Student Evaluations Are Worthless

Source material and discussion on the widespread use and misuse of student evaluations of teachers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why Student Evaluations of Teachers are Bullshit, Some Sources

Updated December 2014

No longer is it possible for an intelligent, well-informed person to believe that summative student evaluations accurately measure student learning or teaching effectiveness. But the widespread, almost universal use of summative student course evaluations of teachers, together with the nonchalant manner in which professors ritualistically distribute them at the end of every semester, can give the impression to both students and professors that the majority of professors support the idea that course evaluations are good indicators of how well the teachers are teaching and of how well their students are learning. The fact is that the majority of professors, across all disciplines, believe that summative student evaluations aren't good or fair measures of such things (see Birnbaum; Crumbley). This is one of academia's dirty little secrets. Dirty, because this belief, though well-founded, manifests a cynicism about contemporary higher education that tragically lies right at the core of the educators' relationship and interaction with students. It is secret, because - outside of a specialized academic literature which virtually preaches to the choir - the matter is almost never discussed candidly, and because many professors - believers and unbelievers alike - so often actually pay lip service to the view that student evaluations are valuable in these ways. The unbelievers who talk the orthodox talk do so mainly to keep their jobs or simply to avoid rocking the boat. But many have spoken out. They come from every department and every type of institution large and small, research-oriented and teaching-oriented. Below are some examples. Most of them warn that if summative course evaluations continue to be used in an attempt to measure teaching-effectiveness, then academic standards and ideals will be, perhaps irreparably, subverted: grades will continue to inflate and college courses will continue to be dumbed down and excellent professors will continue to be denied tenure and promotions, or jobs altogether, simply because they failed to pander to the increasing desire of students to be entertained or at least to be relieved of the hard work that genuine higher education requires; for there are many who are willing - if not happy or eager - to cave to these pressures and the job market in academia remains tight and the competition high.

Given how clear are the facts on this subject, it is not difficult to imagine (with Crumbley) that the real purpose of the continued use of this method of "evaluating" teaching excellence is not in fact the purported purpose, but is rather to keep professors subservient to administrators, who increasingly resemble their counterparts in the more blatantly corporate world. If it were not such an entrenched part of modern academic institutions, one could hardly help wondering why professors aren't permitted actually to run the universities in which they teach. As it is, this is no easier to wonder than it is, in our "free" economy, to wonder why factory-workers aren't permitted to run the plants in which they work. (Plato was the founder of the university in the Western world. We do not know whether he, like Socrates, refused to teach for money, but it's likely that Socrates' refusal came from a wish to avoid the slavishness inherent in such transactions.) With these issues in mind, it is hard to continue to trust that the education of students is a purpose to which those who do actually run the universities are truly committed, no matter how much noble rhetoric drips from their lips at commencement addresses and in their glossy college catalogues.

Highly Recommended Reading: (If you find the following list overwhelming, then try reading Philip Stark & Richard Freishtat's 2014 paper; it is the most recent and one of the most concise of all the following. Also, Dennis Clayson's 2009 article is an up-to-date and extraordinarily comprehensive study of the research.)

John V. Adams, 1997, "Student Evaluations: The Ratings Game", Inquiry, Vol. 1 No. 2, Fall 1997, pp. 10-16. (Adams is Professor of English at Southside Virginia Community College.)

J. Scott Armstrong, 2012, "Natural Learning in Higher Education", in Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 2426-2433. (Armstrong is Professor of Marketing at University of Pennsylvania.)

Michael H. Birnbaum, 1998, "A Survey of Faculty Opinions Concerning Student Evaluations of Teaching". (Birnhaum is Professor of Psychology at California State University Fullerton.)

Dennis Clayson, 2009, "Student Evaluations of Teaching: Are They Related to What Students Learn?: A Meta-Analysis and Review of the Literature", Journal of Marketing Education, Vol. 31 No. 1, pp. 16-30. (Clayson is Professor of Marketing at the University of Northern Iowa.)

Dennis Clayson & Debra Haley, 2011, "Are Students Telling Us the Truth? A Critical Look at the Student Evaluation of Teaching", Marketing Education Review, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 101-112. (Clayson is Professor of Marketing at the University of Northern Iowa; Haley is Associate Professor of Marketing at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.)

D. Larry Crumbley, 1995, "The Dysfunctional Atmosphere of Higher Education", Accounting Perspectives, Vol.1 No. 1, Spring 1995. (Crumbley is Professor of Accounting at Louisiana State University.)

Tom Dulz & Paul Lyons, 2000, "Student Evaluations: Help or Hindrance?", Journal of Business Education, Vol. 1, 2000 Proceedings. (Dulz is Professor Emeritus of Business Management and Lyons is Professor of Business Management, both at Frostburg State University.)

Charles Emery, Tracy Kramer, & Robert Tian, 2003, "Return to Academic Standards: A Critique of Student Evaluations of Teaching Effectiveness", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 37-46. (Emery is Professor of Business Administration at Erskine College. Kramer is Professor of Business at North Greenville University. Tian is Associate Professor of Business at Medaille College.)

Faith E. Fich, 2003, "Are Student Evaluations of Teaching Fair?", Computing Research News, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 2, 10, May 2003. (Fich is now Faith Ellen, Professor of Computer Science at University of Toronto.)

Stanley Fish, 2010, "Deep in the Heart of Texas", New York Times, The Opinion Pages, 21 June 2010. (Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University.)

