First, let me say that my own reading of the literature on student evaluation supports Lang's conclusion that much of the conventional skepticism about student evaluation is misplaced. By and large, student evaluations validly measure certain aspects of instructor performance (whether students have learned from the course, their enthusiasm, how well the exams or other evaluative instruments corresponded with the course content). At the same time, there are elements of instructor performance that students are not well positioned to evaluate: the choice of textbooks or course content, the instructor's knowledge or mastery of the course content, etc. My own sense is that Lange may underestimate how many bad student evaluation questionnaires are out there: Many that I've seen ask students questions that are outside their competence and fail to ask questions that fall within their competence. And many have basic methodological problems (for example, students are asked to consider double-barreled statements such as "The instructor's lectures were organized and informative").
Indeed, this may be one area where faculty autonomy is overrated. Colleges and universities vary in this regard, but at most of the places I have taught, departments are given some vague guidelines as to how to develop their questionnaires but are left to their own devices beyond that, with the result that different disciplines have questionnaires that vary dramatically in length, content, and so on. I wouldn't suggest absolute uniformity across an institution with respect to these questionnaires, but I wonder if having an outside expert develop the questionnaires might be a good idea. In any event, I'd be curious to know from commenters whether my remarks reflect their own experience of student evaluation in different institutions.
Since Lang's book is directed at new teachers, he gives some valuable advice as to how to improve your student evaluation results.
- Know the form and what's asked.
- Get additional feedback from students earlier in the term, using techniques such as minute papers, 'muddiest point' exercises, and questionnaires.
- Be transparent as you teach, explaining to students how the various activities you provide them promote their learning, etc.
I think Lang is right on target with these suggestions, but let me echo and underscore a few points.
- When you get additional feedback, do what Lang proposes and discuss the feedback with the students. Students are willing to forgive our missteps and will tolerate high academic standards if they see that we are acting in good will. Hence, when students give us feedback and we not only acknowledge it but also indicate how we intend to incorporate that feedback in the future, we engender that good will -- and better evaluations result.
- Constantly remind students of the course learning objectives. One challenge for students, especially in philosophy courses, is that they are often uncertain as to what they are supposed to learn. If so, then student evaluation becomes a misguided exercise: Students are being asked whether they learned X but their attention is focused on whether they learned Y.
- Foster the habit of student self-evaluation. Many of us are nervous about student evaluation because it may not do a good job prying apart our contribution to student learning from students' own contribution to their learning. Clearly, the interaction between these contributions is complex: Sometimes great teaching produces great learning, but it may not always do so. In light of this, I've found it important for students to get in the frequent habit of evaluating their own performance and efforts. This encourages a more mature attitude to instructor evaluation because students are more aware of their role in the collaborative learning process and so are more able to focus their attention specifically on how the instructor helped or hindered learning.