In some ways, teaching evaluations are the most important reflection of my performance over the course of the past semester. While the reports of peer evaluators will appear in my tenure file, a one-class observation may not hold as much weight as these 15-minute student responses to a semester’s worth of work. Setting aside the hotly contested issue of whether student evaluations tell us anything at all about one’s teaching abilities, the fact that we are required to give them and that others are required to look at them leads to the question, as Female Science Professor points out, of when.
To some extent, this is dictated by institutional guidelines. In grad school I typically made evaluations the last task of the last class period. Influenced by a professor I had been a graduate assistant for, I also tried to give a brief talk highlighting the progress students had made over the course of the semester that was intended both to wrap up the semester and leave students with positive thoughts about the course before they evaluated it. Maybe because of this practice, I have always been in favor of end-of-the-semester evaluation administration.
Last year, however, the deadline for evaluations at my new school was a week before the end of the semester, forcing me to rethink my timing. Without the last day as an option, I had to consider the issues involved. For example, in order to ensure that all students would be present for the evaluations, it made the most sense to give them on a day that an assignment was due. Of course, this is related to the questions of whether students will think more negatively about a class after staying up late to complete an assignment and whether it is actually better to give the evaluations on a day that some students miss class, since the students who skip a class close to the end of the semester may not be the best students and, hence, may not give the most positive evaluations. How would it look, though, if one fifth of a class (5 out of 25) did not take the evaluations?
Because I want to make sure that the students who have been most engaged over the course of the semester complete evaluations, I find myself giving evaluations on days that an assignment is due. Despite the work they have just put in, my hope is that this is better than giving evaluations when before an assignment is due when they are still feeling the stress of a looming deadline. In the end, though, I’m not convinced that anything I do will actually make a difference in a given student’s evaluation of my course. There is a considerable amount of research on student evaluations but unless my scores decrease dramatically I guess I believe that it is better to spend my time preparing good courses than trying to game the system.