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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Should Students Evaluate Their Teachers?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

"This course was a complete waste of my time and money!" (What? No way!)

"We need a better instructor that actually knows what he is doing." (I bet I know who wrote that one.)

"The teacher is a great person, however I don't feel he knows how to teach what he knows." (Seriously?)

I was teaching college algebra for the first time, and these were some of the comments (and my reactions as I read them)on the student evaluation of the class answering the question "How could this course be improved?"

As I read the comments and looked at the scores on the course evaluation, at first I felt betrayed by the students who I had worked so hard to help and these feelings affected my thoughts: It was like some of them were not even grateful at all. How could they be so mean? What had I done to offend them?"

Then I began to think more realistically: Where did I drop the ball? How could I have done a better job? These students were adults, or adultish, and they paid for this course (though, one of the questions I would have liked to ask them is, what could you have done to make the course more valuable for you?) It was an end of course summative survey, so there was no way to make any corrections in my instruction. All I could do was just try better on the next course, that is, if the evaluation did not sink my chances of being assigned a next course. The bottom line is that the customer is always right, and it is all about perceptions, and perceptions are reality. Right?

What Does the Research Show?

An online survey of 1,883 students from 10 European countries was administered by two researchers, one from Canada, Charles Belanger, and the other from the UK, Bernard Longden. They wanted to know what the students expect and what they experience from their instructors. "Overall, the gap between the expected and the experienced proved to be overwhelmingly significant," the study found. They looked at three characteristics: a professor's personality, classroom environment, and teaching style. What they found out was that there was a gap of 35 percent between what students expected and what professors were able to deliver.

Interestingly enough, professors did best at being "confident" and "rational" (15 percent gap) and were worst at being "inspiring" (35 percent gap). In the Personality dimension, students wanted inspiring teachers that are approachable. In the Classroom Environment dimension, students wanted their instructors to give a clear idea of student requirements. In the final dimension of Teaching Styles, students desired their professors to be good communicators and be alert to struggling students. While students expected their instructors to exhibit A and B performances, the students graded their teachers from F's to C's.

If we disregard the usual arguments of frustrated students lashing out at their teachers that gave them a bad grade, the researchers conclude that with all the other measurements for evaluating teacher performance, student evaluations prove to be the most effective at providing specific information for formative evaluations and summative ones and should be an important part of teacher evaluations.

What About K-12?

Colleges and universities routinely survey students regarding their instructors as part of the instructor evaluation and program evaluation, but public schools do not do this on an institutional basis, even though some teachers may be brave enough within their own classroom to do this.

As a curious conjecture, I wonder how students would formally grade their teachers. Informally, teachers are graded all the time. Students talk to their parents and tell them about their teachers. Students talk to each other and share what they think about their teachers on Facebook. There is a site called Rate Your Professor where college students can get an idea of what to expect from professors and they can learn which professors to avoid. And guess what? There is in fact a rate my teacher site, too.

As a way to gauge what is going on in your classroom, and frankly to gain a few points on the "my teacher cares" category, I have a simple idea that you can do without any extra work or explanation. Of course you could administer a formal climate survey, but what I am talking about is easier and more powerful. At the end of every test or quiz, put in a few non-graded questions like, "What did you like most about learning this topic? What was most difficult? How could the teacher have done a better job? What would you recommend to improve this course? What do you want to see more of in this class? Less of?"

In reviewing the comments, weekly, you will get an idea of what your students think. When your students see that you read their comments and make adjustments, they will be impressed. Just disregard the students that want to be funny, and you have the name of the student that says something inappropriate (it is on their test). When students see questions like this all the time on their tests and quizzes, they will get the message that you really do want to know, and hopefully have enough confidence to tell you what you do not want to hear. Hopefully you will never read, "We need a better instructor that actually knows what he is doing" but if you do, then take a deep breath, like I did, and figure out how to fix the problem.

How do you get concrete student feedback to inform your instruction?

Related resources

Belanger, C. H., & Longden, B. (2009). "The Effective Teacher's Characteristics as Perceived by Students." Tertiary Education & Management, 15(4), 323-340

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mindy Keller- Kyriakides's picture
Mindy Keller- Kyriakides
High school english teacher and blogger.

We absolutely need to garner and use student feedback! For it to become an organic part of the classroom experience, though, we need to start at the beginning of the school year. Our classes consistently evaluated the assignments, the lessons, their learning, and my instructional practices. The result was we developed a powerful rapport and trust. We wrote a book about how to make student evaluation an integral component of learning. It's due out in August! :) http://rowman.com/ISBN/9781610489140

Hal Portner's picture

If you and a colleqague are willing to solicit and respect honest student feedback, a process called Small Group Instructional Diagnosis, or SGID, affords the opportunity to gain some insights about classroom dynamics not otherwise obtainable. SGID was pioneered in the 1970s at the University of Washington by Joseph Clark. It was conceived as a midcourse adjustment strategy and has become a regular feature of hundreds of institutions of higher education throughout the country.

