Although flawed, student evaluations of teachers provide important insights

January 22, 2020 — by Kaitlyn Tsai

Throughout our educational careers, most of us have had that one teacher who we desperately wished had chosen another career — and if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard of such teachers from older siblings or friends: maybe the one who yells students into submission, the one who takes points off your homework for not dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s or the one who just seems to hate teaching or kids.

From elementary school to high school, I’ve encountered not one, but several who fit the description of “that one teacher.” I’m sure I will continue to meet them in college as well. 

So when the school provides us with the opportunity to fill out a form evaluating a new teacher, I appreciate it — and no, it’s not because I want to fill out 1’s for every category on the form. Rather, it’s because these evaluations provide students with opportunities to have a say in their education. 

Yet for years, educators have debated the legitimacy of using student evaluations of teaching, or SET scores, to gauge teaching effectiveness for tenure or promotion. Opponents of SETs, including City University of New York psychology professor John Lawrence, argue that factors like grade expectations and race and gender bias play a role in a students’ evaluations.

While these arguments may be valid to a certain extent, SETs hold a degree of weight because almost no other measure can gauge teaching performance as directly or accurately as student evaluations can. Although quantitative scores may not holistically measure a teacher’s performance, they still provide valuable insights into an instructor’s improvement from year to year. For example, according to an extensive study of the efficacy of SETs by Elizabeth Barre, former associate director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, if an instructor’s ratings jump from a 2.5 average to a 4.5 average, “we can be fairly confident that there was real and significant growth in their teaching performance.”

Even if some treat the evaluations as a joke and fill in 1’s for every category, most students take the surveys at least semi-seriously. Few students at this school have the drive to actively try to ruin a teacher’s career with their single rating. 

Just because a select few students may try to skew a teacher’s evaluation does not mean that the school should place little weight on student input. Since students are the ones sitting in class and interacting with teachers on a daily basis, they deserve to have a voice in evaluating the givers of their education. Providing students with the chance to express how they feel about their experiences with a class also demonstrates a degree of respect and care for the students.

To address the concerns about bias and students not taking surveys seriously, administrators can place greater weight on the open-ended feedback at the end of the surveys, which allows students to explain their ratings or any specific comments and concerns that they have. Meanwhile, rather than treating the numerical ratings as a definitive measure of teaching ability, they can analyze the numbers for general trends or patterns of growth, filtering out the obviously extreme responses of all 1’s. 

And of course, using SETs alongside other methods, like directly measuring student learning through standardized test scores or conducting regular classroom observations, will maximize the accuracy of these evaluations.

While student feedback, like other measures, may have its flaws, it still remains one of the best options for measuring teaching ability. After all, the more the administration and teachers understand about how students experience a course and interact with their instructors, the better they can adjust their teaching styles or curriculum to ensure students can make the most out of their education.