Monday, December 29, 2008

The Less Than Helpful Student Evaluation

Every semester I receive my four manila envelopes containing student evaluations including the computerized numerical assessments by which instructors are compared to each other within departments, colleges and university wide. Unlike the Secret Agent Man of the 1960s, this is a process of takin’ away one’s name and givin’ you a number. In addition to the official university evaluations and the additional honors college evaluations, there are various online sites where anyone can come and leave comments about instructors. They range from the obscene ( to the perfunctory (

I tend to stay away from these sites for a number of reasons. While my scores are in the good range on all of them, (much like my official evaluations on which I am among the highest rated instructors in the department and in the College of Arts and Humanities) the information is ultimately not terribly useful. One doesn’t necessarily have to be a student in the class they evaluate online nor do they have to actually complete the classes if actually enrolled. And, much like the official evaluations used by the university, these comments occur in a complete contextual vacuum. One has no idea of the student’s major in General Education courses. One has no idea whether the student took the class merely for convenience of schedule or other reasons unrelated to academic concerns. One has no idea what the students’ work schedule might be. One has no idea what expectations the student brought to the course ranging from grade expectations to workload.

Finally, one has no idea what kind of student the evaluators actually are. The fundamental attribution error is alive and well in the minds of most undergraduates: “I earned an A,” “S/he gave me a C,” “I made my A through hard work,” “They didn’t make a good grade because they are lazy.”

Jesse Jackson once observed that “A text without a context is a pretext.” And, of course, that is particularly true of the online evaluation sites. Those who come to the sites are inevitably self-selected and motivated generally by one of three concerns:

1. To take out anger at instructors who did not meet the expectations the reviewer brought to the course, no matter how reasonable, discernable by the instructor or possible to achieve;

2. To serve as loyalists defending instructors targeted by the first group; and

3. To create a consumerist rating for an instructor designed for other student who see themselves in consumer terms and who choose classes based on such ratings without regard for reliability.

It’s precisely the consumerist premise that is problematic here. Education is not a good or service consumed by those with enough money to purchase them, as the example of our soon to be ex-president readily demonstrates. Higher education is an opportunity and a means for human beings to become educated. Paying one’s fees, which actually covers a relatively small portion of the total cost of the production of higher education, does not guarantee a grade, an understanding of the material such courses cover or even a perfunctory grasp of the data presented. Payment of fees does not make one an educated human being or even a minimally trained potential employee. To put it into strictly consumerist terms, it’s a bit like buying a computer and expecting it to run itself. If one wants email, one must get an account, become familiar with its operation, check the mail and follow the rules of the ISP as well as the rules of netiquette in its use. Similarly, one must engage the educational process if one wants to benefit from it.

The comments I get from my students are predictable and consistent. Two consecutive entries from students in my completely online Humanistic Traditions II summer courses registering their comments at well illustrate that pattern:

  • Yes, he requires a lot of work and effort by the student, but I thought it was well worth it. He is exceptionally learned and often has insightful things to say about humanities and current events. Not an easy A, but you can actually learn. Alot (sic) of critical thinking and self reflection, if that make you uneasy then this class is not for you.

I admit to being a demanding teacher. I operate under the premise that the average college class requires two hours outside the classroom (or class activity for online courses) for any hope of successful mastery of the course. I calculate the amount of time required for reading using a low ball average reading speed multiplied by the number of total pages assigned. I calculate the high ball time students tell me they spend on assignments and exams. I account for group presentation preparation and evaluation time. I total all that time and subtract it from the total number of class hours per semester times two. The result? None of my classes come close to requiring the average time necessary for successful mastery of the average college course.

I also admit to being challenging if not provocative. I readily confess my belief and consistent observation that cognitive dissonance is a helpful element in creating the learnable moment. That’s not comfortable for some students as the next comment will observe. But if one leaves college thinking the same things they thought when they entered, it really has been a waste of everyone’s time, money and energy.

