Tuesday, April 29, 2008

They like me, they really really like me

So we're coming up on time for course evaluations. Now I fancy myself a pretty good teacher (I'm sure most of us do) but at this point, the course is essentially over and what really matters is getting decent evals. These are the things that presumably loom large in the job application for teaching colleges. (?)

Probably at this point there's nothing to do. It's too late to
"buy good grades by being easy or generous graders." Some of my professors give a short speech about how these evaluations are actually important to try to get the students to take them seriously. I'm not sure if this helps. At my undergrad institution (and probably here) the average teacher rating was 'above average' so getting kids to focus on how it's important may make them apply some standard to your eval that they aren't to the others. Though, you might get some sympathy high marks?

Who knows? This time I'm planning on asking for comments about the syllabus or clarity of the lectures. Hopefully I'll get something other than just numbers this time.

On a side note, if you can take advantage of the
Dr. Fox Effect.

-- Second Suitor


m.a. program faculty member said...

One thing that can help:

Mention that you take the evals seriously, but then add that it's really useful to know, in the written comments, both what things could be improved (so that you can improve them) AND what things worked well and that they liked (so that you can retain them and know what's OK).

If you can manage to do this in a low-key way (so that it doesn't look like you're trolling for compliments), it may actually increase the number of specific positive comments (and maybe even redirect a few of the negative comments to suggestions rather than just "SS is teh suck!!1!!"). It also has the advantage of being true.

Anonymous said...

In my 12 years in the academy (undergrad + grad--I'm a very late ABD person), I've never heard of someone denied tenure for low student evaluations. But I have heard of (/known) several people denied tenure for low quality research but high student evaluations. What do other people make of this?

phi and cog-sci guy said...

I recently came across a neat study from 2006 in _Judgment and Decision Making_, entitled "The availability heuristic in the classroom: How soliciting more criticism can boost your course ratings". Here's a link:

In short, the students were divided into two groups when they were filling out course evaluations: one that was asked to list _two_ ways that the course could be improved, and another that was asked to list _ten_ ways that the course could be improved. Because we often use the experienced ease or difficulty in thinking of something as a heuristic for judging how likely or common something is, the scientists predicted that the second group would rate the course higher than the first group. That is, if you're asked to list ten improvements, you'll find that hard to do, and so you'll experience the course at that moment as "hard to improve", whereas even for a great course, students can easily come up with a couple of possible improvements. And, indeed, they found that the 10-improvements group rated the course on average a half-point higher on a 7-point scale, than the 2-improvements group.

Asstro said...

I'm still too green to say one way or the other what happens on tenure committees, but I've definitely sat in on faculty meetings where we discuss the evaluations of some of our contract instructors. The senior faculty members can be remarkably harsh about low student evaluations, even going so far as to compare relatively high student evaluations with the average grades that the instructor has awarded students, and then extrapolating counterfactually from this that the instructor might have gotten worse evals had he been a little more critical of his students. In the end, in this one case, it didn't matter to this instructor, as his contract was renewed and someone spoke to him about his grade inflation. But I did take it as an eye-opener.

My basic thought is that it's best to cover your back and to excel at teaching. Of course, you should do your research too. But why risk getting knocked by a tenure committee on your teaching when so many other factors are already working against you?

Anonymous said...

what do i make of it?

that it's easier to get positive recommendations from students if you're a crap philosopher than it is to do good research if you're a crap philosopher.

there's a guy here in a neighboring department (not philosophy) who has been deadwood ever since his tenure--he contributes nothing to the department, literally has not talked to his colleagues in years, and does no research. hasn't written a damn thing in years.

but the undergrads write him rave reviews because he acts cool, tells jokes, and gives them all 'a's.

it's too late; he's already got tenure. but he's crap at what he does. his research output is a good indicator of that. his student evaluations are not.

Anonymous said...

Actually, while anon 8:38 may be right at certain schools, especially R1 research places, this is certainly not the case for at least certain LAC's that take teaching very seriously. When I was at a small LAC, two of my professors who were awful in the classroom were denied tenure. Their research in terms of articles published was substantially above the department average, so teaching had to play a part in their not getting tenure.

Anonymous said...

Low student evals will get you canned in a flash at a high-end (read high cost) SLAC.

tenured philosophy girl said...

Wow, this blog is super-quiet lately!

I do know someone turned down for low evals, but anon 8:38 makes a good point.