Judith D. Fischer, 2006, "Implications of Recent Research on Student Evaluations of Teaching", The Montana Professor, Vol. 17 No. 1, Fall 2006. (Fishcer is Associate Professor of Law at University of Louisville.)

Clark Glymour, 2003, "Why the University Should Abolish Faculty Course Evaluations". (Glymour is Professor of Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University.)

Mary Gray & Barbara Bergmann, 2003, "Student Teaching Evaluations: Inaccurate, Demeaning, Misused", Academe Online, Vol. 89 No. 5, September-October 2003. (Gray is Professor of Mathematics and Statistics and Bergmann is Professor Emeritus of Economics, both at American University.)

Richard R. Hake, 2002, "Problems with Student Evaluations: Is Assessment the Remedy?", 16 November 2002. (Hake is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Indiana University.)

Michael Huemer, circa 1998, "Student Evaluations: A Critical Review". (Huemer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado Boulder.)

Scott Jaschik, 2007, "New Questions on Student Evaluations", Inside Higher Ed, 29 Jan 2007.

Valen Johnson, 2002, "Teacher Course Evaluations and Student Grades: An Academic Tango", Chance, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 9-16. (Johnson is Professor of Biomathematics and Biostatistics at University of Texas.)

Neil B. Marks, 2004, "The Student Evaluation of Teaching: Off With Its Head!", The Miami Report, Vol. 24 No. 18, 9 December 2004. (Marks is Associate Professor of Decision Sciences at Miami University.)

Kevin H. Mason, Robert R. Edwards, & David W. Roach, 2002, "Student Evaluation of Instructors: A Measure of Teaching Effectiveness or of Something Else", Journal of Business Administration Online, Vol. 1 No. 2, Fall 2002. (Mason is Professor of Marketing, Edwards is Professor Emeritus of Management, Roach is Professor of Management, all at Arkansas Tech University.)

Deborah J. Merritt, 2008, "Bias, the Brain, and Student Evaluations of Teaching", St. John's Law Review, Vol. 82, pp. 235-287. (Merritt is Professor of Law at Ohio State University.)

Gabriela Montell, 2003, "Do Good Looks Equal Good Evaluations?", The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 October 2003.

Edward B. Nuhfer, 2003, "Of What Value are Student Evaluations?". (Nuhfer is Director of Faculty Development and Professor of Gioscience at California State University Channel Islands.)

Edward B. Nuhfer, 2010, "A Fractal Thinker Looks at Student Ratings".

Mark Oppenheimer, 2008, "Judgment Day", New York Times, 21 September 2008.

Michael Platt, 1993, "What Student Evaluations Teach", Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 29-40, Winter 1993. (Platt has been a Professor of English, literature, and the humanities at several colleges and universities, most notably Dartmouth College and University of Dallas.)

Michelle L. Slagle and Marjorie L. Icenogle, 2002, "The Counterintuitive Nature of Student Evaluations of Faculty, or, Raise Your Teaching Effectiveness Rating by Canceling Class!", Journal of the Academy of Business Education, Vol. 3, 2002 Proceedings. (Slagle is Associate Professor and Icenogle is Professor, both in the Department of Management at University of South Alabama.)

Robert Sproule, 2000, "Student Evaluation of Teaching: A Methodological Critique of Conventional Practices", Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 8 No. 50, 2 November 2000. (Sproule is Professor of Economics at Bishop's University.)

Philip Stark & Richard Freishtat, 2013, "Evaluating Evaluations", University of California Berkeley's Center for Teaching & Learning blog, 9 Oct 2013. (Stark is professor of statistics at UC Berkeley; Freishtat is a senior consultant at UC Berkeley's Center for Teaching and Learning.)

Philip Stark & Richard Freishtat, 2013, "What Evaluations Measure", University of California Berkeley's Center for Teaching & Learning blog, 17 Oct 2013.

Philip Stark & Richard Freishtat, 2014, "An Evaluation of Course Evaluations", 26 September 2014.

Paul Trout, 1997, "Student Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University", The Montana Professor, Vol. 7 No. 2, Spring 1997. (Trout is Associate Professor of English at Montana State University.)

Paul Trout, 1998, "Deconstructing an Evaluation Form", The Montana Professor, Vol. 8 No. 3, Fall 1998.

Paul Trout, 2000, "Flunking the Test: The Dismal Record of Student Evaluations", Academe Online, Vol. 86 No. 4, July-August 2000.

Bruce A. Weinberg, Belton M. Fleisher, and Masanori Hashimoto, 2007, "Evaluating Methods for Evaluating Instruction: The Case of Higher Education", National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 12844. (Weinberg is Associate Professor of Economics and both Fleisher and Masanori are Professors of Economics; all at Ohio State University.)

Robin Wilson, 1998, "New Research Casts Doubt on Value of Student Evaluations of Professors", The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 January 1998.

William A. Wines & Terence J. Lau, 2006, "Observations on the Folly of Using Student Evaluations of College Teaching for Faculty Evaluation, Pay, and Retention Decisions and Its Implications for Academic Freedom", William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 13 Issue 1. (Wines was Associate Professor of Business Law at Missouri Western State University, now retired; Lau is Associate Professor in the School of Business Administration at University of Dayton)

Robert E. Wright, 2006, "Student Evaluations of Faculty: Concerns Raised in the Literature and Possible Solutions", College Student Journal, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 417-422. (Wright is Professor of Business Administration at University of Illinois at Springfield.)

All documents last accessed on 6 December 2014.

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Academia's Dirty Little Secret