The only aspects missing here from the historical pattern of my evaluations is the comment I often get about the instructor’s concern for the student and his/her learning. I am fairly religious about office hours and trying to work with students when problems arise. I spend hours listening to students talk about class concerns, career plans, personal life melt downs, even spiritual life existential crises both in person and online. Sometimes that is not enough but most of my students agree that I make an effort to put a human face on what can otherwise be a highly impersonal, factory model process.

So that’s the good news. Here’s the bad:

  • A ridiculous amount of work with very vague explanations if any explanations at all. Too much work for a Gordon Rule class but if you devote your life to the class like I did and pretend to be a flaming liberal, you should get an A

Too much work? Perhaps. Of course, that presumes a comparative standard that is not here articulated. How much is enough? Enough for whom? Enough for what? How much work should an intensive writing Gordon Rule course demand? And, perhaps more importantly, who should decide that based upon what criteria and experience? Much like the rejoinder “That’s just your opinion” I get from students whose understandings have been challenged, pedagogical decisions are neither matters of opinion nor merely (just) anything.

My pedagogy is decidedly different in many ways from when I began teaching college students 17 years ago. In some cases, I have learned new approaches to teaching that I employ while retaining many tried and true methods. In other cases, like content quizzes to insure the material is actually read, my students have taught me well through their attitudes about learning and their behaviors. I use a wide variety of educational approaches ranging from lecture/discussion to film reviews to observation/analysis. I am conscious of learning styles and seek to accomodate them. But, ultimately, my decisions about coursework are based upon my education, experience and a consistency with an articulable educational philosophy. Student opinions about pedagogy are based largely in comparison between classes and an often unconscious confusion of appropriate work load with the amount of work students want to do. So even if it were a mere clash of opinions, student opinions on pedagogy would generally not be much of a match.

I don’t mind being described as a demanding instructor. Indeed, I see sites like as doing me a major favor if it prevents those who don’t want to work hard from enrolling. And I’m not particularly willing to allow students with no instructional experience, limited education and a tendency to confuse the amount of work they want to complete with the amount needed to effectively learn a given course’s material to be the final judge on appropriate workload. Lawyers who allow their clients to tell them how to practice are often headed for disbarment. Doctors who allow their patients to tell them how to conduct their surgery are headed for malpractice court. While both can benefit from the feedback of those who employ them, ultimately the professional decisions remain the province of the professional. Professional educators are no different.

As for this poor soul’s sense that s/he needed to pretend to be a flaming liberal to survive the course, she has my sympathy. Sadly, intellectual cowardice is the mark of many students who come with rigid, often authoritarian perspectives, particularly about politics and religion. Accusations of political bias generally mean that one has challenged the thinking the student brought with him or her to the course and thus drawn into question the authority figures from whom they inherited those ideas generally with little critical reflection. Where this becomes obvious is in observing that those who agree with an instructor’s perspective never complain about it. Interestingly, another student at this site noted that while s/he did not agree with some of my positions articulated in responses to discussion posts, it did not affect his/her grade and that students should not be afraid to state their opinion in this class. Let’s hear it for intellectual confidence!

Besides work load and bias, the other complaint that I get on my observations is about group work. Requiring students to work together for a common cause really does fly in the face of a hyperindividualist culture and a consumerist, vocational skills approach to higher education. The reality is that most students who complain about this simply don’t want to do the work required to be a responsible member of a group, both in preparation of materials for presentation and in working with classmates. And yet, as I often ask my students, in which job will you never have to work with other human beings?

Perhaps the worst element of this entire “evaluation” process is that it is a squandered opportunity for providing instructors with valuable feedback. In all honesty, I do care what my students think, not only about the course materials but also about the pedagogy. Asking questions to establish context about a student’s expectations, relevant life circumstances (such as working) and educational experience can go a long way toward creating a matrix for valuable feedback. A self-conscious eschewal of the consumerist “how did you like it?” premise with its nearly inescapable concomitant confusion of engaged education with passive entertainment would be vital for useful feedback. While I don’t expect that critically considered evaluations will become a regular part of academia anytime soon, we can always hope. And in the meantime, please pardon me and many, many other instructors if we don’t take the current consumerist “evaluations” seriously. I never totally ignore them, but as my students often preface nasty remarks, I am more than willing to give them “all due respect.”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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