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Friday, May 2, 2008
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Tables turn on professors.

It’s time for students to evaluate their professors across the country, and while I actually would like serious feedback from my students, I must confess that I have never been especially impressed with the course evaluation process (either as a student or as a faculty member). I find that the questions are usually of little use, and the students typically don’t take them all that seriously.

Indeed, as the story notes:

Not all comments are indifferent. Some are thoughtful and useful. But others are capricious. That sometimes worries young teachers, for whom evaluations can play a significant role in whether or not they are promoted to tenure.

For instance, professors who give good grades get better reviews, studies have shown. It isn’t clear if that means teachers can “buy” affection with grade inflation, or whether the good grades and reviews both reflect genuinely better teaching.

While I am sure that tough graders do get good reviews, I suspect that in general the variable most correlated to positive reviews is the grade the student received in a given course. I further suspect that such relationships are especially true in larger general studies classes where the students were forced to take the course and likely know very little about the subject material (as opposed to students majoring in a subject). Really, one has to wonder about what is really being measured in those courses: are you capturing the discontent of students who are angry that they had to take American Government because it was a requirement? Are you capturing the disgust that the student has for the subject itself? Are you capturing the fact that the student was often absent, and when he was in class he was hung-over?

One would suspect that the evals in the major-level courses would factor out at least some of those problems.

The piece continues:

There’s a similar effect for physically attractive professors, according to a much-discussed 2003 study by two University of Texas researchers (”Beauty in the Classroom: Professors’ Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity”). One possible explanation was that better-looking teachers simply hold students’ attention longer, so they actually are more effective.

“If you’re in class because a professor is good looking, you’re still paying more attention,” co-author Daniel Hamermesh said in an interview.

Well, that’s helpful.


Other studies have documented how students respond differently to men and women. Female professors are more likely to get called “accessible,” “enthusiastic” and “caring.” Men are more likely to be described as “brilliant.” Such research troubled Upson-Saia, at Occidental, so much that she actually tells her students about it to make them aware of their potential biases before they fill out their forms.

One study even found students who were given chocolate gave their instructors higher marks.

Advice for non-tenured faculty across the country, I guess.

All of this reminds me of a piece I noted in passing the other day over at Inside Higher Ed: Validation for

Last year, a scholarly study found a high correlation between and a university’s own system of student evaluations. Now, a new study is finding a high correlation between RateMyProfessors and a student evaluation system used nationally.

A new study is about to appear in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education and it will argue that there are similarities in the rankings in and IDEA, a student evaluation system used at about 275 colleges nationally and run by a nonprofit group affiliated with Kansas State University.

This is presented as validation for to me it makes me wonder if it simply illustrates how vapid the on-campus evaluation programs are.

I will say that my general experience with campus-based evals has correlated well with the limited entries on me at RateMy (but the sample is quite small).

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  1. I always hated doing those things as a student. Not because I didn’t appreciate the process, but because they were tedious, especially in the situation that you had a good professor. I know I always felt obligated to come up with something negative, even if there was little negative to report, because to my mind, that would be more useful than “dude, you are awesome”.

    Although I was sure to say that as well.

    Comment by B. Minich — Friday, May 2, 2008 @ 10:13 am

  2. I didn’t read the links you provide Steven, but I wonder how much this is a product of the bureaucratic bloating of Universities.

    Faculty members these days are constantly barraged with dictates from administrators to develop “assessment” measures, “learning goals,” and other associated evaluative exercises. Committees meet, measures are developed, learning is assessed, reports are written, and they sit on the shelf of an Associate Dean somewhere.

    Their vapidity (as well as the results of student evaluations) makes the documents and data ignored on a wholesale level-yet institutions continually exercise the ritual.

    Student evaluations can be thought of as a bureaucratic ceremony-as the Weberian state has supplanted the Middle Age religiousity of the University, ritual performances persist but take a different form.

    Comment by Ratoe — Friday, May 2, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  3. Ratoe,

    You are oh-so-right about bureaucratic bloat and the need to collect utterly useless data that supposedly assesses the process.

    Apparently at some schools (at least to listen to colleagues) the course evals are hugely important to tenure and promotion. Whether that is an accurate reflection of the situation, I can’t say as we in the professoriate tend to be a bit paranoid about the inner workings of the administration.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, May 2, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  4. Right now I’m in the position, being a doctoral student/instructor, I get to both fill out evaluations on my professors, and have evaluations filled out on me. I actually hate both ends of the process. We get a scan-tron and a qualitative sheet, and I don’t feel either really evaluates the professor fairly. I think students just fill in whatever, and the ones that write negative things are doing so because of more of a personal vendetta against you than anything reflective of the class (sorry I actually hold you responsible!!!)

    I struggled with evaluating one of my professors this semester, because I didn’t feel any of the questions asked allowed me to accurately explain why I was not happy.

    I also know of one case last semester where students decided to band together and purposefully give an instructor horrible evaluations. It wasn’t until a student later admitted what happened that the truth came out - but at that point, the evaluations were part of the instructor’s permanent record.

    From both perspectives I hold, I think the evaluation system needs a major overhaul.

    Comment by Annie — Friday, May 2, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

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