What Purpose Do Student Evaluations of Teaching Really Fill? by @hubert_ai


This blog series is devoted to digging down deep in the rich and compound information surrounding student evaluations of teaching. The goal is to reach a comprehensive and holistic view of how SETs are perceived among educators and students, as well as in academic research. To understand all factors influencing the use of SETs, I will try to cover all aspects from what their purpose are to how the ultimate student survey should be designed to produce the most valid results.

If you missed the first part in this series I recommend you go back and read it first.

Part 2 — Purpose

One of the biggest concerns for those working in higher education is to provide the best possible education to students. This is needed to attract a steady stream of knowledge-thirsty students willing to pay admission costs every year. Quality education is ensured and maintained by feeding back information to instructors on how they are performing and by providing guidance on how to enhance performance. One way of collecting this feedback is by simply asking those who experience teaching practices first-hand; students – who also happens to be the ones paying for the whole shebang.

As everyone knows, education isn’t cheap. Not for government, not for the individual. To measure output and give feedback on something with that high costs should come as a given to most people.

Students can be seen as the customers of the instructors’ service, and just like in the case of business to consumer services it is often natural to ask the consumer for his opinion on the commodity. Simple, right?

Wrong. When it comes to evaluating gained knowledge there is so much more in play than just the quality of goods. For example, in a regular B2C transaction you don’t have to put down months and months of hard work to receive what you have bought for your hard-earned cash. BUT, this doesn’t mean that it is less important for the ‘customers’ in the educational setting to be able to express their opinions. According to most professionals, asking students to provide feedback fill many invaluable functions in the symbiotic teacher-student relationship.

The most important and obvious function is for the instructor to get feedback on his individual teaching style in order to keep it up to date and make effective improvements. Since teachers have relatively free hands to develop their teaching style, it seems reasonable to ask what the students think of the way knowledge is communicated.

Secondly, it can’t hurt letting the students know that their opinions matter, that you appreciate and value them, and that you listen and act upon their request and ideas. Foster an environment where a mutual respect is built into the culture and you can expect your students to treat you in an equal manner.

Furthermore, research has actually shown that educators who perceive themselves as effective in their position (by having good evaluations or in other ways receive positive feedback) are more likely to become more committed to teaching, they are more likely to respond positively to change and less likely to become stressed or burned out.

Today, student feedback surveys also fill a multitude of other purposes, such as:

  • In promotional contexts. In many parts of the world, educators are required to have high scores on student satisfaction to move up the career ladder. In other words, a way for the administration to assess personnel.
  • A way of ensuring that professors don’t get too caught up in research and still put an emphasis on teaching and knowledge transfer.
  • As a way for students to be able to choose what class to take based on other students feedback.

Finally, what we hope to be able to measure with student evaluations above everything else basically boils down to one thing; teaching effectiveness.

Knowing the level of effectiveness among different teachers could help us answer many central questions such as;

-Which one of these professors is most effective in their teaching?
-Will changing this instructional practice have a positive or negative impact on student learning?
-What teaching methods are the most effective teachers using?

So, is student feedback forms a good way of measuring teacher performance then?

Well, that’s where this starts to become a bit tricky..

Social sciences, in general are notoriously hard when the aim is to reach an absolute answer. The complexity is often so overwhelming and the answer so subjective that it’s impossible for everyone to just agree with one final conclusion. Instead, many conclusions are reached and a big fight breaks out to decide who’s right. This is starting to become the case in SET research.

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
– H. L. Mencken

Most, if not all, inconclusiveness regarding SETs comes from the fact that effective teaching is extremely hard to reliably measure. Currently, there is no universally established method of determining how effective teaching is.

To achieve this, the first step is to define what really constitutes effective teaching. Even this task hasn’t been easy, but the definition most agreed upon in academic research can be summarized to “the degree to which an instructor facilitates student achievement“

The problem is just that it is… challenging to put a number on this degree of facilitation without it becoming just a subjective reaction from a bunch of different people.

Well ok, but why can’t we just look at student achievement to see how effective the teacher is then?

That’s because we have no idea how much of the achievement is due to teaching effectiveness and how much comes from the individual student diligence. Sure, we can see how many of the students are successful in a class and compare it to the next. But we still can’t answer the question as to why they are successful. Is this class full of unknown geniuses, was the exam uber-easy or did the teacher perform miracles?

That is what survey methods can help us find out.

Student comments and remarks provide valuable data about the students learning experience. Whether they are a good measure of teaching effectiveness is a whole different matter and is vigorously discussed both by faculty and scholars.
Don’t worry, we will look into that later on.

Now, in the next section of this series, we will start having a look at what criticisms exists towards SETs. We have studied reports, research, and talked to both teachers and students to see what their stance on student evaluations is.

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