I have modified the SGID process to make it applicable to middle and high schools. If are a pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, or elementary teacher, I encourage you to experiment with my adaptation and modify SGID even further so that it will resonate more readily with the developmental stage of those younger students.

On a prearranged day about halfway through the school year, during the last 30 minutes of the class and in the absence of the other teacher, form students into groups of four to six. You can use cooperative learning groups if they already exist in the class. The reason for using small groups is that they place the extremes of student opinion within the context of group consensus. The procedure also increases validity.
Have each small student group select a recorder, then discuss these three questions: (1) What helps you learn in this class? (2) What gets in the way of your learning? and (3) What can be done to help you learn better? Following 10 minutes of discussion, ask each group to come to consensus on its answers.
Before beginning, make it clear to the students that (a) the discussion will focus on what goes on in the classroom, not on the teacher, and (b) it will be up to the teacher to decide what, if anything, he or she will do about the students' responses.

When all groups have completed their discussions (or when the designated time has expired), have the recorders report their groups' answers to the entire class. Write the comments on the board as they are presented. When all the groups have presented their comments, summarize and clarify until all agree on a class response to each question.

While you are working with the students in the classroom, your colleague, working alone, ponders the following: (1) What will the students say it is that helps them learn in the class, and what do I (the mentee) think will help? (2) What will the students say it is that gets in the way of their learning, and what do I (the mentee) think it is? (3) What will the students suggest doing that will improve their ability to learn, and what do I (the mentee) suggest?

The class's small-group discussion is preceded by a pre-SGID conversation and followed by a post-SGID discussion, both of which take place privately between you and your colleague. The pre-SGID meeting provides an opportunity to talk about the purpose of the process and to discuss goals, class activities, and any sensitive aspects or conditions that might apply. The meeting also offers an opportunity to change the generic questions to ones that relate to specific aspects of the class and to agree on how the information obtained will be treated.

The post-SGID meeting consists of a discussion of the information gathered. The intent is to understand the students' perspectives, to reflect on any differences between student and instructor perceptions, and to decide whether to make any changes based on the ac!tivity. The conversation should include a discussion about strategies for any anticipated change and consider what the teacher might say when talking to the students about the SGID's results during the first 5-10 minutes of the next class.

It is important to understand that SGID is not a student evaluation of the teacher. It is a voluntary, confidential assessment process for the teacher's use only. The information generated by a SGID can be ignored or considered together with other data as an indicator of needs. At the very least, SGID can generate thoughts about possible changes in teaching strategies and/or potential adjustments in a classroom's learning environment. It also offers students a good example of group decision making and consensus building.

(Adapted from "Mentoring New Teachers" 3rd Ed.(Corwin Press) by Hal Portner

Colin Welch's picture

I can tell you that my local university is awash with discussion about how student evaluations have diminished standards. Don't rock the boat! Don't have high standards!

When teachers are afraid to say no, the whole system loses.

Richard Moore's picture
Richard Moore
Secondary science teacher

In the past I was never quite open to surveys for middle school students; I mean what do they know about teaching, and what is their real motivation when taking the course. However, through talking with other teachers and seeing their results, learning from blogs such as this and the comments, I am looking forward to trying and refining the idea going forward. Thanks for your insights.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

I regularly ask my students how I am doing as a part of my formative assessment process. This is easy to do in Edmodo - I create a few questions for reflection on the unit of instruction/learning, asking students to evaluate how they have done regarding learning objectives, and asking them for their input about my delivery, support, guidance... I ask them what works well for them, and what they would like me to do that would be more helpful. As I ask these questions, students have the option not to respond if they like, but almost everyone does respond. I have learned a great deal from my students! This approach has also offered me the opportunity to get to know the students in my class as well. I have nothing but good to gain by asking for their input!

Some colleagues ask me about the negative input I might receive and how I handle that. I think the way the questions are worded is helpful - rather than say what did NOT work, I prefer to ask how some activities might be improved. The subtle shift from a negative question to a positive one usually ensures a constructive response. I also work hard at guiding students to be reflective, positive, and engaged in their project groups. The culture of the class promotes positive engagement over criticism - critique is good, criticism is not so very helpful! I also like the protocol of "I like, I wonder, Next Steps might include..."

Reflection is a powerful tool for deeper learning. I encourage teachers to explore incorporating reflection as part of their teaching practice!

Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

A teacher holds the most important job in the country such as teaching our children. The influence of a good teacher is phenomenal and the effects of a bad teacher can be life long. We must thanks teachers for the job they do and reward the good ones. Train the ones worth keeping and get rid of those who are hurting our kids.

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