Student evaluations are very inflated and it's rare to have truly terrible ones. Plus, research and publishing in philosophy are just really hard - harder than being an adequate teacher, though perhaps not harder than being a brilliant teacher (which is never required for tenure), so it's way easier to fail at the former. Plus, in my opinion, most people who suck at the one also suck at the other and it's easy to deny tenure by just pointing out there aren't enough publications there, so in cases of double-suckage (the typical failed tenure cases), the research explanation is easier to use as the primary explanation.

Notice that if I am right, this is all consistent with schools not just bullshitting when they say they care about both teaching and research. Anon 8:38 *may* have been hinting at the bullshitting hypothesis - it's a common thing to say. I think lots of places only give lip-service to teaching but lots of other places really do care about it. Certainly SLACs do.

I guess I should add that obviously you can fail to get tenure at Princeton or someplace like that without even single-suckage, not to mention double-suckage. But in those places it's no mystery why the issue is always research rather than teaching.

Anonymous said...

"...it's best to cover your back and to excel at teaching."

I take it this means: it's best to cover your back and to excel at getting good student evals.

After all, since when did good evals = excellent teaching?

Anonymous said...

This Inside Higher Ed article cites a recent study supporting the proposition that "students’ evaluations don’t correlate with actual learning".

At one point, the article says, "One explanation [for the lack of correlation], for example, is that students don’t themselves have a good sense of how much they are learning."

No! You're kidding!!

Asstro said...


Not to be a fucker about it, but I actually mean that you should excel at teaching, just as I think that you should excel at research. The issue here is what it takes to get tenure. There are all sorts of metrics that are assjobbed and stupid for measuring both, but at the end of the day, when your tenure committee pulls its shit together and checks out your dossier, they're asking themselves whether you've excelled at either research or teaching or both. They're not asking themselves whether you've gotten great student evaluations.

Sure, part of this discussion is about student evaluations and what a bad indicator of teaching competence they are, but it's also about whether one really needs to worry about teaching to get tenure.

As TPGirl has implied, suckage may not be limited to one area, so lean the fuck away from suckage where possible; both in appearance and in truth.

Anonymous said...

Presumably, it is much much harder to get shit evals than it is to get stellar evals. Notice that the easiest way to get a stellar eval is to engage in practices contrary to good teaching, but the easiest way to get a shit eval is to engage in those practices commensurate with good teaching. For example:

Anon's Quick Guide to Shit/Stellar Evals

1. Stellar Evals: watch movies, little to no work, give everyone an A, bring donuts, hold class outside.

2. Shit Evals: Strict Attendance policy, tough grader (C actually means 'average'), lots of work.

Food for thought. Anyone bring donuts?

Anonymous said...

...they're asking themselves whether you've excelled at either research or teaching or both.

Maybe. But when they ask themselves whether you've excelled at teaching, how will they be able to answer the question without looking at your student evals? Maybe one or more of them sat in on one or maybe two of your actual class periods, and maybe they'll have a look at one or more of your syllabi. But it's hard to say that any of that tells them much about how you're actually teaching. Realizing this, most save themselves the trouble and simply assume that the student evals tell the whole story - or at least enough of the story in order to satisfy themselves that they've seriously considered how well you've been teaching. The truth is: they really have very little idea of what you're doing unless they sit in on most of your class periods, which just never happens.

Anonymous said...

Stellar Evals should not happen if the Dean and your Chair are doing their job. Take a look at grades and compare them to evals, and both the chair and the Dean shoud have a good idea what is going on in the classroom, if it is all movies and easy grades, no tenure, you suck as a teacher.

Anonymous said...

I think that perception of unfairness will lead to low evals, and this can potentially occur if one is a hard grader. But just showing movies, bringing doughnuts, and being an easy grader is certainly not sufficient for getting good evals. Although students want to be entertained -- they want class to be interesting and enjoyable -- they also want to feel like they're not wasting their time. They have some idea of what they're supposed to be learning in a given class, and if you're just telling jokes all day or talking about off-topic things, I don't think you'll get stellar evals. Stellar evals require students to think that there is genuine quality of instruction, that the class is interesting, and that the instructor is fair.

Anonymous said...

The whole idea of student evaluations is based on the silly, groundless presumption that all or most students are well-informed, competent, and impartial judges who are willing to take the time to respond to the questionaires in a way that reflects their actual beliefs.

Students who have skipped and/or who haven't paid attention and/or simply don't remember most of what happened during class aren't well-informed judges.

Students who don't know the difference between a good teacher of (e.g.) Descartes' Meditations and a bad teacher - this is probably all of them - aren't competent judges of such teaching.

Students who let their emotions affect their judgment aren't impartial judges.

