Professional Learning

Should Students Evaluate Their Teachers?

Blogger Ben Johnson ponders the use of student evaluations in K-12 education.

May 9, 2012

"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

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