agony that rarely help, often hurt, and ought to be jettisoned.

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