Student who don't give a shit about filling out the forms and who just want to be done with the class aren't going to bother making sure their responses to the questionaires actually reflect their real beliefs about the course. (In my experience, most student don't spend more than 30 seconds filling out the questionaires.)

Since a huge number of students fit into one or more of the above categories, it's hard to take seriously any discussion over whether or not student evaluations should be given any weight at all. It's obvious that the only reason they are given weight is that administrators and peers are simply too lazy to use any other, more effective measures. Plus, administrators by and large are running businesses that need to keep the customers happy to stay in business.

Of course anyone who's just interested in keeping their jobs will ignore all this, will toe the line, and will continue to pay lip service to the a priori ridiculous idea that students are good judges of their teachers.

Anonymous said...

Students, even the worst, most self-centered and biased ones, know when they could have learned something had they bothered to apply themselves. And when the class is a waste of time.

They can tell when instructors genuinely care about teaching and the subject matter.

They can tell when instructors do more than just lecture AT them, but take time to build intelligent group work and other activities into the course.

They can tell when films are meant to waste time and when they are meant to teach.

Even my students who complain about the readings admit that they were worthwhile and that they'd learned something at the end of the course.

You can poo-poo undergrads all you want, but they are the reason you are teaching and learning (presumably) how to do so well. And while they have their own biases--i.e., they may like professors who grade easily and who are "cool", I can tell you that especially the current Gen Y group of students see through fake "cool" in two seconds.

They respect the dweeby professor who actually knows her stuff and genuinely wants to teach students from where they are and challenge them. The attitude of anonymous at May 5, 2008 11:04 AM will show through in a second and yield him/her bad evaluations.

Finally, who says that "emotions" are going to necessarily cloud one's judgment in evaluating teaching? Is it a bad thing to get students excited and emotionally charged about a subject like philosophy? I'd say that teaching involves more than just transmission of information about (e.g.) Descartes' Meditations and that respect, concern as well as intelligence are 100% part of what's part of being evaluated as an instructor.

[/end rant]

(From an M.A. with higher than average teaching experience who is starting a PhD at a Leiter Ranked University)

Big D said...

"Of course anyone who's just interested in keeping their jobs will ignore all this, will toe the line, and will continue to pay lip service to the a priori ridiculous idea that students are good judges of their teachers."

Do you have a better suggestion for us?

will philosophize for food said...

"Of course anyone who's just interested in keeping their jobs will ignore all this, will toe the line, and will continue to pay lip service to the a priori ridiculous idea that students are good judges of their teachers."

While I think you make some good points, your post seems to give the impression that you don't have a lot of respect for your students.

Anonymous said...

More on evaluations:


Anon 11:04 said...

None of the comments in my last post imply that I "poo-poo" undergrads or that I don't "respect" them. The fact that my comments may have suggested this to some is, I think, a reflection of just how ingrained is the presumption that students are indeed good judges of good teaching; so anyone who questions that they aren't is presumed to disrespect them. Does a doctor who questions whether children are good judges of the difference between good medicine and good pastry thereby disrespect children? Does a parent who questions whether her children are good judges of her parenting thereby disrespect her children? It's perfectly easy to respect students without treating them as good judges of good teaching. It amazes me that this needs to be explained. I suppose many are so used to pandering to students that they believe that anything less than pandering is disrespectful...

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:20 said, "They respect the dweeby professor who actually knows her stuff and genuinely wants to teach students from where they are and challenge them."

I would say that generally this is certainly not the case. It is true of perhaps 5 to 10% of students, depending on where you teach.

I suspect that Anon 12:20's statement is a reflection of his/her own attitude as a student rather than of the real attitudes of most students. Also I suspect that when Anon 12:20's experience increases, his/her own attitude with regard to students will become increasingly more cynical. It is pretty easy to have the rosy attitude he/she expresses when one is yet an "M.A. with higher than average teaching experience who is starting a PhD at a Leiter Ranked University".

Anonymous said...

Not to harp on about this, but I found some corroborating evidence for the speculations on student attitudes which I expressed above under anon 9:41. My speculation is corroborated by a survey of students conducted by Michael Birnbaum and published in a interesting paper titled "A Survey of Faculty Opinions Concerning Student Evaluations of Teaching" pp. 11-12. Birnbaum sums up nicely: "Apparently, students are not hesitant to say they will give higher evaluations to courses with lower standards and less content. Students gave the highest ratings to the course in which the teacher is attractive and has a good personality, where the standards for grading are lowest, and where the content is least." The whole paper is worth a read, I think.

Anonymous said...

This youtube skit on Course Evaluations is hellarious!!
Watch it, you won't be disappointed!