With a new school comes a new student evaluation form. Having taught in various capacities at four institutions, I have now experienced evaluations on four different forms, the most recent of which I got back after the fall semester. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t know if these forms measure what some administrators think they measure, but they do provide some insight into student satisfaction with our courses. Like my previous institutional transition, where the evaluations went from questioning the quality of class discussions to questioning whether I tried to have students discuss things, this new evaluation form demonstrates some of the things that an institutional committee agreed might be important while also showing how flawed this system is.
At my current institution, the evaluations measure things like students’ rating of me, the course, my grading, my assignments, and my course materials, indicating that all of these things are important. (My all-time favorite evaluation question was how close my course came to a student’s perceived “ideal college course” – talk about a high bar!) These items are measured on a five-point scale ranging from “poor” to “excellent.” The problem is that the scale is unbalanced, meaning that “poor” is really the only negative option and the other four are varying degrees of good. I suppose that this might allow administrators who look at my evaluations to see how positively students viewed my courses, but it also means that a rating like “acceptable” that falls in the middle of the scale looks like “neutral-to-bad” to administrators.
As I expected, my evaluations took a hit upon changing institutions. This is the aspect of the experience that led me to realize the ways that we reify student evaluations. By the last few semesters at my previous institution, evaluations for one difficult course were almost universally positive. The evaluations at my new institution for largely the same course were not nearly as positive. Why? Because I had responded to years of student feedback on a few particular areas of the course at my previous institution and then the instrument used to measure that feedback changed. Now I will begin the process over again, responding to feedback in new areas that will help me hone my course into one that students don’t have as much to complain about on course evaluations. This doesn’t mean that my new course will be “better,” just that it will better reflect the areas that my new institution deems worthy of student evaluation.
The thing is, if I hadn’t changed institutions again I might have forgotten the degree to which I’ve been effectively teaching to the evaluations over the past five years and simply accepted that I had become a master teacher. Even recognizing this, there isn’t much that I can do about it since these are the measures that will contribute to determining my future. As a new faculty member, it is comforting to think that lower evaluations are not only about me. The trick is to remember this fact as the evaluations rise over time.
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