Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bad news on the student evaluation front

The legitimacy of student teaching evaluations is always hot button. (See some previous discusssions here, here, here, and here) As a halfhearted defender of the usefulness of student evaluations as a defeasible indicator of some measures of teaching quality, I find this study disheartening: Students aren't always truthful on these evaluations.

Dennis Clayson's college students have picked apart everything from his "impossible" tests to his choice of neckties.
The University of Northern Iowa marketing professor says he doesn't take criticism personally when students grade him on teacher evaluations, but he has wondered: Do they always tell the truth?The answer is no, Clayson and a Southeastern Oklahoma State University marketing professor found, in what they say is the first study of its kind

About a third of students surveyed at both schools admitted they had stretched the truth on anonymous teacher evaluations, which teachers at colleges circulate at semester's end. A majority, 56 percent, said they know other students who have done the same. Twenty percent of participants admitted they had lied on the comments section of the evaluations.

The good news: Students fib in some cases to make their instructors look good, the study shows. The bad news: More often, they do it to punish professors they don't like.

The more interesting stuff, in my eyes, is the sidebar, with students' responses to some other questions about these evaluations:

• Do you think that teachers who are evaluated become better teachers? Yes: 68.4 percent
• Do you think that the comments written on the evaluations are read by the teacher? Yes: 74.2 percent
• Do you think that the comments written on the evaluations are read by administrators? Yes: 50.6 percent
• Do you personally know of a teacher who was let go because of bad evaluations? Yes: 6.8 percent

The intriguing thing here is that students have a lot of confidence in the efficacy of evaluations to improve teaching, but think their institutions (represented by administrators, I gather) care relatively little about good teaching. What are we to make of that?


  1. I'm not that surprised by that result. I lecture at a large, research-based institution, and students (the observant ones, anyway) seem fairly aware that teaching counts for less than research. Nonetheless, it doesn't seem unreasonable for students to think that individual faculty members will take student feedback into account when designing their courses. Especially since it's sometimes the only feedback some people receive.

    I disagree with the quoted piece that we should view it as good news that students sometimes tell lies in order to help their professors.

  2. You can tell about half-way through the semester which ones are going to savage you come evaluation time. They are the ones struggling with the material, whose coercive attempts at getting you to lower your standards have failed. And sure enough, it doesn't take a great imagination to put faces on the cliche-ridden outcries once they've been voiced. They have got it down pat by now; it's the same complaints you hear in passing the slanderous cabals that form in the hallways and lunchrooms. My favorites: 'He won't listen to any opinion but his own' = I wouldn't concede that an answer on a test was correct. 'He humiliated me in front of the class' = I corrected someone or suggested a greater effort was required to learn the material or asked that an electronic device be turned off. Sure there are always a few thoughtful suggestions from which you can benefit. But the problem, is that administrators take ALL evaluations seriously, because of concerns over "retention." (And there is no opportunity ever given to face one's accusers.) As I was told by a chairperson way back in the early 90's, "Their perceptions matter, regardless of the truth."

  3. Hi, Michael -- I want to amplify a point raised by mw: "especially since it's sometimes the only feedback some people receive". Over at the Confessions of a Community College Dean site, Dean Dad had a post yesterday on how administrators should read student evaluations of faculty. (

    While his advice is great, it leaves out what I think is the most basic answer to that question: administrators should read student evaluations as ONE component -- and by no means the weightiest one -- of a robust and fair system of evaluating teaching. Several of the commenters to that post raise that same point.

    Assuming that the study you've cited is valid, the methodology sound, the results replicated elsewhere, etc., then I think that it provides yet more reason for conscientious administrators (and faculty peers) to use other, additional methods of evaluating teaching!

  4. I taught a large introductory education oceanography class for about 25 years. I've given a great deal of thought to student feedback, and feel that student feedback, in many cases, is presented to the students in a way that undermines the teacher. I've posted a more detailed summary of my thoughts at:


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!