I read through my student evaluations a couple of days ago and I've been thinking quite a bit about these and what they mean for my career. They were high in every category, though one question was lower than usual. For the question "My recommendation of this instructor to other students will be:" my average was a 3.67 out of 5, whereas usually I score well above 4 in all categories. A closer look at the evaluations showed a few students rated me in this question as a 1/5, and went on to write in the comments section that they were upset that they had to take two theology courses as part of the core curriculum.
Here at Xavier they say they take the student evaluations very seriously. I do as well, and even create my own evaluation forms that better address each class. But some concerns I have about the Xavier evaluations include:
1. A couple of students can bring the numerical average down dramatically, especially when the sample size is 60.
2. I think I recognized the handwriting from a couple of students who had terrible attitudes all semester, and some of them were involved with issues of plagiarism. Is it fair that we're evaluated as teachers by these students who respond by marking the lowest rating boxes on all questions and then write about how they shouldn't have to take two theology courses as part of the core curriculum. These students do not want to be there in the first place, and this plays a big role in the evaluations instead of accurately evaluating the course. That is to say, I am being punished because Xavier requires two theology courses.
3. In some respects the evaluations are not worthwhile because I ignore them to a point. For example, several students again wrote, as they always do, that I require way too much reading. This I would estimate shows up on about 80 percent of the evaluations. But I refuse to lower my standards. I think if I changed my courses to fit the student's desires in this category the homework assignments would consist of about 20 minutes worth of reading for each class period. However, in the theology department, or at least according to the catalog, students should be spending about 2 hours outside of class preparing for each hour in class. This means 6 hours of reading per week for each 3 credit course.
4. I think one reason student evaluations are weighed so heavily for promotion and tenure here at Xavier is because faculty by-and-large don't publish or do research as much as they do at other schools. Thus, in the absence of books and articles to evaluate, student evaluations have to take on a bigger role.
5. Weighing student evaluations heavily might lead to grade inflation. I think more thought needs to be given to looking at evaluations alongside grade distribution. Popular teachers who give out several A's might be popular because of that. My grades tend to be lower. Most of my grades are B's and C's, with a few D's, F's, and I would estimate 7 or 8% of my students get A's.
6. I doubt the evaluations can accurately reflect the quality of teaching. I can imagine scenarios where excellent teachers get poor evaluations because they are challenging, or because if they teach a small class with say 10 students, that particular semester they got 4 students with terrible attitudes.
In the end, I do pay attention to some things on the evaluations, and ignore other items (such as the complaint about too much reading). I don't know how much I learn though. Almost every change I was planning on making in my courses before reading the evaluations was brought up in one or more evaluation. So maybe they act like Rorschach tests, and tell us exactly what we want them to tell us.